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The original Black botanist


We can’t let #BlackBotanistsWeek go by without harkening back to perhaps the premier Black botanist, someone who received his formal education in Iowa but found his informal lessons in nature.


George Washington Carver came from his native Missouri, where he was born on a plantation, to study art at Simpson College in Indianola. Instructor Etta Budd happened to be the daughter of Joseph Budd, head of the Iowa State College Department of Horticulture in Ames. She recognized Carver’s talent for botany – a talent rooted in his upbringing among the woods and fields of Diamond, Missouri – and convinced him to pursue it as a career. Carver transferred to ISC in 1891, becoming the school’s first Black student.


Carver excelled both academically and socially, rising to captain of the campus military regiment and leading the debate club and YMCA. He completed his degree in 1894, but his skill at plant breeding led Joseph Budd and fellow professor Louis Pammel to ask Carver to remain as a graduate student. Carver joined the faculty – the first Black to do so – and was assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station. He became expert in plant pathology and mycology.


Carver earned a master’s degree in 1896. Rather than stay in the north, he accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington, the famed founding teacher of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, to join the faculty there.


The story is well-known to most school children: Carver went on to become internationally known for his work in developing alternative crops to cotton for mostly poor Southern farmers – especially, of course, peanuts. He focused on plants that required few inputs, rejuvenated the soil and could be used for a plethora of products.


ISU’s Carver Hall is named for this history-making Black scientist. ISU’s Christian Petersen depicted Carver in a sculpture that the university has cast in bronze at least twice. One version stands outside the classroom bearing his name. Another is in at the Seed Science Center. The university also has named a scholarship program and an endowed professorship, currently held by Agronomy Prof. Andrew Manu, after this distinguished alumnus.


Many Black Iowans have followed Carver into the sciences. Give us ideas for whom we should highlight.


Source: Iowa State University


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