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Teaching Chemistry at VAMC

The Chemistry Faculty: The First Two Decades (1872-1991)

During the first five years of operation, from 1872-73 through 1876-77, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC) offered a three-year program (Junior, Intermediate, and Senior years) leading to a Diploma. In that program chemistry was offered in the intermediate year by the Scientific Department, which, along with the Literary and Technical Departments, constituted the administrative structure of the college.

Starting with the 1877-78 session, a Preparatory Year was added, which was required of every student under 21 years of age. It included instruction in English, Grammar, Geography, Dictation, Elocution, and Penmanship; courses which had been taught in the junior year of the three-year program. Chemistry continued to be taught in the intermediate year. No catalogs were published for the 1879-80 and 1880-81 sessions. It is noteworthy that the 1878-79 catalog carried newspaper articles de-crying the action underway by the State Legislature to remove the existing Board of Visitors and appoint a new one, an action which transpired in early 1880 and resulted in the removal of the entire faculty. A listing of the faculty concerned with the teaching of chemistry follows:

1872-80: Lane, James H., A.M., Professor of Natural History, General Chemistry, and Military Tactics.

1872-80: Ellzey, M. G., M.D., Professor of Natural History and Chemistry (1872-73), Professor of Agriculture and Natural History (1873-75), Professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Natural History (1875-80).
Professor Ellzey also taught agriculture from 1874-80 and stated in the catalog that he taught the application of chemistry to agriculture in that course.

1873-74: Davis, John W. C., B.S. in C & M E, Professor of Chemistry, Technical Mechanics, and Drawing.
The 1872-73 catalog listed Davis as Professor of Agriculture and Mechanics.

1874-75: Jackson, S. K., M.D., Professor of Chemistry, Technical Mechanics, and Drawing.
It should be noted that both Davis and Jackson were on the faculty only one year each. It is possible that during these two years chemistry teaching was performed by them, since Ellzey’s title change to include agricultural chemistry did not occur until 1875.

It is doubtful that Lane ever taught chemistry since it was not offered until the second year, by which time either Ellzey or Davis could have instructed the course. Since Davis did not serve on the faculty beyond the second year, and Jackson survived only one year, one is led to the conclusion that Professor Ellzey was probably responsible for most, if not all, chemistry instruction during the first eight years at VAMC. Presumably, he taught general chemistry in the intermediate year and then taught the application of chemistry to agriculture to the senior year students.

This arrangement ended when the newly appointed Board, appointed by the Governor, but not yet confirmed by the legislature, met in Blacksburg in June of 1880 and vacated all offices of the college in preparation for the appointment of an entirely new faculty and administration. Declining enrollment, and disciplinary problems led to the decision to begin offering a Bachelor of Arts degree program. With the election of a new governor in November 1881, there was again a new Board of Visitors appointed. This Board accepted the plan to offer the B.A. degree, to change to the quarter system, and to replace the three academic departments with four: Agriculture, Mechanics, Literary and Science, and Business.

A listing of the chemistry faculty follows:

1880-91: Scott, Martin P., M.D., Professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Natural History.
The title was changed to Professor of Agriculture and Natural History in 1882-83 and Scott pointed out in the catalog that the Agriculture course includes the application of chemistry to agriculture. The catalog gave no course description for chemistry but the curriculum included general chemistry in the junior year.

1884-86: Davis, Floyd, C.E., E.M., M.S., Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry and Metallurgy.
During his brief two-year period on the faculty, Davis, the first Ph.D. to teach chemistry, taught a variety of courses including General Chemistry, Chemical Philosophy, Chemical Technology, Qualitative and Quantitative Chemistry and Metallurgy.

1886-91: Miles, Fielding P., M.A. Professor of Chemistry and Geology.
Miles died on May 3, 1890. No catalog was issued for the 1890-91 year so we do not have a record of chemistry taught in that year.

It is clear from this review of the chemistry faculty that during the first two decades the VAMC faculty largely responsible for chemistry teaching was physicians. As pointed out by Kinnear (1), this was not unusual in the early days of the land-grant college era, as there was an increasing demand for teachers of Applied Chemistry, particularly Agricultural Chemistry, and no pool of professionals from which to draw. Doctors, having learned the application of chemistry to medicine, were probably as qualified as anyone to teach the application of chemistry to agriculture.

From the faculty listing it is also clear that in the first two decades chemistry was affiliated with agriculture under Ellzey (1872-80) and under Scott (1880-84), then with Metallurgy under Davis (1884-86), and with Geology under Miles (1888-91). The Bulletin of the VPI & SU, Vol. 65, No. 4, April, 1972, titled, Historical Data Book, Centennial Edition, compiled and edited by Jenkins Mikell Robertson, notes that the departmental lineage for chemistry at VAMC consisted of General and Analytical Chemistry from 1872-83, at which time it became Chemistry and Metallurgy for the years, 1883-7, then Chemistry, Geology, and Mineralogy (1887-91).

Chemistry course content:

It is noteworthy that seldom was there any reference to course content, or text or reference books included in the early catalogs which listed the faculty and administration.

Did Chemistry instruction include laboratory exercises through these early years? Two new academic buildings were completed for the 1876-77 session measuring three stories high and 135 by 45 feet in dimensions. One of these was to house chemistry laboratories. In the 1876-77 catalog Professor Ellzey noted that chemistry and physics apparatus had been purchased. With the disorganized situation in 1877-80, and lack of printed catalogs, it is difficult to find out when chemistry laboratory instruction was initiated. However, in the 1882-83 catalog, Professor Scott noted that the Chemistry laboratory would be fully equipped by the opening of the next school year. Perhaps it is safe to say that there was probably no laboratory instruction in chemistry through the first 11 years. Professor Davis noted that in the 1883-84 session, agriculture students were receiving lab instruction in both Qualitative and Quantitative Chemistry with most of the senior year course being devoted to analysis of fertilizers, soils, alloys, and mineral waters.

The two faculty members who dominated the teaching of chemistry and agricultural chemistry were Ellzey and Scott, both physicians as already noted. There is not much in the record as to their philosophies as teachers. An article in the Gray Jacket, a publication of the Corps of Cadets, provides an insight on Ellzey from one of his students, Issac Diggs, class of 1880. It was supplied to the Techgram by a daughter of Professor Charles Martin, one of the original faculty members, and was published in the Techgram on August 1, 1934. Diggs noted that Ellzey had a wonderful command of the English language, that he taught entirely by lecture in fluent and graceful words. In the early catalogs Ellzey often made reference to his interest in natural history and was much interested in awakening his students to the need for a museum of natural history at VAMC. To this end he admonished his students to be on the lookout for artifacts in and around Blacksburg that could become showpieces in the museum. He was interested in both the early settlers as well as the native Indians with regard to the development of a museum of natural history.

Professor Ellzey was also stock editor of the Southern Planter, a publication much read by farmers and having been published since 1832. His professional training also resulted in his providing much medical advice and service in the community although he did not carry on a formal practice.

Professor Scott, the successor to Ellzey, seems to have been what we would term today, an environmentalist. He wrote annual reports on agriculture and chemistry. One such report dealt with the conserving type of agriculture as against the exploitive type. He deplored the fact that Virginia farmers were practicing too vigorously the exploitive type and wasting the soil and mineral resources. Scott was one of the few faculty members who survived the several reorganizations that shook the school during the 1880's and was persistent in his view that he was being illegally removed with the advent of the McBryde years (1891-1907), a view which was to prove fruitless.

By the end of the decade of the 1880's the student enrollment was back down to about 70. It had, through the first 2 decades fluctuated between the original 1872 count of 132 at the end of the first year to a peak of 255 in 1875-76, down to 50 in 1879, then a rise to 190 in 1883-84, followed by a decline to 150 in the final year before the McBryde era (1891-1907).

Before closing the chapter on chemistry in the early and turbulent years it is fair to say that Virginia was not alone in having problems with the make-up and functions of a land grant school. In South Carolina, for example, where John McLaren McBryde was President of the South Carolina College in Columbia, the state legislature had just reduced the institution from that of a university to that of a college. This action stemmed from the controversy over whether a university would really pay much attention to training farmers and mechanics, the result of which was the removal of all agricultural work from Columbia to Clemson. Thus, the invitation to McBryde from the VAMC Board of Visitors to assume the presidency at the college in Blacksburg came at an opportune time.

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