- Historic Sites
George Washington Carver And The Peanut
New Light on a Much-Loved Myth
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
As early as 1909 the chief of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Plant Industry remarked that the peanut was rapidly becoming an important farm crop throughout the South. Annual American production had climbed from 3,500,000 bushels to 19,500,000 bushels in the twenty years after 1889. When output rose to over 40,000,000 bushels in 1916 the department called the phenomenon “one of the striking developments that have taken place in the agriculture of the South.”
Carver’s peanut bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut , did not appear until that year, and not until the next decade was he prominently associated with the crop. By then peanut production was actually declining from its 1917 peak. Alabama’s 1917 output was not reached again until the mid-1930’s. It is unlikely that Carver bore much responsibility for this eventual recovery; he observed in a personal letter in 1933 that the farmers of his own county were raising few peanuts. Clearly his influence, both local and regional, was limited.
How, then, did this man of modest, unspectacular achievement become the scientific wizard and agricultural revolutionary known to his and later generations? The progress of the Carver myth may be traced in the writings of journalists, popular biographers, publicists, politicians, and professional historians from the early 1920’s to the present.
It took root in 1921 when newspapers across the nation carried accounts of Carver’s congressional appearance. It attained full development a decade later with the publication of “A Boy Who Was Traded for a Horse” in The American Magazine of October, 1932. Author James Saxon Childers gave Carver full credit for increasing peanut production after the boll weevil invasion, then for stimulating demand by developing peanut products and markets. Carver received hundreds of letters in response to the article, many requesting help with personal problems.
Carver’s popular appeal increased with his advancing years. His mail soared again after the Reader’s Digest condensed the Childers article in February, 1937. Life followed in March with a picture story naming him “one of the great scientists of the U.S.” Later that year the New York Times praised his “300 useful products” from the peanut and “more than 100 products of varying human values” from sweet potatoes. These discoveries, the Times declared shortly before Carver’s death, had “memorably improved the agriculture of the South.”
“The world of science has lost one of its most eminent figures…,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Carver’s passing on January 5,1943. “All mankind is the beneficiary of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry.” Senator Harry S Truman, testifying a month later for the bill to make Carver’s birthplace a national monument, declared that “the scientific discoveries and experiments of Dr. Carver have done more to alleviate the one-crop agricultural system in the South than any other thing that has been done in the history of the United States.”
The only full Carver biography approaching objectivity appeared the year of its subject’s death. Rackham Holt’s George Washington Carver , recognizing Carver’s products as “not revolutionary in themselves,” held him most valuable as a publicist. But the book’s admiring, romantic tone perpetuated his existing image. An enthusiastic New York Times review by Vincent McHugh, subtitled “A Study in Genius,” erroneously credited Carver with originating dehydrated foods.
Later writers scaled new heights of fiction. In Melvin T. Rothwell’s George Washington Carver, A Great Scientist (1944), it was said that Carver had “stepped out of the heart of the lowly peanut into the heart of humanity…,” and that his success was due to “a beneficent Creator who whispered secrets into his ebony ear.” Ten years later the noted black author Langsten Hughes published Famous American Negroes , and, apparently unaware that Carver kept no laboratory records, cited his “formulas in agricultural chemistry that enriched the entire Southland, indeed the whole of America and the world.”
The fullest and most widely circulated recent exposition of the Carver legend came in 1966 with Lawrence Elliott’s George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame , condensed in the Reader’s Digest prior to publication. According to Elliott, Carver led much of Alabama to plant peanuts prior to the First World War before sufficient demand existed for the crop. “So engrossed had he been in staving off the evils of the one-crop system, so successful was he in promoting the peanut, that almost alone he had created a monster as cruel and unforgiving as the weevil itself.” Pressed by unhappy farmers, including an old widow “who timidly knocked on Dr. Carver’s laboratory door” to ask what to do with her surplus, he retired alone to his laboratory to commune with God and discover the first of “well over 300” peanut products, thereby saving the South from poverty. “By the time he died…scores of factories had been built to make them, and their range staggered the mind.”