George Washington Carver is perhaps best known for his work on peanut cultivation, but his botanical research was far more wide-ranging than the one legume for which he'd eventually become famous.
Agriculture in the Reconstruction-era American South had an over-reliance on cotton. Cultivating the same plant in the same places over and over again leads to a degradation in soil quality. Add an infestation by the boll weevil, and cotton growers had a problem. It was to introduce some agricultural diversity that Carver eventually advocated for peanuts.
But when he was an undergraduate and then masters student at Iowa State University, he worked on a wider range of plants, from flowers to fruit trees. The full text of his masters thesis - all six pages - is available online.
Unlike many modern scientific papers, the writing is both beautiful and accessible. It's truly a pleasure to read. After describing some background research on horticulture, Carver goes on to discuss his research on the cross-breeding of various types of plum trees and geraniums.
Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
Ever since science overthrew the idea of spontaneous generation and established beyond doubt that no organism could have existence without a parent cell, the scientific world received a thunderbolt which was to be means of its' first great awakening. And as the message was heralded from one to another it arroused more careful investigation, stimulated advanced thought and opened up a new line of possibilities respecting the whole plant kingdom.
Man did not grope as hitherto in the dark trusting to uncertainness but from a more scientific basis. This was the dawn of a new era from now henceforth man was not simply to assist nature in producing endless varities, but be the actual progenitor of new creations.
Man is simply nature's agent or employee to assist her in her work, hence the more careful and scientific the man is the more valuable he is as an aid to nature in carrying out her plans methodically, instead of at random as is the case when left to herself to perform the work.
It's clear to see that even as a graduate student, well before he would begin his work on peanuts, Carver was beginning to think about the problems with over-reliance on a single cash crop.
It is a well known fact that plants kept on the same soil and subject to the same environment for a long time become lower in vitality and less valuable for economic uses ; again, nature did not perfect her fruits and flowers to suit the fastidious taste of man but left this for him to do, and now he is exercising that right to a degree that was never dreamed of a few years ago.
And the conclusion is just beautiful:
Why should not the horticulturist know just how to build up size, flavor, vigor and hardiness in his fruits and shrubs, and the florist know just how to proceed to unite, blende and perfect the color of his flowers, producing not only harmony, but a glorious symphony of nature's daintiest tints and shades, with just as much certainty as the artist mixes his pigments upon the palette, and the novice go on with his new creations until nature refuses to indulge him longer?
Header image: Picture of George Washington Carver taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1906 (Public domain).