The tragic fate of Michigan Agricultural College’s first Botanical Laboratory is the stuff of campus lore. Built in 1879, it burned to the ground in March of 1890 when a defective flue—and, legend has it, incompetent graduate students—contributed to a fire in the building’s attic. The Campus Archaeology Program has conducted several brief investigations of the site. To provide historical context for past and future excavations, I am combing the MSU Archives for information about the short-lived building. While the story of the first Botanical Laboratory’s fiery demise has claimed its fair share of attention, this blog post incorporates some of my archival research in piecing together its less known origin story.
To understand why the Botanical Laboratory was built, one must understand that William J. Beal wanted people to know he was a cool professor. No, really. In Beal’s seminal 1882 lecture, The New Botany, he distanced himself and his teaching philosophy from the stereotype of the “dried up old fossil” of a botany teacher who “wore odd looking clothes” and “taught the class from the text-book.” Indeed, Beal’s contempt for the outdated teaching style of the “Old Botany” centered on its primary emphasis on book learning. Without specimens for students to observe and handle, Beal lamented, “It is little wonder that botany found so little favor.”
According to Beal, the antidote to the Old Botany’s ineffectual brand of academic stuffiness lay in what he called “The New Botany.” Beal believed a student should “earn his facts.” Influenced by his Harvard undergraduate advisors, zoologist Louis Agassiz and botanist Asa Gray, and drawing on the scientific processes employed by eminent scientists like Charles Darwin, Beal recommended prioritizing the study of objects before books, providing short lectures, and requiring the pupil learn by “thinking, investigating, and experimenting for himself.” With this method, Beal prepared to restore a hipness to the field of Botany not seen since Linnaeus.
An educational strategy focused on doing and seeing over reading and memorizing required a bit of creativity, some equipment, and a laboratory space in which to work. Almost as soon as he arrived at MAC, archival documents suggest Beal set his sights on procuring and equipping a botanical laboratory. The laboratory would be the first in the country built for the express purpose of botanical study (Forsyth). A trip to the MSU archives uncovered a stack of letters Beal exchanged with colleagues between 1876 and 1879 seeking advice and support. Beal found a vocal ally in Professor Charles E. Bessey of Iowa Agricultural College. In a letter to Beal dated December 31, 1877, Bessey wrote, “A college which proposes to keep up with the current must provide Botanical and Zoological laboratories. The college which does not provide such laboratories will fall behind the progressive institutions at least so far as the biological sciences are concerned.” Mic drop.
With the support of colleagues at other notable institutions, Beal secured the College’s green light to build his laboratory in 1879. It was built on the bank of the brook, north of the green house, on the same site where an apiary (bee-house) once stood. Watkins & Arnold, a Lansing architectural firm also responsible for Station Terrace and the first Wells Hall, were enlisted to design the building. They chose a “Gothic Revival” style popular on college campuses in the 19th and 20th centuries. The eclectic two-story wood-frame structure sported a large rose window and two towers with decorative finials. The design provided the laboratory a bit of a spooky gingerbread house appearance of which Beal was apparently quite proud. Of the building Beal wrote, “As seen from the west, it is very conspicuous and adds a great deal to the appearance of the grounds.”
Inside, the laboratory was finished handsomely in native wood. The first floor consisted of a study and a large combined laboratory/lecture room, where students had their lessons. The room was equipped with a teacher’s desk, a pump and a sink, three blackboards, three rows of tables, and drawers for each student. Upstairs was the museum, which held an extensive collection of plant specimens.
As with all collegiate activities unrelated to income-generating sports, the budget was a concern. The Board of Trustees grudgingly agreed to pay the contractors, Fuller and Wheeler of Lansing, $6,000 to build the laboratory and install a furnace. This tight budget would eventually prove itself a costly mistake—it was not enough to fireproof the laboratory in brick.
One set of costs involved equipping the laboratory. Beal’s hands-on approach to teaching required hands-on equipment, namely microscopes. This was a truly novel and applied approach to teaching biology. In his first decade at MAC, Beal was one of just four professors in the country to provide compound microscopes for each student in his class. Beal required freshmen students two write two theses a year based in part on microscopic observations of plant specimens. His seniors spent every day of a six-week course using the compound microscope. The students must have enjoyed the microscopes–or at least recognized their value–because in 1890, these were among the few items they managed to save from the fire.
While the laboratory itself met an early end, the applied teaching methods Beal championed and that drove its construction left a lasting legacy at this university. If you liked this blog post, stay tuned because I will continue to discuss Professor Beal, the laboratory, and this legacy in my next post.
Beal, William J. The New Botany, A Lecture on the Best Method of Teaching the Science. Transactions of the Twenty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the Michigan State Teachers’ Association, 2nd ed., rev. Philadelphia: C.H. Marot, 1882.
Beal, William J. “Studying the Sciences Fifty Years Ago.” The Michigan Alumnus Volume XXIII. October 1916-August 1917, pp. 257-259.
Kevin Forsyth http://kevinforsyth.net/ELMI/botany-lab.htm
MSU Archives & Historical Collections
UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records
- Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1879
- Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1881
- Michigan Board of Agriculture Department Reports, 1880: Report of the Professor of Botany and Horticulture
UA.17.4 William J. Beal Papers
- Letter from C.E. Bessey, December 31, 1877.
- Lectures and Laboratory Work for Students in the Botanical Laboratory of the Michigan Agricultural College. 1882.