Skip to Content

Breaking New Ground

How the landscape of antebellum science shaped the founding of MIT
August 18, 2009

In the 1830s, as a young William and Mary professor researching green sand marl, a deposit that was used as fertilizer, ­William Barton Rogers was deluged with soil packets from Virginians responding to his articles on soil composition in the Farmer’s Register. Faced with far more samples than he could analyze, he invented an “Apparatus for analyzing Marl and the Carbonates in general” that farmers could build and use themselves.

William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT
By A. J. Angulo
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, $55.00

The incident is typical of the scientist who would later found MIT. Intensely interested in both theory and practice, ­Rogers performed detailed empirical research on soil composition and developed theories of mountain formation–and found an audience for his work among Virginia farmers and European scientists alike. While geologists at the time were divided between Baconian fact collectors and Humboldtian theorists, Rogers ably navigated the conflicts between these groups.

“[Rogers’s] concern for the intersection of the practical, the theoretical, and the technological would become hallmarks of his plan for MIT,” writes A. J. Angulo in William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT, which chronicles how Rogers’s ideas developed amid contentious debates in science and higher education. Would geologists mainly observe and classify, or would they theorize? Would elite scientists dominate the advancement of knowledge, or would professional organizations democratize science? Would scientific education continue to emphasize recitation of texts, or would the new experimental approach prevail?

Rogers’s work in geology, chemistry, education, and the founding of early professional scientific organizations put him at the nexus of these fascinating conflicts, allowing Angulo to weave together many threads in the history of antebellum science and education. One chapter analyzes Rogers’s role in promoting Darwin’s theory of natural selection through public debates with Harvard’s Louis Agassiz in 1860. Rhetorically gifted, Rogers applied careful reasoning and linked evidence about fossils found in various geological formations around the world to counter Agassiz’s insistence that separate species were created through local divine intervention.

A year after those debates, Rogers received the charter to found MIT, one of the first schools to emphasize laboratory work for students. There, he would devote the rest of his life to developing an institution that struck a balance between the theoretical and the practical. Shortly before Rogers collapsed and died at the podium during his final commencement speech, in 1882, he proclaimed that the Institute’s curriculum closed “a wide separation” between theory and practice: “Now in every fabric that is made, every structure that is reared, they are closely united into one interlocking system.”

This examination of Rogers’s career covers and uncovers a great deal about the professionalization and Americanization of science and science education. “His life experiences tell us something new about how MIT emerged [and] what scientists thought about science and professionalization,” says Angulo.