Another Time, Another SSS: A Brief History of the Sheffield Scientific School

The Sheffield Scientific School Chemistry Class of 1901 in front of Watson Hall, formerly the Sheffield Chemical Laboratory. Current Chemistry majors still take a yearly photo in front of the Chemistry building.

Renowned historian Loomis Havenmeyer once wrote in Sheff Days and Ways, “During the second half of the nineteenth century Yale College and Sheffield Scientific School, separated by only a few streets, were two separate countries on the same planet.”

Havenmeyer was referring to the divide between the Yale College Academic Department (the Ac School) and the Sheffield Scientific School (the Sheff School). The two coexisted as two separate entities until 1945, but remnants of the “Sheff” School are visible throughout contemporary Yale, from the academic curriculum to secret societies.

Founded in 1847, the first building of the Sheff School was erected on what is now Farnam Hall. The school was one of the first to incorporate both the sciences and liberal arts into its education: this building included both classrooms and laboratory space to teach its students chemistry and physics. In addition to calculus, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and civil engineering, students also took classes in rhetoric, English literature, French or German, and drawing.

A student attended the Sheff School for three years and, as of 1922, received a Bachelor of Science degree. Notable alumni include Harry Guggenheim, the businessman and philanthropist, and Francis du Pont, the manager of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours Chemical Company.

There were also many notable professors such as Josiah Gibbs, known for his work in thermodynamics, and Lafayette Mendel, who discovered Vitamins A and B. In their desire to contribute to one of the premier scientific schools in the country, many of the Sheff professors volunteered to teach without pay.

At this time, the Sheff School was quite poor. In order to matriculate, students paid an annual tuition of just $30. Joseph Earl Sheffield donated over $1 million dollars to the Sheff School throughout his lifetime and through his will. Consequently, many new laboratory and classroom spaces were built, including Kirtland Hall, Leet Oliver Memorial Hall, Watson Hall, Mason Laboratory, Dunham Laboratory, and Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

With these new buildings, the enrollment of the school dramatically increased by 1000 students in 1913. Students could now concentrate in areas other than chemistry, selecting from diverse areas in the natural or engineering sciences, including Sanitary Engineering and Pre-Forestry. While Yale College provided dormitories for its students, students of the Sheff School were left to find their own housing. As a result, some Sheff students leased houses, known as clubhouses, with their peers. The clubhouses were located near the academic buildings, and membership soon became desirable.

Taken in 1895, this is the former clubhouse of the Delta Phi fraternity, now known as the St. Elmo Society.

The Sheff students began a type of selection process for freshmen to replace graduating seniors, and students who did not live in clubhouses soon became physically and socially isolated. These Sheff clubhouses evolved into fraternities. Many owned both a Hall and a clubhouse; the former contained recreational rooms, libraries, and a dining room with a kitchen, and the latter housed the dormitories.

When the Vanderbilt-Sheffield dormitories (now the Wall Street and College Street part of Silliman College) were built for Sheff students at the turn of the twentieth century, Yale began to buy many of the private clubhouse dormitories to use for other means. For example, St. Anthony Hall formerly housed its members at 493 College Street and 81 Wall Street, which are now the African and African-American Studies Buildings.

Several, however, kept their Halls and became societies. Their Halls became known as tombs and over the years, their membership became more secretive. These Sheffield secret societies include Book and Snake, St. Anthony Hall, Berzelius, Aurelian Honor Society, and St. Elmo Hall.

Ac and Sheff students led completely separate lives, both educationally and socially. Students were not allowed to take classes in the other school, and there was often a resentment or rivalry between the two. Ac students sometimes looked down upon Sheff students as interlopers, thought to be overly practically oriented.

However, Sheff students began to be more respected by the Ac community as the two schools merged through extracurricular activities. The Sheff School originally had a separate crew team, named the Olympic Boat Club, yet Ac students began to allow qualified Sheff rowers on the Ac varsity boat in the late 1800s.

Around the same time, Sheff students were allowed to be on the committee for the Junior Promenade, Yale’s largest annual traditional event that lasted until the 1950s. The Junior Promenade also marked one of two times a year that females were invited onto Yale’s campus (the other being the Yale-Harvard football game).

Students of the Ac School frequently congregated around the Yale Fence, the center of Ac student socialization on Chapel and College. Byers Hall (now the Silliman library and common room) was similarly erected for the Sheff School, containing a billiards room, lunch counter, assembly hall, chapel, and offices of the Scientific Monthly — the oldest college magazine devoted to the sciences, now known as the Yale Scientific Magazine. Additionally, the courtyard area bordering Hillhouse Avenue behind Sheffield- Sterling-Strathcona Hall formerly contained four tennis courts and a baseball diamond for Sheff students and faculty.

The Sheffield Scientific School officially became a part of Yale College in 1945, and its legacy continues to pervade our modern Yale’s excellence in the sciences, social structure, academic and residential buildings, and even the Yale Scientific Magazine.