A recent biography sheds light on Penn State's first president: BTN LiveBIG Book Club
Agriculture has long been central to life in Pennsylvania. The Lenape and Monongahela peoples native to the region’s Delaware and Upper Ohio Valleys grew corn, beans and squash – crops known as the Three Sisters. European colonists brought iron plows and work horses with them to turn over large fields of dark, fertile soil.
In 1855, a school opened catering to Pennsylvania’s rich agricultural economy. It was known as The Farmers’ High School, and its charge was to train new generations in both time-tested and modern methods of cultivating the land and raising livestock.
By 1859, this school was overseen by a passionate and driven agricultural chemist by the name of Evan Pugh, who, in just a few short years, would transform the relatively small school into what we today know as The Pennsylvania State University.
In his recent biography Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College (Penn State University Press, 2018,) Roger L. Williams details how Pugh, only in his early 30’s at the time, led the push to create in Pennsylvania a center of agricultural pedagogy and research that was firmly rooted in modern scientific methodology.
Pugh’s mission was honed during his early studies and career, a period in which he toured the great state-sponsored agricultural universities of Europe. Following an appointment as a fellow of the London Chemical Society, during which time he helped lay the foundation for the fertilizer industry, Pugh returned to the US eager to radically transform agricultural education.
Though under immense pressure to keep his fledgling school and his students safe from the oft-too near battles of the Civil War, Pugh saw the opportunity that lay in the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. The act provided for the federal funding of universities in each state that would focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering.
Pugh worked tirelessly, and soon after President Lincoln signed the bill into law, Penn State College – as it was then known – was the grantee for the state. Pugh bolstered the curriculum with courses in chemistry, geology, mathematics, and mineralogy. He also donated from his own monies to fund the establishment of laboratories and research facilities on campus.
Williams, who served as Associate Vice President and Executive Director of the Penn State Alumni Association as well as Affiliate Associate Professor in Penn State’s Higher Education Program, has crafted an engaging and immensely readable biography of a figure important not only to the history of American agriculture, but to the modern shape of higher education in the US. Following the story of Pugh’s short, but impactful life, readers are offered a much-needed history of the land-grant university system and how it came to bear on the larger collegiate model by introducing a counterpart to the well-established liberal arts curriculum.