Abbott Lawrence

The beginning

A red lion in midroar. A keep of a castle. Three tightly bound bunches of … asparagus? The images on the seals of some of Harvard’s professional schools seem ripe material for a Da Vinci Code sequel. The “veritas” of the matter reveals a simpler explanation: the symbols refer to the coat of arms of a given school’s founder, a tradition borrowed from Oxford.

The seldom seen (and likely never officially used) seal of the Harvard Engineering School (1917/18–1946) is no exception.

The “ragged cross” (see figure above) honors Abbott Lawrence, for whom the Scientific School, the predecessor of the many iterations of Harvard’s programs in engineering and applied sciences, was named.

Deciphering the signs might not require a fullblown quest, but it does invite inquiry: Who was Lawrence? What were his motives? What role did he play in founding the school?

Abbott Lawrence (1792–1855) was a self-made industrialist and politician—not the sort of person likely to have mounted the family coat of arms above the mantle. The intricate seal of the city that still bears his name, Lawrence, Massachusetts, sums up his character and accomplishments far better than any ancient heirloom.

The town’s circular icon shows a shield depicting a river, textile mills, and church, all lit by a rising sun; on either side, two proud workers stand, and above, a bee quietly hovers.

A. Patricia Jaysane, Executive Director of the Lawrence History Center, explains: “The name of the town honors not just Abbott Lawrence but his two brothers, Samuel and Amos, as well.”

All three, along with Harvard graduate Charles Storrow, were involved in the creation of Lawrence, the “immigrant city,” one of the first and most thoroughly planned industrial sites in America. Not surprisingly, Lawrence decided on a similar approach for his ambitions at Harvard. He provided more than his money and name to the Scientific School—he devised a complete road map.

The original idea for a Harvard school dedicated to advanced education in the practical sciences did not, however, come from Lawrence. Scholar Mary Ann James provides an excellent overview of the early history of the Scientific School and rightly suggests that the date of its founding (1846/7) did not represent its birth but its middle years. Harvard Professor and well-known mathematician Benjamin Peirce had sketched out a plan for advanced scientific education as early as the 1830s.

Peirce envisioned a “professional program in civil engineering, drawn along the rigorous lines of the Ecole Polytechnique [in France], offering a thorough mathematical education and a solid grounding in theory ….” His bold proposal involved a realignment of the existing Harvard science faculty to support a distinct program that would parallel the well-established professional schools, such as law and medicine.

Because of tradition and politics (many in academe viewed engineering and other practical sciences as “dirty” trades), it took nearly 20 years and two Harvard presidents (John Quincy and Edward Everett) before the Harvard Corporation adopted a proposal for the formation of an advanced Scientific School.

The first public announcement of the School appeared in the second edition of the 1846–47 Harvard University Catalogue. Because the endeavor was new, lacked a clear source of funding, and had no dedicated physical facilities, the catalog devoted a scant two pages to the nascent institution. But something monumental happened soon after the ink dried.

Lawrence donated $50,000, an unprecedented sum at the time, to fund the institution. He might have missed the birth by a few decades, but he didn’t hesitate
to offer a means to raise the child.

Hard Hands & Hard Content

Lawrence achieved his fame and fortune without a Harvard—or, in fact, any— degree. He had, however, been actively following and, in small ways, funding academic scientifi c work at Harvard through his relationship with naturalist Louis Agassiz. More important, Lawrence and Harvard’s then-president, Edward Everett, were lifelong friends.

Although his personal ties likely contributed to his decision to fund a new school at Harvard, his true motivation did not lie hidden: He saw advanced scientific training as necessary for his own business and the country’s industrial sector to thrive.

In a June 7, 1847, letter to Samuel A. Eliot, Treasurer of Harvard College, Lawrence laid out a detailed plan for a school “for the purpose of teaching the practical sciences” and committed to fund the effort with additional money (on which he made good with a later gift of an additional $50,000 to support a new building). He opened with a direct challenge to educational and government institutions as well as to fellow industrialists to solve what he viewed as a dire problem.

"But where can we send those who intend to devote themselves to the practical applications of science? How [sic] educate our engineers, our miners, machinists, and mechanics?

"Our country abounds in men of action. Hard hands are ready to work upon our hard materials; and where shall sagacious heads be taught to direct those hands?"

- Abbott Lawrence

Quite simply, as a businessman, he could not find the type of individuals he needed for his mills and envisioned a system that, like medicine, law, or divinity, could produce a stream of practical scientists, all similarly trained.

He wrote: “It seems to me that we have been somewhat neglectful in the cultivation and encouragement of the scientific portion of our national economy.”

In much the same way that the founders of Harvard worried about the moral state of the country without a well-read and well-educated clergy to guide it, Lawrence worried about the country’s economic state without well-trained scientists and engineers to fuel its growth.

Let Theory Be Proved by Practical Results

Although the original catalog text never concretely specified the type of students the new school sought to train or what they expected them to do with their education, Lawrence did.

The school for “boys” referenced traditional classical education wherein, as at Harvard, science was taught alongside Greek literature and language and religion. Lawrence, however, does not dismiss the importance of the liberal arts but instead makes an insightful suggestion about its proper role in the education of a practical scientist.

Learning from the past and from the world at large would serve as a way to ensure that future engineers would not repeat mistakes and would broaden their understanding beyond provincial models. (We, in fact, espouse similar principles today.)

"We need then, a school not for boys, but for young men whose early education is completed, either in college or elsewhere, and now intend to enter upon an active life as engineers or chemists, or in general, as men of science, applying their attainments to practical purposes where they may learn what has been done at other times and in other countries, and may acquire habits of investigation and reflection, with an aptitude for observing and describing."

- Abbott Lawrence

Despite never being taught by a professor himself, Lawrence also recommended a new breed of instructor critical for making the new entity a success.

He praised Harvard for appointing European- educated Eben Norton Horsford as the Rumford Chair of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts. Horsford was best known for formulating and patenting the first calcium phosphate baking powder.

Lawrence expected that the school’s faculty should “number among its teachers men who have practiced and are practicing the arts they are called to teach. Let theory be proved by practical results.”

In other words, just as Harvard used lawyers and physicians to teach in its schools of law and medicine,
the same should be the case with practical scientists.

The letter that accompanied Lawrence’s gift was not an afterthought, but a manifesto; he even made arrangements for versions of the letter to appear in leading national science journals such as the American Journal of Science (the predecessor to Science Magazine).

Most surprising, Lawrence, although an outsider, exerted great infl uence over a traditional, close-minded, and inwardly focused institution. In fact, the Corporation explicitly agreed in writing to the terms in Lawrence’s letter: “Your example shall be followed …”

Even Treasurer Eliot might not have realized how deep a change (and division) introducing a school for practical sciences at Harvard would bring, despite saying, “The knowledge acquired will be found to be applicable, not only in the ways and on the subjects which are now known to be open to its use, but in a multitude of directions … to which its importance cannot be at presence appreciated, nor even foreseen.”

Perfect Harmony at Cambridge

During the first several decades of the Lawrence Scientific School, a diverse group of thinkers and professionals— astronomers, architects, naturalists, engineers, mathematicians, and even philosophers—passed through its doors.

Other institutions, like the University of Washington, saw it as a model for their own schools of advanced and practical science. The harmony that Lawrence hoped for (“ … I wish to see all these branches of science prosecuted with vigor, and moving forward in perfect harmony at Cambridge”) would not last, however.

An article dated February 15, 1887, in the Crimson explained the situation this way: "During the last twenty years, while, in most colleges scientific studies were finding their place, the Lawrence Scientific School has been steadily losing ground. It has been overshadowed by its sister across the street.

When the school was founded by the bequest of the Lawrences our college was narrow and saw no propriety in allowing a wide variety of study to the undergraduate … That it occupied a front rank among its fellows can be seen by referring to the earlier catalogues where the names of our leading scientists of to-day will be found registered as students."

At the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, the temper of the country changed; the Gilded Age came to a close and industrialists lost some of their influence to the progressive movement. The Lawrence School became doubly constrained by the conflicting views about its role and status by then Harvard President Charles Eliot.

As early as the 1870s, Eliot began discussing plans to “merge” Harvard with MIT. These attempts ultimately failed, but as a result the Scientific School suffered (leading to its dissolution in 1906).

It would take a controversial and posthumous donation by another industrialist named Gordon McKay, who made his fortune from the manufacture and leasing of shoe machinery, to revive the practical sciences at Harvard.