Historical Profiles

Our Founding

The formation of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University in 1847, 30 years before Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, marked Harvard's first major effort to provide a formal, advanced education in science and engineering.

Harvard Treasurer Hon. Samuel L. Eliot, said the following upon the gift that created the Lawrence Scientific School:

"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 present appreciated, nor even foreseen."

The School was named for Massachusetts industrialist and entrepreneur Abbott Lawrence, who donated $50,000 (an unprecedented sum at the time) to create the institution.

While he never attended Harvard, he had a long personal history with key members of the faculty such as Louis Agassiz and enjoyed the pursuit of and understood the value in science and engineering. In the letter that accompanied his gift, Lawrence explained his rationale for forming a school:

"But where can we send those who intend to devote themselves to the practical applications of science? Our country abounds in men of action. Hard hands are ready to work upon our hard materials; and where shall sagacious heads to taught to direct those hands?"

Originally separate from the College, the School saw a diverse group of thinkers and professionals—astronomers, architects, naturalists, engineers, mathematicians, and even philosophers—pass through its doors.

Simon Newcomb, Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and a leader in mathematical astronomy, graduated in 1858. Charles S. Peirce, who created America’s greatest legacy in modern philosophy (pragmatism), graduated in 1862. While staying for less than a year, the future doctor, psychologist, and author William James entered around the same time before switching to medicine.

The School’s initial success did not escape the notice of other institutions, leading William Greenleaf Eliot, president of Eliot Seminary (later renamed Washington University) to declare in 1854:

"Harvard University is, at this time, gaining more credit and accomplishing greater good, by the Lawrence Scientific School than by any other agency. We need just such a school, here. Its effect would be to elevate mechanical, agricultural, and mercantile pursuits, into learned professions. It would annihilate that absurd distinction by which three pursuits, of Law, Medicine, and Theology, are called professions, and everything else, labor or trade …"

Early Years

While the School initially thrived, in the latter decades of the 19th century, the institution faced increasing “competition” from the newly formed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was also constrained by the conflicting views about its role and status by the then Harvard President Charles Eliot.

Eliot, in fact, repeatedly, yet unsuccessfully, tried to "merge" the Lawrence School with MIT. As a result of such activities, the Scientific School became less of an independent entity, losing its influence and students to other parts of College and University.

In 1891, to bolster the School and engineering and applied sciences at Harvard, industrialist Gordon McKay designated the Lawrence Scientific School his beneficiary.

The American inventor, engineer, entrepreneur was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and was best known for the development of machinery that revolutionized the manufacture of footwear.

In 1906, however, before the first payment from his bequest arrived, the scientific and engineering programs of Lawrence Scientific School were incorporated into Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

In short, the Lawrence School ceased to exist as an independent entity. (McKay's gift, however, lives on, supporting over 40 endowed professorships today).

Although the structure to support faculty and research in engineering applied sciences underwent several reorganizations and names over the next century, advances in engineering and applied sciences remained a critical part of Harvard’s success and legacy in the coming decades.