Worcester Polytechnic

Building on Tradition

Higgins Laboratories: The Name Continues

In 1941, WPI chose to name its new mechanical engineering building Higgins Laboratories. It was a well-deserved tribute to a man whose vision was instrumental in shaping the educational philosophy of this highly regarded educational institution.

Milton Prince Higgins, a native of Maine, was a graduate of Dartmouth College. To earn college expenses, he served as an apprentice in a New Hampshire machine shop. It was here that he met Ichabod Washburn, a principal founder of WPI and donor of the Washburn Shops. Washburn hired Higgins as an assistant to Charles H. Morgan, superintendent of the Washburn & Moen Co. in Worcester, who asked him to supervise the construction of the Washburn Shops.

Before the new school opened, Milton Higgins was named superintendent of the Washburn Shops and he set about to hire experienced tradesmen to teach students the art of manufacturing by having them help make salable products. Thus, the Washburn Shops became a model machine shop where students combined their theoretical studies with practical, on-the-job training.

Proof of the value of this approach to teaching was quick in coming, as early graduates moved into key industrial positions. By the turn of the century, Worcester was a major manufacturing center that relied heavily on the engineering skills of WPI graduates. Some of its companies were founded by WPI alumni, a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit inspired by Milton Higgins and the Washburn Shops.

With George Alden, Higgins and others purchased the rights to a fledgling grinding wheel company and in 1885 the Norton Emery Wheel Co. opened for business. Alden and Higgins continued in their WPI posts for another decade, supervising their company on a part-time basis. By then, Norton Co., which Higgins served as president until his death in 1912, was well on the way to becoming Worcester's largest employer.

The Higgins family residence long stood on the corner of West and Salisbury streets, now the site of Goddard Hall. Here, Milton and Katherine Higgins raised four children. Sons Aldus and John graduated from WPI in 1893 and 1896, respectively. Daughter Katherine married R. Sanford Riley '96, and daughter Olive Higgins Prouty became a noted author whose works include the best-selling novel Stella Dallas.

The four children jointly gave one of the largest gift units in Higgins Laboratories, but this was only a part of the family's generosity to WPI through the years. Katherine Higgins Riley was the largest contributor to the building of Sanford Riley Hall in 1926, which was named in memory of her late husband. John W. Higgins established a scholarship in 1936 and endowed a special professorship in mechanical engineering. Aldus C. Higgins is best remembered for his gift of Higgins House to his alma mater, though his gift to the college of a parcel of land adjacent to Alumni Field indirectly cleared the way for Higgins Labs to be built on its current site. Olive Higgins Prouty is commemorated on campus through the Olive Higgins Prouty Library Fund. Originated by a bequest from Mrs. Prouty and augmented by generous gifts from her son, Richard Prouty, the fund supports WPI's collection in the humanities

Although not an alumnus, Aldus Higgins' son, Milton P. Higgins II, served WPI as a trustee for 31 years, six of them as chairman during the implementation of the WPI Plan in the early 1970s. In 1986 WPI established the Milton P. Higgins II Distinguished Professorship in Manufacturing in recognition of his many contributions to the welfare of the Institute. The lecture hall in the Washburn Shops, where his grandfather made his mark, is also named in his honor.

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