Evan Pugh was the first president of the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, the fledgling institution that, under his leadership, would become Penn State.
Pugh’s great accomplishment did not come easily. Beginning in the early 1850s, state agricultural societies fueled a movement to establish agricultural colleges. These new institutions seemed oxymoronic to some — college for farmers?
They represented a radical departure from the 220 typical small, classical, liberal arts colleges that predominated American higher education. The first to be chartered (in 1855) and soon after opened for instruction were the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania (now Penn State).
Pugh was determined “to develop upon the soil of Penna. The best Ag. College in the world for the ag. student of America.” It would be based on “scientific agriculture,” a new field of study in which chemistry was the foundation. Pugh knew he first had to “fit” himself as a scientist in order to develop and lead such an institution.
Born into a Quaker farming family in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1828, Pugh received an education at the feet an educated aunt and was mentored by Dr. William Darlington, a Chester County physician and one of the foremost American botanists. Pugh started his own school, the Jordan Bank Academy, which emphasized science.
At age 25, he sold the family farm he had inherited from his late father and sailed for Germany for advanced education. American colleges did not provide graduate work before the Civil War, and those who wanted higher learning needed to go to Europe. As historian Roger L. Geiger observed, “The United States in the first half of the nineteenth century was a provincial outpost in the world of science, and American scientists knew it too.”
In 1853, Pugh started at Leipzig University and finished at the University of Goettingen, where he earned the Ph.D. in chemistry in 1856. Eventually he moved to England, where at the famous Rothamsted Experiment Station he conducted a heralded experiment that settled a raging scientific controversy on how plants assimilated nitrogen: through the soil rather than the air. His experiment earned him election as a Fellow by the London Chemical Society.
In 1859 when he was just 31, Pugh was appointed as the first president of the Farmers’ High School by Frederick Watts, president of its board of trustees who was aware of Pugh’s reputation. The institution had opened for instruction in February 1859, with sixty-nine students and four faculty members.
Pugh infused scientific rigor to the curriculum and graduated the first class of eleven men in 1861 with the Bachelor of Scientific Agriculture degree — the first such degree in America. Pugh increased enrollments from 88 in 1861 to 146 by 1864 — the largest enrollment of any agricultural college in the world. The overriding challenge of Pugh’s presidency was completing the College Building (later Old Main), which was only one-third finished when he took office.
Pugh maintained that a scientific institution such as an agricultural college could succeed only as a large enterprise. The average enrollment of American colleges was about 78 students. The College Building was designed to house 336 students, and Pugh wanted to see an enrollment between 400 and 800. Pugh secured a state appropriation of $49,900 in 1861 to complete the building, which was accomplished by the end of 1863.
Pugh’s most lasting achievement was his leadership in the campaign to secure passage of the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant College Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in July 1862. Equally important was gaining the act’s formal acceptance by the Pennsylvania legislature. That was accomplished by April 1863, when Governor Andrew G. Curtin signed the bill, which promised “the faith of the state” to support the terms of the Morrill Act and designated the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (renamed in May 1862) as the sole beneficiary “until otherwise ordered by the Legislature.”
That ominous proviso launched a furious battle in early 1864 by other colleges and their legislative allies to wrest the land-grant designation away from the Agricultural College. Pugh and his allies launched a concerted defense to retain their status as several bills were introduced to take it away. Pugh drafted the nation’s first comprehensive plan on how to organize and finance the new land-grant colleges, but it carried no weight with the legislators.
Fortunately, time ran out on the legislative calendar in early May 1864 and, for the moment, the college’s status was retained. The battles would continue until 1867, when the legislature granted the exclusive land-grant designation to the Agricultural College. Pugh was finally vindicated, but he was long gone, having died on April 29, 1864, of typhoid fever, a crushing workload, and the lingering effects of a buggy accident he and his fiancé, Rebecca Valentine of Bellefonte, incurred in June 1863.
The American Journal of Science and Arts eulogized Pugh as “one of the most able scientific men of this country.” Indeed, Pugh had twice turned down the position of chief chemist for the new U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was in the highest echelon of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an elected fellow of the American Philosophical Society. “The Agricultural College of Pa., the first institution of the kind established in the country, was attaining a high degree of success and usefulness, as a result of the rare combination of scientific and practical knowledge with administrative energy which characterized its lamented president. His death is a loss to Pennsylvania and the nation.”
Pugh Street in State College is named in his honor. The Evan Pugh Professorships, the highest faculty honor at Penn State, are also named for him.
Geiger, Roger L. The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Williams, Roger L. Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College. University Park: Penn State University, Press, 2018
American Journal of Science and Arts, September 1864.
First Published: March 10, 2021
Last Modified: February 25, 2022