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The Last Word on the First Grad Degree

4 Sep

The start of an academic year is traditionally a time to look forward. In this blog entry, I choose to look back. Maybe it’s the historian in me.

In 2012-13 Penn State observed the 150th anniversary of the awarding of its first graduate degree.


C. Alfred Smith

One hundred fifty years ago, the academic year began in February and ran until early December, so the college was not even in session when, on January 3, 1863, President Evan Pugh penned a kind of “to whom it may concern” note of 202 words certifying that C. Alfred Smith “possesses a very good general knowledge of practical, analytical, and pharmaceutical chemistry and will be able to work successfully at any ordinary chemical work.”

Below his signature, as if an afterthought, Pugh wrote: “In view of Mr. Smith’s year spent as a resident graduate, he receives the degree of Master of Scientific and Practical Agriculture.” It was the first such degree ever awarded by an American institution, although no formalities marked the occasion.

The University created a graphic to commemorate the anniversary. It’s no longer used, I’m told, since we’ve moved on to a new academic year. I’m including it here, along with a photo of C., for old time’s sake. Pugh’s note may be seen in the University Archives in Paterno Library.GradSchoolButtonVert

Today we think of research and graduate education going hand in hand. That wasn’t quite the case in 1863. Penn State had opened its doors only four years earlier and was an academic unknown. The college catalog offered grad students only a vague promise to establish “private laboratories . . . in which to pursue prolonged scientific investigations.”  C., who was a member of the institution’s very first undergraduate class, simply remained on campus for another year, studying under the tutelage of Pugh, who was an internationally recognized agricultural chemist and held a Ph.D. from Germany’s University of Goettingen.

Some confusion surrounds the first graduate degree(s), and I must confess that I contributed to it when writing my Penn State: An Illustrated History. When that book was published in 1985, I was among those who maintained (on page 49) that two students received the master of scientific agriculture in 1863.

The confusion may stem from the fact that another student, Augustus King, was indeed enrolled for graduate work. But in August 1862, he went home to New York to visit his father, Charles King, who was president of Columbia University. Within a few days Augustus contracted typhoid and died.

The King connection with Penn State is noteworthy. Augustus had a pedigree: his grandfather, Rufus King, was a signer of the Constitution; his father was a nationally known educator who had presided over Columbia since 1849; and his brother, also Rufus, was a general in the Army of the Potomac. What was Augustus doing at an upstart agricultural college in the Pennsylvania hinterland? At a college so reluctant to be known as a college that it called itself the Farmers’ High School when it first opened its doors?

Even more curiously, in 1863-64, three more Columbia students enrolled for grad work. Why? Was there a Pugh-King connection of some kind? Did the two presidents even know each other? The historical record seems to be silent on this subject.

If there was a Pugh-King connection, it ended in 1864 when Pugh himself succumbed to typhoid. The spigot closed on the Columbia pipeline, so to speak.

Penn State’s foray into graduate education subsequently languished for want of strong, visionary leadership. Only one student enrolled between 1864 and 1867. In desperation, the institution offered graduate work for free, representing a savings of at least $250! From the 1867-68 catalog:

“To students who shall hereafter graduate at the College . . . having a high standard for scholarship and conduct throughout the last two years of their undergraduate course, the privilege will be accorded of pursuing a resident graduate course in their respective specialties, occupying two years, free of all charges for tuition, board, room rent, washing, and fuel.”

“Washing” meant laundry, of course. But even the notion of an unlimited supply of clean clothes got few takers. (Note to Interim Dean of the Graduate School Regina Vasilatos-Younken: Just because the idea didn’t catch fire then doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work now. You might want to include free laundry among the perks offered by today’s University Graduate Fellowships.) Most of the advanced degrees Penn State conferred in the late 19th century were done so on the basis of professional achievement and went to engineers. Degrees such as Civil Engineer (C.E.), Mechanical Engineer (M.E.), and E.M. (Engineer of Mines) did not even require resident enrollment, let alone a research paper or project.

Research-based graduate study did eventually come about, and started to become rigorous and systematic after the Graduate School was founded in 1922. Research Communications has been running a series of feature stories this year that sample the research of Penn State grad students. Watch our research news site for more stories this fall.

Just off press: A Guide to Historic Penn State

16 Jan

Did you know that Penn State faculty did pioneering research to make diesel engines more fuel efficient? Or that Penn State physics professor Erwin Mueller was the first person ever to “see” an atom? Or that Henry Armsby’s research in animal nutrition helped lay the foundation for today’s high-value, low-cost livestock feeds?

HistoricMapYou can learn more about Penn State research – and other aspects of the University’s history – in a new keepsake edition of A Guide to Historic Penn State, highlighting the University Park campus’s series of blue-and-white historical markers, just released by the University Relations office and the Penn State Alumni Association. In map form, the guide lists all 63 historical markers – many of which call attention to Penn State’s research activities. Others highlight achievements in teaching and a variety of other historic milestones.

But wait – there’s more. The map identifies the 31 major structures within the two campus historic districts and gives thumbnail descriptions of each. Plus six more equally interesting and historic sites that are located outside the two districts. Many of these also have a connection to research.

Map in hand, you can stroll the campus and soak in all the history up close and personal.

As an added bonus, the map includes an 8 x 15 inch reproduction of Richard Rummell’s (modestly) famous 1910 bird’s-eye view engraving of the campus.

The Guide to Historic Penn State, sure to be a collector’s item, is not available in stores or even online. To obtain a free copy, you have to stop by 221 Ritenour Building or the reception desk at the Hintz Alumni Center, or send a nice email to Cathey Chaffee in the University Relations office.

Happy anniversary Ag College of Pennsylvania!

4 Sep

A colleague reminded me the other day that 2012 is a milestone year in Penn State’s history: 150 years ago, the Farmers’ High School—the name under which the University was incorporated in 1855—became the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

Two more name changes lay in the future. The ACP became the Pennsylvania State College in 1874, which in turn became The Pennsylvania State University in 1953.

So what’s the big deal about the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania? And what does it have to do with research? (This is a research blog, after all.)

Take a look at the ACP’s seal – jam-packed with two dozen or so objects that suggest many areas of higher learning, including a test tube and a microscope and probably a few other items (that I can’t identify) used at that time in scientific research. (See all of Penn State’s official seals here.)

The ACP seal would be a nightmare in today’s world of sophisticated “branding.” But in 1862, its graphic elements reflected the blend of teaching and research activities that founding President Evan Pugh envisioned for Penn State. Pugh himself was a brilliant chemist who won international recognition for his experiments on the use of nitrogen by plants.

The name and seal of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania were intended to strengthen the institution’s case to become Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment. By early 1862, the High School’s Board of Trustees recognized that Congress would soon enact legislation establishing a nationwide system of land-grant colleges. Representative Justin Morrill’s bill called for each state legislature to designate one or more institutions as land-grant colleges. In exchange for offering instruction in scientific agriculture and in engineering, these colleges would receive an endowment created by sales of federal land. (Go here for more particulars.)

The Farmers’ High School had been established as a college of scientific agriculture, and in fact awarded the nation’s first baccalaureate degrees in that subject in 1861. Its founders had chosen the name “high school” for fear that farmers would be prejudiced against enrolling their sons in a “college,” which were widely perceived as places where boys typically partook of drinking and card playing, and otherwise developed evil habits.

But with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Trustees reversed their thinking. The “High School” moniker could weaken their claim that their institution was of baccalaureate-level quality. Numerous other colleges laid claim to Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment; the competition was fierce. Supporters of the new ACP had to use every weapon in their arsenal.

They succeeded. On April 1, 1863, Pennsylvania designated what we know as Penn State as the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant college, and it has been thus ever since. The land-grant designation bestowed on Penn State its historic mission of teaching, research, and public service.

Also in 1863, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania awarded its first graduate degrees—two masters of scientific agriculture. But that’s another story—and another anniversary. Watch for more about the 150th anniversary of graduate education at Penn State during the 2012-13 academic year.

I’ll give you a McCutcheon for a Benkovic…

13 Jun

Justin Verlander, Andrew McCutcheon, Barbara Rolls and Stephen Benkovic. All four of these people have made it to the top of one of life’s pinnacles—they’re featured on trading cards.

Verlander and McCutcheon are baseball stars. Rolls and Benkovic are stars of a different kind—they’re world renowned Penn State faculty researchers, Rolls in nutrition and Benkovic in chemistry. They are just two of 50 researchers, living and deceased, that the University has touted on a series of trading cards over the past five years. You can see—and download—all of the cards at the newly created Research Faculty Trading Cards website.

Dave Pacchioli, of the University Relations office, helped to oversee production and distribution of the cards since their inaugural year. I asked him if anyone associated with the project considered—strictly for the sake of authenticity—inserting sticks of bubble gum into the decks.

“No, but maybe we should have,” he said with a chuckle. He then added, as if discounting this thought on further reflection, “We used clear packaging and you would have seen the gum.”

Gum or no gum, the cards quickly became popular and have enjoyed a wide distribution, both within the Penn State community and externally. In fact, our Research Communications office still occasionally receives inquiries from serious collectors about the cards’ availability. We have a few surplus sets from more recent years. If you’re interested in having one, contact Cathey Chaffee in our office.

Enforcing Big Pharma’s integrity

22 May

Katrice Bridges Copeland once worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., defending pharmaceutical companies in fraud cases. The experience was an eye-opener. Now she teaches white-collar criminal law at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, where her research targets illegal marketing practices by the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the illegalities stem from off-label marketing of prescription medications. Such uses constitute fraud because companies receive government reimbursements for those drugs even though the purposes are not FDA-approved.

Copeland maintains that federal deterrents against such practices are ineffective, and she offers some solutions that she says will help solve the problem. The government pays out a whopping $60 billion a year in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to drug companies, so what she has to say is getting national attention. See a recent USA Today story, for example.

What usually happens, Copeland explains, is that the government launches an intense investigation of a drug company’s alleged violations, the company admits guilt and pays a fine—and then becomes a repeat offender. Another investigation and fine may follow, but the fines are often outweighed by the increased profits that accrue from the illegal practices.

The government is generally unwilling to pursue pharmaceutical manufacturers through the courts because as the law stands now, conviction means excluding a company from receiving any Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for any of its drugs. That would seriously harm innocent parties: shareholders, employees, and patients who are prescribed any of the company’s drugs. (Patients would have to pay for their medications from their own pockets.)

Copeland suggests several solutions to the problem, including holding corporate officers who participate in illegal practices criminally liable, and removing only the drug in question from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Innocent third parties would be shielded from the devastating consequences of having all the company’s pharmaceuticals excluded.

Copeland explains in this brief Penn State Law video what prompted her research. Her recent paper, “Enforcing Integrity” offers more details about her proposed solutions.

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