Sheffield Scientific School

views updated


SHEFFIELD SCIENTIFIC SCHOOL originated in two professorships established by Yale College in 1846: agricultural chemistry (John Pitkin Norton) and practical chemistry (Benjamin Silliman Jr.). As the School of Applied Chemistry, it opened in 1847 under Yale's new Department of Philosophy and the Arts. Silliman left in 1853; Norton, carrying the school alone, died in 1852, at the age of thirty.

Norton's successor, John Addison Porter, professor of chemistry at Yale, interested his father-in-law in the School. Joseph E. Sheffield, the wealthy railroad builder and philanthropist, shared the founders' belief in the importance of science to America's agricultural and industrial development. As the school's principal benefactor, his gifts ultimately amounted to $1.1 million. William A. Norton established the School of Engineering in 1852; in 1854 the Yale Scientific School consisted of the School of Engineering and the School of Applied Chemistry. It became the Sheffield Scientific School in 1861.

The importance of Sheffield lay in its innovations in both graduate and scientific education. Like most colleges of that era, Yale gave its undergraduates a classical education, with the goal of building character and inculcating mental discipline through the teaching of Greek, Latin, philosophy, and theology. Engineering and science had an "applied" nature, a practical connotation at odds with classical concepts.

In 1852 Yale offered the bachelor of philosophy degree to students of the Scientific School, following a three-year course of study; in 1861 the doctor of philosophy degree was granted, the first Ph.D. in America. Sheffield thus pioneered graduate education in America. Daniel Coit Gilman, later the first president of Johns Hopkins University, joined the Sheffield faculty in 1861, remaining until 1872. He later stated that Hopkins owed much to lessons learned during his Sheffield years.

In 1860 the undergraduate Select Course was established, offering science, mathematics, history, English, geography, economics, political science, and, later, social science, instead of classical studies, in which Yale College persisted. The School introduced modern languages and philology studies into the curriculum, another innovation. Over the years Sheffield added courses of study for different engineering fields.

In 1863 the Scientific School became the Connecticut beneficiary of the Morrill Act (a land grant act). This money helped finance faculty expansion. The School inaugurated a series of lectures for the public on scientific subjects and issues in 1866. Adding more agricultural courses to its curriculum, Sheffield also commenced a traveling lecture series for farmers across Connecticut in 1867 under State Board of Agriculture auspices. By 1886 the State Grange, with interests in applied agriculture only, mounted continuing attacks against the School's land grant college status. The General Assembly voted another institution as beneficiary of land grant funds in 1893, thus ending a thirty-year relationship with a court awarding damages to the School in 1895 for abrogating the contract.

Yale's "Great Reorganization" (1918–1920) profoundly changed the School, ending budgetary autonomy and transferring most of its programs to the University, including the Master of Science program and the School of Engineering. Sheffield became a postgraduate institution after 1945.


Chittenden, Russell H. History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, 1846–1922. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1928.

Furniss, Edgar S. The Graduate School of Yale: A Brief History. New Haven, Conn.: Purington Rollins, 1965.

Veysey, Laurence R. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Warren, Charles H. "The Sheffield Scientific School from 1847 to 1947." In The Centennial of the Sheffield Scientific School. Edited by George Alfred Baitsell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.


Elizabeth H.Thomson