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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.

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