The History of Laboratory Space at MSU: Part I

The History of Laboratory Space at MSU: Part I

We are all familiar with Michigan State University’s (MSU) status as a part of the top ten conference (Go Spartans!) and for its place as a top tier research university (recently ranked in the top 8% nationwide). In fact, MSU offers 170 degrees for undergraduate students, 275 degrees for graduate students, and 12 graduate professional degrees (MSU Office of the Registrar) – it is clear that our university goes above and beyond to foster research across all disciplines!

Here at Campus Archaeology, we recognize that MSU’s positive mindset towards research is not new but has been a tenet of this university since its establishment in 1855. Therefore, in order to highlight how this passion for research shaped MSU’s early history, we are dedicating our next Blog Post Series to an overview of the first laboratories on MSU’s campus.

Introduction to Scientific Research at MSU

Originally known as the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), the school was founded in 1855 in order to create an institution entirely dedicated to scientific agriculture, as farming was the leading profession in Michigan at the time. This need for formal instruction in agriculture may seem strange because farming is traditionally learned through familiarity and hands-on experience, but new research in soil chemistry, such as the chemicals essential to plant life (lime, iron, potash, magnesia, and silica), demonstrated the importance of science at a time when Michigan was still establishing itself as a new state (Kuhn 1955:3). Scientific instruction seemed the perfect way to revolutionize farming and earn Michigan a place within the already established market.

Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) campus map on "Opening Date" in 1855. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) campus map on the “Opening Date” – May 13, 1857. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

While some schools in the United States offered training in the sciences, courses were few and far between – and inadequate without any hands-on instruction. The Michigan State Agricultural Society felt that if they could foster the creation of a new school, they could develop a unique curriculum that focused on hands-on scientific learning rather than just textbooks or lectures (Kuhn 1955:8). While other existing schools, including the University of Michigan, argued that they could and should offer the scientific agricultural program, the Society believed only a new college could provide the flexibility to develop a scientific curriculum, as well as provide the necessary lands and instructors. With tremendous support from John C. Holmes, funds for a new college were finally approved and the process to form the MAC began.

The MAC’s efforts to establish itself as a unique institution were clear from the start, as the MAC actively deviated from traditional classical education and instead offered a curriculum based primarily on training students in the following disciplines:

Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Botany, Animal and Vegetable Anatomy and Physiology, Geology, Mineralogy, Entomology, Veterinary Art, Mensuration, Leveling and Political Economy, with Book-Keeping and the Mechanic Arts which are directly connected with agriculture

(as cited by Kuhn 1955:10).

Unfortunately, such a curriculum required proper equipment and laboratory space that was not easily attainable during the first years of the College – more funds had been used to build the first lecture and dorm halls than anticipated (Kuhn 1955:13). Luckily, the MAC’s passion for scientific instruction and strong spirit kept the College running until enrollment increased and funding could be attained.

College Hall

When the MAC first formed, the College heavily relied on the insight of Holmes, who had led the push for the creation of the College, and asked him to design the curriculum. Holmes firmly believed that a degree from the MAC should be attainable for students of all backgrounds and so pushed for free tuition, assuming that the farm lands owned by the College would provide enough profit.

Image: John C. Holmes, dated to 1888. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

However, by 1859, just four years after the College was established, funds were completely depleted due to the heavy costs of building the first few halls and an endless need for repairs (Kuhn 1955:48). The farm did little to assist the College, as it had to be started from scratch and Holmes had decided that students should be paid for their labor. Needless to say, the first few years of the College were a fight for survival.

College Hall surrounded by tree stumps, dated to 1957. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
College Hall surrounded by tree stumps, dated to 1957. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

Without any funds, the first laboratory on campus – the Chemistry Laboratory – was located on the first floor of College Hall, the only instructional building on MSU’s campus until 1870 (Kuhn 1955:13). However, this decision was not entirely due to a lack of funds, as the College did not know any better – other science courses, even those at Harvard, were taught solely through lectures and textbook learning and thus did not need any special accommodations (Beal 1915:39). While a shared space sufficed for other universities, the College’s passion to teach science through hands-on instruction changed the dynamic of the curriculum and how students would interact with the subject directly (Beal 1915:39).

Blueprint of the first Floor of College Hall. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
Blueprint of the first Floor of College Hall. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

Luckily, under the guidance of Lewis Ransom Fisk (later Fiske), the first Professor of Chemistry at MSU and future pro term President of the College, instruction in chemistry soon became state of the art despite its location (Kuhn 1955:16).

Image: Professor L. R. Fiske (Kuhn 1955:20).

Having pursued graduate study and having taught chemistry for three years previously, Fiske argued for funds to furnish the laboratory with proper bench space, as well as $300 worth of chemicals and $2300 worth of equipment (~$8,850 and ~$67,800 today), which included actual chemicals, a static electric machine, and a balance scale (Kuhn 1955:16).

Thus students could perform and be tested via actual experimentation – a new and revolutionary method of instruction at the time!

While the use of chemicals actively challenged the students, the poor construction of College Hall provided the laboratory space with just two windows, which rarely provided enough light to work by and severely affected the ventilation, causing dangerous fumes to waft into other rooms and offices upstairs (Kuhn 1955:84). These structural issues limited the scope of instruction at the College and illustrated that a larger and more functional space was clearly needed.

Luckily, the College recognized the impact of this hands-on instruction and did everything in its power to provide a space and the equipment for scientific training and research. Tune in for our next blog where we will address how the College worked to increase laboratory space for its students!


  • Beal, W. J. 1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and biogeographical sketches of trustees and professors. Agricultural College, East Lansing, Michigan.
  • Kuhn, M. 1955. Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.
  • MSU Office of the Registrar. Accessed at:

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