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A History of the Mathematics Department at
Virginia Tech: 1872 - 1995

Chapter 2
The McBryde Years and the
Start of the Mathematics Department

John M. McBryde
John M. McBryde

President McBryde, who began his term in the Fall of 1891, was given a free hand in developing the academic program of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. He organized the College along more traditional lines of a four year college rather than along the lines of a trade school as it had been. In fact many changes were made during McBryde's 17 years as president, including a name change for the College in 1896 to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. Thereafter the College was known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute, VPI, or Virginia Tech. McBryde would become known as the "Father of the Modern VPI."

Courses of study became departments under McBryde's organization. In particular, the Department of Mathematics and Civil Engineering was formed at this time. Christian became Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering. He was joined in the Department by an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, John Harmon, who was also Commandant of Cadets, and an Instructor in Mathematics. After this date Mathematics and other departments would often employ graduate students as teaching assistants.

From 1891 to 1895 there was a rapid and steady increase in enrollment from 116 students to 335 students. These students were now using the modern day designations of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior.

The first issue of the college yearbook, called the Bugle, was dedicated to John Christian, who had died in October of 1893. It was noted there that he was "universally loved and admired by all his students." Christian must have also been respected by his peers since he had been appointed as interim president of the College for one month between the time that Lomax resigned and McBryde began his term.

In the Bugle a few years later there was a cartoon of a dormitory desktop covered with books including Calculus, indicating that math-phobia had an early start.

David S. Shanks
David S. Shanks

The year 1895 marked the beginning of the Mathematics Department as a separate department when it was split from the Civil Engineering Department. For several years, the Mathematics Department consisted of a professor, an assistant professor, an instructor, and a couple of assistants. The Acting Professor of Mathematics at this time was David S. Shanks, who was also Commandant of Cadets.

Not only was the name of the College changed during the 1895-96 year, but also about this time the school colors were changed to burnt orange and Chicago maroon. In addition, the motto "Ut Prosim" was adopted, and the seal (similar to the present seal) was drawn.

Charles E. Vawter, Jr. Charles E. Vawter, Sr.
from left, Charles E. Vawter, Jr. and Charles E. Vawter, Sr.

With the arrival of Charles W. Vawter, Jr. in 1898, the Mathematics and Physics Departments merged. This would last until 1904, at which time the Mathematics Department again became a separate department and would remain so up to the present. Vawter's title was Professor of Mathematics and Physics (although he was only Acting Professor his first year). His father was Rector of the Board of Visitors, and also held a degree in mathematics (from the University of Virginia). When the Mathematics and Physics Departments split in 1904, Vawter became Professor of Physics. Actually, at this time, the term department was used to designate a larger unit, much like the modern day designation of a college. In particular, mathematics was part of the Academic Department. However, from 1904 on, mathematics was in its own unit corresponding to the modern-day department. Thus the term Mathematics Department is appropriate.

The year 1903 was an important year in the history of the Mathematics Department because it marked the arrival of three people who would be associated with the Department for many years.

John E. Williams
John E.Williams

One of these people was John E. Williams, who would later become Dean of the College. Williams had a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He started as Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, and the following year was made Professor of Mathematics. He acted as Department Head from that time until his death in 1943. During these years it was customary for the senior professor in a department to act as a department head.

William E. Brodie Louis O'Shaughnessy
from left, William E. Brodie and Louis O'Shaugnessy

Another of the three people who appeared in 1903 was William E. Brodie. He started as an instructor, and over the years worked his way to the rank of professor, becoming Acting Department Head in 1924 when Williams became Dean of the College.

The third person in this trio who appeared in 1903 was Louis O'Shaughnessy. He taught mathematics classes (and surveying), but was initially in the Civil Engineering Department. Later in 1921 he officially became a member of the Mathematics faculty as Professor of Applied Mathematics, but at the same time was Professor of Applied Mechanics and Experimental Engineering. He would eventually become Head of the Applied Mechanics Department (which is now Engineering Science and Mechanics).

Frank L. Robeson
Frank L. Robeson

It is interesting to note that these three people, Williams, Brodie and O'Shaughnessy, along with Shanks, were all faculty in the Mathematics Department at one time or other who later had campus buildings named after them. Two others with buildings named after them were C. E. Vawter, Sr. and Frank Leigh Robeson, who started as an Assistant in Mathematics and eventually became Head of the Physics Department.

The advanced calculus course was introduced into the mathematics curriculum in 1904. This was a more extended version of calculus ending with ordinary differential equations. Another course introduced during the same year was called Graduate Mathematics. The catalog description of this course was: calculus to curves and surfaces & theory of functions. These courses were taught by Professor Williams.

The student enrollment at this time was at a peak of 728 (including 23 graduate students). These numbers gradually declined to 471 in 1913, and thereafter remained fairly steady until the enrollment jumped to 757 in 1920 after World War I. During these years, starting in 1904, there was also a Summer School. But this was poorly attended, and abolished in 1917. Summer School was started again in 1925, and would continue to the present.

Because of declining health, McBryde resigned from the presidency in 1907. His successor was Paul Brandon Barringer. One of the changes instigated by Barringer was the abolishment of the Academic Department. Now there were no Mathematics faculty listed in any department. Although Vawter, who was at that time in Physics, was listed among the faculty in both the Scientific Department and the Agricultural Department. It was not until 1916, after Eggleston had become president, that VPI again had an Academic Department, listing both Williams and Brodie as faculty. Another change made during this transition in the presidency was that the College went back to the quarter system.

The Mathematics curriculum remained fairly constant during the six years that Barringer was president. The major changes were the addition of a Differential Equations course and an introductory course for the Agriculture students. Throughout this period, Osborne's text was used for Calculus and Echol's text was used for Advanced Calculus.

Joseph D. Eggleston replaced Barringer as President of the College in 1913. His tenure was for five years that spanned World War I. During this time, starting in 1917, Virginia Tech became a training school for both the Army and Navy, operating on a 12-month basis.

During the Eggleston years, Williams was the Professor of Mathematics and Brodie was the Associate Professor of Mathematics. Williams must have been a busy man because, besides teaching all the upper level mathematics courses, he was on numerous College faculty committees, including: Entrance Requirements, Matriculation, Advanced Study, Degrees, and Bulletin (he was chairman of this committee which published the VPI catalog). Brodie became the second Professor in the Mathematics Department in 1918. The other departmental members were instructors and assistants.

The students at this time typically took both algebra and trigonometry each of the three quarters of their freshman year. Then they would take analytic geometry all three quarters of their sophomore year. Finally they would take calculus six times a week during the first quarter of their junior year, followed by two three hour courses in the winter and spring quarters, the last being the differential equations course.

In the spring of 1919, Eggleston resigned the presidency of Virginia Tech to accept the presidency of his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College. Thereafter, the Board of Visitors elected Julian A. Burruss to be Tech's eighth president. He was the first Tech alumnus to serve as president. He was allowed to finish his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago before starting his duties in the fall of 1919.

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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:03 EDT