The Story of Science at Yale, Part I: Science Education at Yale in the Past

Dennis Wang | March 18, 2012

The Sheffield Scientific School on the current site of Silliman College, around 1900. Courtesy of New Haven City Guide.

Yale’s science programs have recently become a subject of scrutiny by students and the administration. A detailed analysis of current student experience and efforts to reposition science is left for future consideration. But as Yale was founded largely without a science curriculum in 1701, a full understanding of science at Yale must be built upon the story of its history.

Dr. Michael McBride, Colgate Professor of Chemistry, is retiring this year after teaching organic chemistry for 45 years at Yale. He believes that although science has only recently become a character in the long story of Yale’s history, it is strongly influenced by its own traditions. In McBride’s opinion, the founding of the Sheffield Scientific School was the first major milestone for science at Yale.

The Sheffield Scientific School — originally called the Yale Scientific School and informally “the Sheff” — was established in 1854, with the School of Applied Chemistry, formed in 1846, as its foundation. The Lawrence Scientific School, predecessor to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was founded in 1847. By the time of the Sheff’s founding, Yale had already graduated Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, Benjamin Silliman, the first science pro-fessor at Yale, and Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

The Sheff was, from the beginning, separate from Yale College, which had moved to New Haven in 1718. By what McBride calls an “unfortunate accident of history,” it was geographically removed from central campus, occupying Prospect Street and Hillhouse Avenue between the present sites of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall and Science Hill. Though the first lectures in chemistry were given by Silliman in 1804, it was not until 1859 that the Bachelor of Philosophy became a three-year undergraduate program.

With the start of the Technological Revolution in the 1860s, other subjects of instruction and other institutions to provide them quickly entered the field. In 1861, the year that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was established, Yale produced the first Ph.D. in science in America. In 1863, Yale awarded the first American Ph.D. in engineering to Josiah Willard Gibbs, who would later become the father of chemical thermodynamics. By 1871, the course programs included Applied Chemistry and Metallurgy, Civil Engineering, Dynamical (Mechanical) Engineering, Mining and Metallurgy, Agriculture, Natural History and Geology, and the Select Course in Science and Literature, an early liberal arts effort. In 1886, as Thomas Edison was popularizing the electric light, electrical engineering was added to the offerings.

A statue of Benjamin Silliman in front of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. Silliman was, in 1802, the first science professor appointed at Yale. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But even as the Sheff generated new innovations, the divide between the Sheff and the College grew due to mutually exclusive enrollment. In 1895, an editorial published in The Yale Scientific Monthly complained of the “inevitable and humiliating” deficiency of the three-year program, claiming that “Yale life has a significance too deep and true to grant its fullness in a shortened course; and Sheff … and [the] University will profit in a new relationship.” In 1918, the undergraduate program assumed its current four-year structure.

At its peak in 1912, the Sheff awarded 300 Bachelors of Philosophy, compared to the 292 Bachelors of Art awarded by the college, numbers that reflected the growing interest in science. That same year, Sloane Physics Laboratory was erected on Science Hill. Though the 1920s marked the first steps toward the integration of the Sheff into the college, lab spaces were built farther and farther away, and Sterling Chemistry Laboratory was placed near the top of Science Hill in 1923. Still unsatisfied with these additions, Sheff students published an article in the Yale Scientific Magazine in 1927, saying that “[Sheff] is lagging behind many other engineering schools — new administration building[s] and more dormitories should be planned at once,” but the students also expressed their belief that “the Sheffield Scientific School … will again step into the foreground.”

Sheffield Scientific School, Class of 1881. Courtesy of Yale University Library.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) made significant strides following World War II, when technological progress was recognized by the U.S. government as the key to American exceptionalism. In the nuclear age, engineers proved to be essential; Yale researchers had even contributed to the Manhattan Project which produced the first atomic bombs. Funding for the development of new antibiotics ballooned following the discovery of penicillin, a boon for the biological sciences. In the decades that followed, the number of science students increased and research became much more extensive. By 1956, just over a century after it first opened, the Sheffield Scientific School was closed, its courses having been transferred to Yale College in the final step of the institutional transition. Yale University historian George Pierson noted that by 1976, “the future of undergraduate engineering at Yale seemed limited,” but by 1980, when distributional requirements were introduced, it was clear that science had thrown down its roots.

Science has come a long way at Yale on both institutional and cultural levels, but as STEM programs continue to change, it may not yet have settled into its niche. The story of science at Yale is still in the making and we, as students of science, will each play our part.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Professor McBride for his time and for his dedication to the history of science and to science at Yale.