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Speaking of Science

William Barton Rogers enlisted his powers of persuasion to realize the vision that became MIT: a scientific institution dedicated to both theory and practice.

December 21, 2010

The commencement speech probably didn’t last more than three or four minutes. But it remains one of the most memorable in academic history.

William Barton Rogers had come to talk about the origins of MIT for the Institute’s commencement ceremony of 1882. After being introduced by President Francis Amasa Walker, he stood before the graduating students, family members, curious Back Bay neighbors, friends, and admirers gathered in Huntington Hall and began to speak with pride about what MIT had become. He recalled the early struggles, the mixed reception the school received from educational leaders, the founding mission of offering a comprehensive program of scientific and engineering studies. “Formerly a wide separation existed between theory and practice,” he said, reminiscing about how science had changed over his lifetime and how the Institute had promoted this change. “Now in every fabric that is made, in every structure that is reared, they are closely united into one interlocking system—the practical is based upon the scientific, and the scientific is solidly built upon the practical.” Partway into his speech, he paused, glanced at his notes, and then foundered at the knees. By the time he fell to the platform, Rogers was dead.

That Rogers died “in harness,” as Walker phrased it, underscored his passion for science, his enthusiasm for higher learning, and his relentless work ethic. In almost 60 years as a scientist and educational reformer, he had rarely showed any signs of slowing down.

By the time MIT opened in 1865, with Rogers as its president, he had spent decades turning over and over in his mind the ideas that led to the school’s establishment. As early as his first full-time teaching appointment, in Maryland in the 1820s, he had been experimenting with ways of communicating scientific ideas to his students. Traditional, lecture-based modes of instruction bothered him like pebbles in his shoes. As a professor at the College of William and Mary from 1828 to 1835 and at the University of Virginia from 1835 to 1853, he tried to reform institutions from within. But what he really wanted was independence from the traditional, classical model of college education—autonomy to provide the widest and deepest possible training in the sciences for practical and theoretical application. Through a laboratory-centered education, Rogers argued, practitioners and researchers would be “saved from the disasters of blind experiment.”

Many of Rogers’s ideas about education grew out of his own extensive research program. Among the more than 100 research projects, papers, and presentations he completed during his long and productive career was the first state geological survey of Virginia, which he conducted by foot, horseback, and buggy from 1835 to 1842. He climbed mountains and cliffs, waded through swamps, and endured many hardships, including the death of one of his assistants—all to collect samples for the construction of a comprehensive geological map that retained its scientific value for decades. The project generated practical information for local farmers and miners and contributed to theoretical debates about how mountain chains form, and he continued to work on it throughout his life.

By midcentury, however, Rogers longed to leave the South, even though it meant giving up his well-established professorship in Charlottesville. Sectional tensions had begun spilling over into research and education. Although silent to his southern colleagues about slavery, he expressed frustration to friends and family about the slaveholding ideology: many local leaders saw all reforms that came from the North, including support for scientific or technological innovations not aimed directly at improving agriculture, as a threat to southern civilization.

So in 1853 Rogers and his wife, Emma, who came from a prominent Boston banking family, headed to Massachusetts. It was actually a return to the North for both of them; he’d been born in Philadelphia to Irish immigrants who soon moved to Williamsburg, where his abolitionist-leaning father, Patrick Kerr Rogers, was a science professor at William and Mary.

Although he had no prospects for a job in Massachusetts, he hoped the Boston area would be hospitable to ideas that had sometimes met “not only with repulse but with ridicule,” as he recalled in his commencement speech. “Ever since I have known something of the knowledge-seeking spirit, and the intellectual capabilities of the community in and around Boston,” he mused at the time, “I have felt persuaded that of all places in the world it was the most certain to derive the highest benefits from a Polytechnic Institution.”

Once in his new home, he turned to what he knew best: geology and natural philosophy (now known as physics). His papers in scientific journals and his presentations at the Boston Society of Natural History soon attracted attention at Harvard, where he was considered for a professorship. Fortunately for MIT, he received no appointment. He also honed his skill at persuading through conversation, lectures, and debates. In a series of public debates with Harvard’s Louis Agassiz in 1860, Rogers employed reason—and decades of geological and paleontological research—to lay out a compelling case for Darwinian theory against Agassiz’s passionate belief that separate species had been created through divine intervention.

Rogers’s way with words would play a crucial role in forging connections between powerful interests whose commitment to the idea of progress might be realized through an institute of technology (see “The 146th Anniversary,” p. M11). And once MIT was established, this talent continued to serve him well as its president. Under his direction, enrollment in the Institute skyrocketed. By 1868, three years after opening its doors, MIT had more than three times as many students as Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School.

Then, however, Rogers suffered a stroke that for a time left him partially paralyzed. Professor John Runkle, a Harvard-trained mathematician, stepped into the leadership role. As Rogers’s health improved, Runkle kept him abreast of MIT news and largely deferred to him on important decisions. But when budget difficulties arose in the early 1870s, Runkle pleaded with Rogers to consider a proposal by Harvard to merge the schools. “If we do not unite & do not get the means … to raise salaries we shall lose all the Professors we have whom we could least afford to spare,” he wrote. “Shall we take it?”

From his sickbed, Rogers rejected the proposal (one of several attempts by Harvard to annex MIT). To his mind, Harvard’s commitment to the classical curriculum would derail the Institute’s mission of advancing both practical and theoretical scientific instruction. By the late 1870s he’d gained back much of his strength and was asked to resume his role at the Institute, which was still on shaky financial ground. Knowing the challenges ahead, Rogers insisted that he would return only if the MIT Corporation promised to raise $100,000 for the endowment. The Corporation agreed, and he led MIT from 1878 until, financial conditions having stabilized, Walker was brought in to replace him in November 1881. It was just a few months later that Rogers came back to give his speech and, as it turned out, his last moments to the Institute.

As news of his death spread, letters of condolence came pouring in. Former students, fellow researchers, educational leaders, politicians, philanthropists, and many others recalled the way he inspired his students to love science and his ability to touch others with his “wonderful power of illustration and expression.”

They remembered Rogers as a man whose commitment to research and educational reform reflected a personal dedication to “all that concerns the progress of science.” The epitaph on his headstone at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery reads only “William Barton Rogers, 1804-1882,” but the MIT motto Mens et Manus, “mind and hand,” records the work of a lifetime.

A. J. Angulo, an educational historian and author of William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT, is an associate professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

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