Chapter 1: The Sciences and the Curriculum


1. Science in the United States, 1789-1916

In order to judge better the curricular developments in the sciences taught at Williams in its first century, it is helpful first to have in mind a basic outline of some of the highlights of science and technology in America during that period.

Between 1789 and the 1840s, the United States expanded its territory and took stock of its resources. Despite poor transportation and communication, it began to dissolve the relative isolation of its citizens and to develop the nucleus of a community of scientists. Canal building, exploration, and state geological surveys highlighted some of the scientific and technological activity. The 1840s marked the beginning of the creation of professional science and a new professionalism in science in the United States. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1848), the American Medical Association (1847), the Naval Observatory (1842), the Smithsonian Institution (1846), the Wilkes’ Expedition (1838-42), all signified growing numbers of technically trained citizens. As time passed, fewer and fewer amateurs would populate the ranks of practitioners of research.

At the same time, the country moved decisively into the Industrial Revolution, with the rapid development and expansion of railroads and the beginnings of the mechanization of agriculture. The 1840s also witnessed demonstrations of two technologies which would prove to be revolutionary: the electric telegraph (1844), and ether anesthesia (1846). Subsequent technological innovation occurred at an exponential pace, interrupted only by the Civil War.

During the War, Congress passed the Morrill Act (1862) which established the basis for the postwar creation of state colleges of agriculture and mechanics, the “Land Grant” colleges. The Department of Agriculture (1862) came into existence, and soon became the model for other government bureaus that had scientific missions. Congress also established what would become the country’s most prestigious national scientific society, the National Academy of Science (1863). Technology, if not science, played a major role in the War, including telegraphy, railroads, ironclads, anthropometry, and military medicine.

The period between 1865 and the first World War marked the United States’ emergence as a major world power, through the development of a powerful industrial capacity, in part fueled by the discoveries of the great inventors of the “Heroic Age of Invention,” men like Edison, Bell, Westinghouse, Eastman, Ford, the Wright brothers, deForest, and Tesla. Correspondingly, American science and engineering became ever more specialized and professional. Talented young scientists typically traveled abroad, often to German universities, centers of the research ideal, for postgraduate training and Ph. D.s. In 1876, American countermeasures began, with the founding of Johns Hopkins University, a university dedicated to postgraduate research training. Government agencies involved with science proliferated, from the creation of the United States Geological Survey in 1879, to the National Bureau of Standards in 1906 (now the National Institute of Science and Technology – NIST), and the National Research Council in 1916. American scientists made ever more significant contributions to the sciences at an international level, including Josiah Willard Gibbs’ masterful theoretical thermodynamical treatise “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances” in 1876 and 1878,[5] Michelson and Morley’s famous 1887 experiment to try to detect the ether, and Thomas Hunt Morgan’s brilliant research with fruit flies to produce the first genetic maps in 1913-14. By the eve of World War I, science in America was fully as professional and nearly comparable in quality to the leading scientific nations of the world, Germany, England, and France.

2. Natural Philosophy – for the Greater Glory of God

Science, like Williams itself, has changed considerably in its goals and procedures in two hundred years. It has moved from a close alliance with religion to one with technology, although its own boundaries remain unclear. At the time of Williams’ founding, science was considered a way of understanding God, through understanding the natural order that He had created. Professors of science at Williams were often clergy as well, and believed that their scientific studies brought them closer to understanding God’s creations on Earth. Students agreed with this philosophy for much of the college’s first century, only gradually changing and expanding their views with the spread of Darwinism after 1859.

Religion and science did not necessarily counter one another. Much of the study of science was supported by religion because it led people to an appreciation of God through an understanding of the complexity of the Creator’s wonders. This relationship could be seen in the inscription located above the main doorway of Jackson Hall, home of the students’ Lyceum of Natural History: “Lo! These are parts of His ways.”

The study of science, “in assuming the universality of natural law,… implied the existence of a single all powerful law-giver. In studying nature, science illuminated his power and plan.” So argued Professor John Bascom ’49 in his speech to the Horticulture and Landscape Gardening Association of Williams College in 1853. He further remarked that the “texture of God’s workmanship is so closely woven and so inwrought throughout with sharp sighted skill, that when it passes close beneath our feet, we shall seek in vain for any infigured vacancy, any wide meshes of a careless hand…”[6]

Although science seemed to make Nature less mystical, many thought it only made the mystification of God more glorious because it uncovered a perfectly ordered world only God could create. Otherwise expressed, their view was known as the Argument from Design, most popularly associated with the famous watch example of William Paley.[7]Paley argued that if one were to find a watch on the street, one could, from its intricate and complex order and design, argue that it could not have come into existence as the result of chance. In the same way, he said, the intricate, complex, and perfect order and design revealed in Nature shows that it, too, must the be product of Design. Who then the Designer? God. The argument, despite a scathingly destructive critique by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, remained popular in the nineteenth century, and still appeals to many.

Williams’ textbooks also reflected these views; the earliest texts in use and in the library dated from the middle 18th century. Every one of them, in introductory remarks, claimed that the primary reason for science, for studying nature, was to see into the mind of the Creator, to glorify and worship the divine architect of Creation. The study of science, or natural philosophy, was presented as just as much a study in moral philosophy. Furthermore, because the universal laws of nature revealed by science were God’s laws, they had to be Good, so that science, properly practiced, could yield nothing other than benefit to humanity. To the extent that technology derived from science, then, it, too, could only be regarded as ultimately beneficial, because of its connection through science to God. No surprise, then, the nearly universal and enduring faith in the beneficence of science and technology. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the religious justification for the study of science gradually disappeared from textbooks of science; by mid century, it had all but vanished, a result of the growing secularization and professionalization of science.

3. A Century of Curricular Change

For whatever reason, religious motivation, utility, or mental discipline, science remained a major part of higher education in the nineteenth century. If not a leader in research, Williams was amongst the leaders in education in the sciences, a position attributable also to its students who pressed for many of the advances such as the acquisition of up-to-date textbooks, laboratory instruction, and lectures. Apart from Hopkins Observatory (1838), the most notable element of science education at Williams in the nineteenth century was the Lyceum of Natural History, an organization founded and run by students, between 1853 and 1873.

Despite the fact that the Lyceum of Natural History constituted a major focus of scientific activity during the years from 1835 to 1873, the college itself followed traditional instruction in the sciences. Like the Lyceum, the college maintained and stocked its own specimen cabinets. In the early 1850s the remains of a Mastodon were added to the collection. Efforts were made through the expenditure of large sums of money by the alumni to increase the effectiveness of the teaching of science through the purchase of newer books and classroom apparatus. Professors taught many different scientific subjects, thereby demonstrating the relative lack of specialization still characteristic before mid-century. In keeping with that situation, students were expected to have studied various scientific philosophies in order to graduate as well rounded men. If by the centennial, specialization was the order of the day in science, it had only affected the faculty and the content of the courses offered; students were still expected to study a variety of different sciences. The gradual introduction of the elective system, however, began to erode students’ wide-ranging acquaintance with the sciences.

From the first classes in mathematics and natural philosophy, the curriculum expanded to include astronomy, chemistry, geology, botany, anatomy, zoology, and biology. Each of these fields reflected the growing fragmentation and specialization of science. Each grew over the years with new discoveries and the use of new technology, to become more technical and less philosophical.

Like others of the better colleges at the time, Williams devoted about one third of its classes to the sciences (including mathematics). Students were required to study Denison Olmsted’s Natural Philosophy[8], Botany, Chemistry, Astronomy, Anatomy, Zoology, and a number of classes in mathematics. For the most part the science curriculum remained substantially the same throughout the period 1853-72 although course offerings were shifted term to term and year to year. Such shifts may have reflected the availability of certain professors, experimentation with new areas of science, or a desire to find a more effective order of teaching the sciences. For example, Professor Ebenezer Emmons ’20, Professor of Natural History and Chemistry in 1853, was by 1860 Professor of Geology and Mineralogy. The change in title can be attributed to Emmons having directed his interest toward the study of geological formations of the region. In a letter to Benjamin Silliman[9] in 1855, Emmons compared the geological formations of North Carolina to those of Williamstown. Other letters to renowned American and European geologists demonstrate his growing importance in this field. Also, during this period, Emmons had donated his large collections in mineralogy and geology to the College. The College was not reluctant to take advantage of Emmons’ interests in determining course offerings.

One of the most effective proponents of furthering the development of science at Williams was Albert Hopkins ’26 (1807-1872), younger brother of Mark Hopkins, and tutor and professor of mathematics, natural philosophy, and astronomy from 1828. Not only was he instrumental in acquiring much of the apparatus that was needed to teach the sciences, but his belief in the importance of hands-on experience in the learning process was ahead of his time. For example, In his 1872 Treatise on Astronomy, Hopkins wrote that astronomy must always hold a high place in a liberal education.[10] One can either pursue astronomy through a textbook, or practically, without neglecting theoretical considerations, by giving greater prominence to observing. Hopkins lamented that to date the textbook method remained the most common. He wrote that “one good outlook into the heavens through a superior instrument was of greater value to the students than all the diagrams in the world…”[11]

Figure 1: Albert Hopkins, Professor of Natural Philosophy

Some of Hopkins’ suggestions were taken to heart by the college’s administration. All of the astronomy classes involved student observing. Instruction in anatomy and physiology was illustrated with a skeleton and other anatomical models. Just as the student expeditions sponsored by the Lyceum of Natural History reflected student interest in participating in science, these relatively novel methods were introduced in the hope that classes might similarly excite students’ interest.

Despite increasing commitment of resources to science, resulting from growing interest on the part of the administration, the College’s interest could not match that of the students. Students founded the Lyceum of Natural History to help supplement what they perceived as a lack of offerings by the school. Even the Lyceum, however, did not defuse the students’ demands for more science from Williams. In 1858, the Williams Quarterly called for the writing of a Manual of Natural History as a text which would offer students a quick and structured way of learning science. The students also demanded one thousand dollars for the purchase of new books, saying:

“They [the students] have made good use of their money, and the amount of work they have done is highly honorable to them; but a silent rebuke to the college for doing so little. Shall we have the means of doing more, or announce that Natural History at this college must depend upon the extra labor and voluntary contributions of the students[?]”[12]

The college apparently responded to students’ demands to remedy perceived deficiencies in the availability of scientific literature, as shown by the addition of new textbooks and other scientific treatises to the library. Table 1, ā€œChanges in the College Library, 1853 to 1875,ā€ shows the approximate number of books in the college’s library by subject, and by percent growth from 1852 to 1875, the period corresponding to the Lyceum’s existence.[13] Clearly the administration took seriously students’ demands for greater support for the sciences. While never the dominant subject, the sciences enjoyed the largest relative increase in the number of books available to students, 340%. It is also worth noting that in general, science and technical subjects account for about 10% of all books published, so that the 16% proportion of Williams library holdings in 1852, let alone the 22% in 1875, revealed an already exceptional commitment to scientific knowledge.

Table 1: Changes in the College Library, 1862-1875

Year 1852 1875 Growth
History 150 450 300%
Geography & Travel 115 300 260%
Law & Government 200 300 195%
Metaphysics 100 210 210%
Religion 540 1230 230%
Science 241 720 340%
Total 1319 3200 243%
% Science of Total 16.22 22.50 139%

Books formed the basis for instruction in science through the end of the century. They also serve to reinforce a picture of Williams as a teaching, not a research, institution. By the end of the century scientific papers in journals were the carriers of scientific ideas at the research front, whereas books were already archival and represented well established knowledge.[14] The college’s course catalogue professed that instruction based on books afforded the easiest and most certain means of acquisition of knowledge by immature minds.

Courses in several departments, however, were apparently enlivened by additional teaching in lecture format. Through lectures, students were made to feel the instructor’s influence more immediately and directly. Classroom recitations remained the staple of instruction, but lectures accomplished two very important tasks. They were instrumental in exciting interest as well as providing additional knowledge with which the students could better understand the science. Furthermore, demonstration apparatus, even if not manipulated by students, exemplified concretely and directly the concepts and topics being presented. Lectures were offered in all areas of study and were of relatively similar length and depth, except in physics and natural history, where lectures possessed a more prominent position in instruction, and thus were necessarily more extended.

The distribution of lectures heavily favored upper-class students. In 1872-73 no science lectures were offered to the freshman class, while lectures in both zoology and botany were given for the sophomores. Juniors and seniors received lectures in three sciences each, juniors in physics, astronomy, and chemistry, and seniors in physiology, mineralogy, and geology. In 1873 three additional lectures were listed in the course catalogue. Mineralogy was included for sophomores, and anatomy and astronomy lectures were offered for the seniors. For the next 18 years, to 1892, course offerings which featured lectures remained relatively fixed.[15]

The Order of Studies in the course catalogue lists the courses to be taken in each term of the four years of study. In the sciences, many courses were known by the course textbook and its author. For example, first year students studied mathematics in all three terms, in the first, Loomis’ Algebra; in the second, Loomis’ Geometry, and in the third, Loomis’ Trigonometry and Mensuration, Navigation and Surveying.[16] Sophomore year, the first term offered one course in natural history, concentrating on geology, and one mathematics course on Loomis’ Spherical Trigonometry, and Analytical Geometry; the second term required differential and integral calculus; and the third natural history, with a focus on botany. In their junior year students studied physics, astronomy, and chemistry. The first and second terms were devoted to Atkinson’s Ganot’s Physics, while the third comprised astronomy with textbook and lectures, and Barker’s Chemistry. In senior year only a third term course in natural history was required; it focussed on zoology and geology.[17]

In the years following these requirements listed in the 1872-73 course catalogue, some additions and changes were made in the order of studies. In 1873-74 the study of mineralogy was added. In the field of chemistry, Roscoe’s Chemistry became a recommended text. Differential and integral calculus was made optional in 1874-75, and in 1876-77 analytical geometry was also made optional. Mechanics, using a textbook and lectures by Professor Cyrus Morris Dodd, was added in 1878-79. Another text in chemistry was included in the 1880-81 order of studies. Nichols’ Abridgment of Eliot and Storer’s Chemistry was recommended as a book of reference.[18] The first instance of a course in elementary biology, as distinct from natural history, appeared in the 1881-82 course catalogue. Increasing numbers of texts written by Americans gradually replaced those written by Europeans, another sign of the coming of age of American science.

Part of the maturation of science in America involved a lessening dependence on natural history, and the growing prominence of modern specialized scientific disciplines. After the major discoveries and observations had been made and the salient facts determined, the importance of natural history as taxonomy and inventory diminished, and other sciences, also useful in the establishment of flourishing and vital domestic arts and manufactures, became more attractive to cultivate. At first, the “exact” sciences of mathematics, astronomy, and physics had relatively few practitioners, compared to those engaged in what we would now call the life sciences, chemistry, and geology. It is still the case that there are many more scientists in the life and earth sciences than in the exact sciences. As natural history gradually developed into the increasingly separate and more specialized disciplines of botany, zoology, and geology, the more quantitative and experimental physical sciences did gain some visibility and attention. At Williams the high point of their increasing fortune arrived in 1893, with the construction of the Thompson Laboratories for Physics and Chemistry.

The transition from natural history to more specialized disciplines began to accelerate from 1872, when Paul A. Chadbourne ’48, for many years professor in various sciences (chemistry, botany, and natural history), succeeded President Mark Hopkins. During the ten years of Chadbourne’s presidency, and the following twenty of his successor, Franklin Carter ’62, Williams began to adopt the new, more professional and up-to-date scientific education and commitment signaled in the educational reforms begun at Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and Harvard.

Nonetheless, natural history continued to be pursued at Williams for quite some time, thanks in large part to the activities of the LNH, despite its slow decline in the 1870s and 1880s. Former students continued to contribute resources in the tradition of natural history. For example, in 1861 a $10,000 contribution from the late Dr. William J. Walker provided for the sending out of quadrennial expedition; one of the earliest took place under the leadership of Professor Samuel Fessenden Clarke.[19] A small group of students accompanied the professor on data-gathering field research, collecting large amounts of material for laboratory use, which they shipped to Williamstown. The Catalogue for 1873-74 cited the gift of “the entire botanical collection of the late J.P.Brace.”[20] Another donation, in 1880-81 by Edward Clark, Esq. of New York, had a great impact on the study of natural history at Williams. His contribution of $8,000 enabled the college to purchase “the large and valuable collection known as the WILDER CABINET, collected by the Hon. Lyman Wilder of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.” [21] The Wilder cabinet was a highly desirable collection of crystalline forms which vastly increased the collection of the natural history department. Mr. Clark also provided for the erection of a new building, Clark Hall, for the Wilder cabinet and archives of the college, leaving the whole of Griffin Hall for Natural History.[22] In 1883 the cabinet was moved from Griffin Hall into the new building, leaving the third floor of Griffin vacant. Clark Hall was designed with a laboratory, a room for lecture, and a suite of rooms for Professor Clarke, satisfactory for his work. In addition, excellent microscopes, scientific implements, and materials for dissection were purchased.[23]

Due to these generous donations, President Franklin Carter believed that the facilities that could be offered in the natural history department could not be surpassed by any undergraduate department of any other college in the country.[24]

As part of becoming more up to date in the sciences, the College gave independent status to courses in Anatomy and Physiology, perhaps reflecting a general social interest in public health and renewed belief in the importance of a sound body to a sound mind.

New appointments to the teaching staff increasingly possessed Master’s degrees, reflecting a greater level of scholarly achievement amongst the faculty. Some even possessed the Ph.D. degree. The College offered graduate degrees, too: master’s degrees in astronomy, biology, chemistry, history, and physics, and the Doctor of Philosophy in Astronomy.[25]

Williams made an exceptional appointment in Ira Remsen, Professor of Physics and Chemistry, 1873-1876, who went on to international recognition in chemistry at Johns Hopkins.

Figure 2: Ira Remsen, Professor of Physics and Chemistry, 1872-1876

While at Williams, Remsen:

“did not lose his desire to do research and in order to obtain the necessary apparatus he made a modest request of President Chadbourne. The latter gave him a mild reprimand with these words, ‘You will please keep in mind that this is a college and not a technical school. . . .’ However Remsen succeeded in obtaining the apparatus and during his stay of four years at Williams published 9 papers. Evidently his faculty colleagues were rather amused at the idea of doing original work in chemistry, for on one occasion he was good-naturedly chafed at a faculty gathering when the title of one of his papers was read aloud.”[26]

After repeated requests, the college finally, and perhaps reluctantly, made laboratory participation part of undergraduate science education. As part of that change, Williams acquired new instruments and apparatus, while it continued to receive significant donations to the natural history collections. Nonetheless, for most of the period space for the collections and laboratories remained relatively limited, until the construction in 1893 of the Thompson Laboratories for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology finally marked William’s arrival amongst institutions of higher education thoroughly modernly equipped for education in the sciences.

In the third of a century between the Civil War and Williams’ Centennial, the curriculum, collections, apparatus, buildings, and laboratories had changed radically, although at the time incrementally and without realization of participation in a revolutionary time. Perhaps it is appropriate here to briefly consider how Williams reacted to the Civil War, and what effects the War had on Williams, if any.

4. The Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, scientists, remembering the War of 1812, expected the worst. War “distracted scientists from their work, reduced their income and support, diverted them–sometimes for good–to other activities, and even killed them.”[27] Fortunately Williams was located far from the battlefields in the south and escaped the destruction that befell many southern institutions. Its location, however, did not mean that Williams was completely exempt from the problems of the war.

The start of the Civil War sparked such excitement that sixty-eight of the 233 Williams students left school to enlist in the Northern cause. In addition to these losses, the school’s freshman class over the next four years averaged thirty-seven, down from a usual fifty-nine.[28] This loss of students no doubt affected the pursuit of scientific knowledge at Williams. The lower enrollment, as well as the dangers of travel during the war, prevented any LNH trips from occurring. In a letter addressed to Professor Dewey, Ebenezer Emmons illustrated this danger, writing, “I have to be cautious in my words but I can’t conceal my union feelings….It is not safe for a northern man to register his name on the books of the hotel, as a native even of N.Y.”[29]

In the spring of 1861, the students organized themselves into a battalion and drilled daily for an hour. Subsequently, the faculty responded by requiring three hours of drilling per week. Despite this attempt at military preparedness and the time it took away from studies, they did not alter the curriculum. Other than these intense drills, little happened on campus worthy of note. The preoccupation with the war dampened the students’ desire and means for the pursuit of science. When the war ended in 1865, several Williams men had lost their lives, including Edward P. Hopkins, son of Albert Hopkins. In the years that followed, enrollment remained low, due to the loss of many young men and the harsh conditions that prevailed after the war.

If the Civil War had little effect upon the College except to shrink its enrollments, the post-war period witnessed the beginning of what would be profound changes in the place and role of science in the college curriculum. Meanwhile, Williams had begun to experiment with an elective course system, at first for seniors only, then for juniors and seniors.

5. Science and the Elective System

The President’s report for 1882 addressed the experiment of elective studies in the senior class, a trial which reflected a growing trend in flexibility in course requirements. Following some time after the first experiments with electives at Brown University, President Eliot of Harvard had introduced the elective system there, and colleges everywhere were debating its adoption. At Williams, nine elective courses were offered, only to seniors, and they were required to take at least two of them. Of the nine electives, three were science courses–astronomy, calculus, and zoology. In 1883, chemistry was added as an elective. This trend of selectivity continued when in 1884, permission to choose electives was granted to junior class students. They could take senior electives, providing that there was enough space in the class.

For example, in 1885 thirteen seniors selected zoology as an elective course. The course investigated series of invertebrates and types of three vertebrate groups. Study was enhanced through dissection, microscopic investigation, and other means of practical work, used as a basis for demonstrating major points in comparative anatomy. It was also used for illustrating many of the principles of organic growth and development. After understanding the foundational material, students were introduced to study of the embryology of the frog from the earliest stage of the segmenting egg to the adult form. Laboratory work included examination of living as well as preserved eggs and embryos. Microscopic sections were also studied.[30]

Electives in chemistry could be taken for 6 consecutive terms, following the required course in the third term of the sophomore year. An opportunity was offered third term sophomores in 1886-1887 to enter the laboratory and perform for themselves some of the more important experiments given in the lecture. Such individual and personal experience supplemented the material presented in the recitation room. These junior elective courses were devoted to lectures on the metals and their compounds with special preference to their use and importance in technology. Practical work in the laboratory began soon after the beginning of term and paralleled the lecture material, focusing intensely on the analysis of inorganic substances. The third term, however, was devoted exclusively to the investigation of compounds of carbon, or organic chemistry. The three objectives stressed in this area were to introduce students to the field of organic compounds; to demonstrate how chemical theories had been developed; and to enable students to obtain a more comprehensive view of the science of chemistry in the context of contemporary research. In senior year the chemistry elective was devoted to quantitative analysis; an integral part of the course involved regular practice in using the balance and graduated apparatus. In 1887 at least one hundred students had elected work in the chemistry laboratory.[31]

Professor Henry Lefavour ’83 added a winter elective course in applied physics in 1886-1887.[32] The laboratory was set up in the rooms in the northwest corner of Goodrich Hall. The physical apparatus had previously been stored in Goodrich, so it was natural to use Goodrich as a laboratory. Lefavour devoted his course “to the experimental study of general physical processes, including the principal quantitative laws of mechanics, and (to) an extended series of experiments in electrical measurements, together with a few investigations into the laws of heat. The objective of the course has been to train the students to accuracy of observation and manipulation, and to develop (sic) in them the power of applying the principles of mathematics to the phenomena of physics.”[33]

6. Instruments and Laboratories

By the 1880s techniques in science education had undergone a revolution. The key to that revolution involved scientific instruments and demonstration apparatus.

Instruments mediate between the world of Nature and the world of Imagination. As enhancements to the senses, instruments are the prime conduits of experiences which afford the basis for scientific theories. Because instruments bridge the worlds of theory and practice, they both embody existing paradigms or conceptual frameworks, and at the same time provide data which eventually leads to the paradigm’s modification or replacement. Essential to the practice of modern science, instruments, and their close cousins, demonstration apparatus, constitute fundamental components of education in science.

In the early nineteenth century, instruments were expensive, and often difficult to procure. As prized acquisitions, they were kept safe from the hands of inexperienced and untutored undergraduates. Instrument makers were so relatively few and of uncertain quality in the Early Republic that colleges would sometimes send someone abroad to buy instruments, apparatus, and books for lectures and demonstrations. Typically a professor involved in teaching science, like Albert Hopkins, would be sent. For example, Prof. Benjamin Silliman of Yale spent a year abroad in 1805-06 acquiring chemical apparatus; in the case of the newly created University of Michigan, botanist Asa Gray was sent to Europe in 1838.[34]

In its first century, Williams acquired a number of instruments and demonstration equipment in addition to the astronomical apparatus already mentioned. For example, anatomy and physiology were taught with the aid of a skeleton and anatomical preparations, and a manikin costing $800 presented by president Mark Hopkins in 1841.[35]

According to the List of Articles Belonging to Williams College, the school purchased a “brain gage” for [[sterling]]1.10 in 1805.[36] This instrument was used most widely in the then popular “science” of physiognomy, a popular topic in the late 18th and early 19th century. Physiognomy was apparently being investigated at the college, and the library had Lavater’s Physiognomy, abridged, in its possession. If hindsight might deem this an unflattering aspect of Williams’ history because of the racist implications of physiognomy, in terms of then current standards, it is positive to see that Williams was not backward or isolated from contemporary investigations.

There could, however, have been another, later, use for the brain gauge. The records of the Trustees for 1852 note “that Professor Hopkins may exchange the old telescope for the bones of some animal found in Pennsylvania.”[37] Such a trade, and it apparently occurred[38], might possibly have made use of an instrument for measuring skulls.

Mark Hopkins’ interest in fossils and paleontology was common within the scientific community at the turn of the century. The request to trade an expensive telescope for fossilized bones from the Middle East indicates a strong interest in paleontology by some in the Williams community. The field had been greatly stimulated by the research of French scientist Georges Cuvier, whose extensive studies in geology and comparative anatomy virtually created the modern science of vertebrate paleontology. Thomas Jefferson’s discovery of some giant bones in 1796 (megalonix jeffersoni) had excited parallel American interest, which continued to be maintained by a fascination with what old bones were thought to say of lost antediluvian worlds.[39]

The List of Articles Belonging to Williams College also notes that the college purchased a compound microscope, along with some single microscopes, for 15.80 pounds sterling in 1805. It is probable that the microscope had non-achromatic lenses. Because of chromatic and spherical aberration, the compound microscope, available since the early 1600’s, had not been very advanced. The effectiveness of many microscopes had been limited because “…Chromatic aberration was so severe that no sharp outlines of microscopic bodies could be observed. Everything was surrounded by a colored halo that blurred it beyond recognition.”[40] Similar problems had plagued early refracting telescopes as well. The problem was not solved until Hall in 1729, and later John Dollond in the 1750s, found that an achromatic lens could be made from a combination of two different glasses with different indices of refraction. Available technology both promoted and limited investigation of the microscopic world just as of the study of the macroscopic universe.

It might not be too much to assume that, because payment in the accountant’s books was in English pounds, the instrument was purchased directly from Martin’s Fleet Street operation in London.[41] The fact that the instrument was referred to as a solar microscope is somewhat confusing. One can speculate that the “solar” aspect of the microscope related to the instrument’s use of mirrors to reflect light onto the object under observation.

Because botany and biology were not offered as specialized courses until later in the 19th century, this microscope was probably used in the Natural History and anatomy and physiology courses, perhaps to view cells, or the fine structure of minerals.

The college also purchased an “Electrical Machine and Apparatus” for $80. These machines were usually little more than a glass tube rotated by a hand crank that rubbed against some woolen fabric. The friction would produce some static electricity, and, with the additional apparatus supplied with some of the models produced by 1800, the electricity could be conducted through brass rods. Different experiments could then be demonstrated, often much along the lines of those of the celebrated Benjamin Franklin.

Another use for such machines could be found in the field, or fad, of medical electricity. Electricity from electrical machines was applied to various parts of a patient’s body, sometimes with apparently beneficial results.[42] It is not clear whether such applications ever took place at Williams, but at the time, medical electricity enjoyed an avid following in America, despite not always successful results.

Williams acquired other instruments and equipment during the nineteenth century, but the most significant context of their use was in laboratory exercises and experiments which the students themselves performed. Having undergraduate students in a laboratory, involved in hands-on replication of significant or famous experiments, constituted a radical innovation in teaching science. The innovation did not come early to Williams.

The teaching laboratory as a means of learning to do scientific research had its roots in early nineteenth century Europe. By mid-century in German universities, it was nearly unthinkable that one could obtain a doctorate in chemistry without also demonstrating skill in the laboratory. The idea that laboratory experience formed an essential part of scientific training and education gradually filtered down to the undergraduate level, so that in the 1870s, even American colleges began to experiment with a novel way of teaching science, the course with laboratory. Before this time, only the occasional student selected by the professor had been permitted to handle apparatus or instruments, those intended for lecture-demonstration. Normally, the professor’s research equipment was decidedly off limits. Gradually, however, apparatus became more common and less expensive, thus making more realizable the possibility of permitting undergraduates to do their own experiments.

Sometime in the late 70s, students petitioned the faculty for permission to have a laboratory course in chemistry. Perhaps they expected President Chadbourne, because of his long career in teaching science, including chemistry, would look favorably on their request. But the President and Trustees responded strongly in the negative about the possibility of adding a laboratory component to the undergraduate experience in education in science. The denial made clear the faculty’s worry that the students would, in the end, simply smash all the glassware, causing the college no inconsiderable expense of replacement. On being petitioned again several years later, the trustees again gave a negative reply, on the grounds that the costs of broken apparatus, especially glassware, would be prohibitive. Finally, however, the faculty and administration were persuaded, and laboratory instruction came to Williams. The relatively slow coming of laboratory instruction in chemistry is all the more curious, given the pioneering emphasis placed on field study and observation in natural history and astronomy by Profs. Dewey, Eaton, Emmons, Albert Hopkins, and Chadbourne. Today, unless one is completely theoretical in method, a college-level education in a scientific field is unthinkable without some laboratory or field experience.

7. Conclusion

In looking back over the curriculum – the courses, textbooks, apparatus, laboratories, and professors – of the first century of science at Williams, it seems neither extraordinary nor unusual. Despite Williams’ relative geographical isolation, its intellectual connections to the wider world maintained an academic environment reasonably up to date and characteristic of institutions of higher education in the United States. As conventional as its curricular development in the sciences may have been, however, Williams punctuated that record with three notable accomplishments, involving meteorology, astronomy, and natural history.


[5] Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 3 (1875-1878). 108, 343 (Part I, 1876; Part II, 1878). | Back |
[6] John Bascom, Address delivered before the Horticultural and Landscape Gardening Association of Williams College (North Adams, Greylock Sentinel Press, 1853) p. 14. | Back |
[7] Juniors had to read Paley’s Evidences of Revealed Religion, from at least 1822-23 through 1845-46; then through 1850-51, Evidences of Revealed Religion; then from 1850-51 ff, Hopkins’ Evidences of Revealed Religion. Williams College Catalogue, 1822 p. 10; 1845-46 p. 16; 1850-51 p.20; 1859-60 p. 20. In the forties and fifties, Seniors had also to read Paley’s Natural Theology, which, despite its title, was primarily a textbook on anatomy and physiology. | Back |
[8]Denison Olmsted, An Introduction to Natural Philosophy, the principal textbook in astronomy from 1831 to 1852 (W. I. Milham, The History of Astronomy in Williams College, (Williamstown, Williams College, 1937) p. 20) went through many editions, and was the required text for the Junior year course in Natural Philosophy through 1858-1859. Olmsted, Yale ’09, was Professor of Natural Philosophy at Yale from 1825-1859; his Natural Philosophy appeared in 1831 and his Astronomy, which went through over 40 editions, in 1839. | Back |
[9] Ebenezer Emmons ’20 (1800-1863), M.D., one of the early Republic’s most eminent geologists, taught for many years (1828-1863) at Williams. Emmons worked on a number of state geological surveys, most notably the New York State Geological Survey where he developed his own highly controversial “Taconic System” to explain the geology of Western New England and Eastern New York. He taught natural history, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy, and in 1842 donated a complete collection of New York minerals and rocks to Williams. He was state geologist to North Carolina from 1851. Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), Professor of Chemistry and Natural History from 1802 at Yale, and founder/editor of the American Journal of Science (1818ff), virtually the only domestic general scientific journal with national visibility, knew just about everyone in science in America, and, as a gifted teacher, had trained many of the United States’ most eminent researchers. | Back |
[10] Albert Hopkins, Treatise on Astronomy, handwritten draft copy, Williamstown, February, 1872, Preface, p. i. | Back |
[11] Ibid., p. ii. In terms of the solid classical education of the times, students familiar with Plato’s derision of the observational grounding of astronomers’ faith in their knowledge [the Republic] must have found it interesting to contrast the philosopher giant with the modern instrumentalist Hopkins. | Back |
[12] “The Natural History Catalogue,” The Williams Quarterly, V, No. 4 (June 1858), p. 346. | Back |
[13] In this period, Lawrence Hall was built, and became the college library. The LNH donated its library to the College in 1868 – which may account for a good deal of the increase in the library’s holdings in science. | Back |
[14] Since at least the 1970s, upper-level students at Williams commonly have to read current research papers as part of their course work, which indicates how much more towards the research end of the spectrum Williams has moved since the 19th century [or, more precisely, since the revolutionary years of the 1960s]. | Back |
[15] Williams College Catalogues,1873-1892. Title varies. This title is as bound in Williamsiana, the College archives, and will be used generically. For 1872-73, the title is “Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Williams College for the year 1872-3” | Back |
[16] Elias Loomis, Yale College ’30, a Silliman product, and an astronomer, was a prolific scientific textbook writer, who taught at Yale, Western Reserve, NYU, and Princeton, before succeeding Olmsted at Yale in 1860. | Back |
[17] Williams College Catalogue, 1872-73, pp. 23-25 | Back |
[18] Williams College Catalogue, 1880-81, page 29 | Back |
[19] F. Rudolph, Hopkins, p. 154. Rudolph notes that Walker had found a “lack of official interest in science” at Williams. | Back |
[20] Williams College Catalogue, 1873-1874; “Natural History”, introduction, page 19. | Back |
[21] Williams College Catalogue, 1880-1881, page 24 | Back |
[22] Arthur Latham Perry, Williamstown and Williams College, (Norwood, Mass., the author, 1899) p. 675. Perry notes that only part of the natural history collection could be fitted into Clark Hall. Perry claims that Clark had set no limits as to what could be built, and that President Chadbourne’s use of $25,000 to build Clark Hall [in apparent hopes of securing still more funds later] cost Williams, because Clark declined to give more money later, and soon died, in 1882. | Back |
[23] Williams College President’s Report, 1883, page 6. [Title varies; volumes will be listed as here. In the 80s and 90s, the annual report for the preceding academic year was given at commencement. Thus the 1883 report was for the 1882-83 academic year.] | Back |
[24] Williams College President’s Report, 1883, p.7. | Back |
[25] Williams College Catalogue, 1890-91, p. 43. “Graduate Study.” | Back |
[26] The Mark Hopkings Centenary Committee, “Chemistry through the Years at Williams College,” The Nucleus, Jan. 1937. | Back |
[27] R. V. Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) , p.279. | Back |
[28] Spring, op. cit., p. 188-9. | Back |
[29] ] Ebenezer Emmons to Chester Dewey, from Raleigh, N.C., Jan. 3, 1861, page 2. (Photocopy in Williams College Archives) | Back |
[30] Williams College President’s Report, 1885, Samuel F. Clarke, “Report of the Natural History Department,” June 5, 1885, page 18. | Back |
[31] Williams College President’s Report, 1887, Leverett Mears, “Report of the Department of Chemistry and Physics,”, pp. 23-24. | Back |
[32] Ibid., p. 26. Lefavour, B.A. Williams ’83, Ph. D. Williams ’86, was an instructor in mathematics and physics 1884-85, and professor of physics from 1888-1901, when he left to become president of Simmons College. | Back |
[33] Ibid., p. 26. | Back |
[34] A. Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray, (Cambridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957). | Back |
[35] Williams College Catalogue, 1874-75, p. 18; Spring, op. cit., pp. 165-166. | Back |
[36] “List of the Articles Belonging to the Apparatus of Williams College,” 1804 et seq.; mss, Williamsiana, Williams College. | Back |
[37] Quoted in Willis I. Milham, History of Astronomy at Williams College, p. 12. | Back |
[38] Williams College Catalogue, 1852-53, p. 22: “Remarkable remains of a Mastodon, supposed to be the largest known, have been recently added.” | Back |
[39] See John C. Greene, The Death of Adam, (Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University Press, 1959), p. 102. | Back |
[40] L. Pearce Williams, The Nineteenth Century, (New York, Scribner’s, 1978) [Album of Science series] p. 276. | Back |
[41] K.T. Rowland, Eighteenth Century Inventions, New York, 1974, p.63. | Back |
[42] K.T.Rowland, op. cit., p. 199. | Back |

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