During Black History Month, HFES is proud to celebrate the life of George Washington Carver - scientist and inventor, whose contributions to the world aligned with human factors and ergonomics professionals.
George Washington Carver was born in Missouri (1864) to an enslaved woman named Mary owned by Moses Carver. During the American Civil War, the Carver farm was raided and infant George, his sister, and mother were kidnapped by slave raiders from Arkansas. Moses tracked them down and retrieved George by trading him for a horse. George was freed from slavery at the end of the war but continued to live with the Carver’s for several years and developed a love of gardening and the healing powers of plants. Perhaps, the trauma he experienced as a child helped him to discover the purpose for which he was born.
As a young man, he attended Simpson College (1890) and Iowa Agricultural College (1894) where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture. When Booker T. Washington became aware of his work, he was recruited to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (1896). There, he earned fame by educating the rural community about the value of varying their crops each year to replenish the nutrients in the soil. He taught poor farmers how to restore nitrogen to their soil by practicing systematic crop rotation. The alternatives to cotton crops were sweet potatoes and legumes. Crop rotation greatly improved their quality of life because it generated a continuous flow of food for human consumption and cash for other necessities.
Carver’s professional contributions were due in large part to his ability to effectively communicate, consult, and collaborated with others. For example, the United Peanut Association of America invited Carver to speak at their 1920 convention where he discussed “The Possibilities of the Peanut” and exhibited 145 peanut products. Also, he consulted with three American Presidents (Theodore, Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt) on the importance of maintaining healthy soil in which to grow food. In addition, he built a collaboration between European and American industries and farmers by testifying before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in support of the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff (1922). This legislation protected the U.S. economy from peanuts being imported from China at lower prices.
He was an early pioneer in promoting environmentalism and received numerous honors and awards during his life (i.e., Spingarn Medal of the NAACP). In an era of high racial polarization, his reputation reached beyond the black community in Tuskegee, the rural communities in Alabama, and this nation to a place of international prominance in the field of agriculture. For example, he became a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England (1916) and was one of only a handful of Americans to receive this honor at that time. In addition, he was widely recognized for his contributions to the fields of health and wellness (i.e., the treatment of polio). In his later years, he specialized in the study of plant diseases and established his legacy at Tuskegee Institute by creating a museum of his work and a foundation to continue agricultural research.
George was born a slave, became a scientist and an inventor, and died in 1943 as a celebrity promoting harmony, health, and productivity throughout the world. Therefore, his contributions to the world are not unlike the contributions of human factors and ergonomics professionals today. We, too, design systems that improve the quality of human life. As we combine an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of humans with an appreciation for the power of scientific research, we design and build human systems that promote harmony, health and productivity. Thereby, affirming Carver’s belief that “When you do common things in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
HFES President, 2003 - 2004
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