A Short History of Endowed Professorships at WPI

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A Short History of Endowed Professorships at WPI

By Robert L. Norton
Milton Prince Higgins II Distinguished Professor of Manufacturing

Presented on February 27, 2008
At a Celebrtion of WPI's Endowed Professorships

Good evening everyone. I am pleased and honored to be asked to speak to you tonight on a very pleasant topic: that of celebrating the generosity of WPI's benefactors who chose to "endow a chair."

Wikipedia, the modern student's first resort for information, tells me that:

"The practice of endowing professorships began in England more than five centuries ago, in 1502, when Margaret, Countess of Richmond -- and grandmother to the future King Henry VIII -- created the first endowed chairs in divinity at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. ... Nearly 50 years later, Henry VIII established the Regius Professorships at both universities."

It gives one pause to think that one may be benefiting from something that old Henry the Eighth had anything to do with!

Wikipedia continues:

"Private individuals soon adopted the practice of endowing professorships. Isaac Newton held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge beginning in 1669, and today that chair is held by the celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking."

Well, at least Stephen Hawking is better company to be among than old Henry.

Historically, educational institutions of all types have been recipients of donations from individuals and organizations. WPI exists as the direct result of generous gifts from entrepreneurs, businessmen, and industrialists. John Boynton anonymously provided the initial gift of $100,000 in 1865, which would be about $2.3 million today.

He presented this as a challenge endowment to establish the Worcester Free Institute of Industry and Science, provided that its citizens would construct a building.

Several citizens rose to the challenge. Stephen Salisbury donated land for the campus and, along with his son over the years, gave additional monies to fund its development. Ichabod Washburn created the Washburn Shops, donating the building and equipment, thus charting the course for WPI—as noted in our motto—Lehr and Kunst, or theory and practice. These founders not only established an enduring institution, they established a tradition of support from alumni and others that continues to this day.

We are here tonight in Higgins House—another generous gift to the school—to celebrate this long history of giving by benefactors to WPI. One of the mechanisms that has evolved along these lines has been the establishment of endowed professorships. Sometimes these were done in gratitude for an inspirational educational experience received from a single professor, sometimes in appreciation of the chance and opportunity given to a young man of little means to obtain a high-quality education. (They were all men in those days.)

Many of the WPI graduates who achieved professional and financial success were inspired to give back to WPI and chose to establish professorships in their own name, that of a relative, or of a fondly remembered professor. There are currently 14 endowed professorships at WPI, not all of which are currently populated by faculty. Many of the 10 holders of endowed chairs are here tonight, as are representatives of the families or organizations that created them. There is, unfortunately, not time enough tonight to describe the history of all these endowed chairs, but I would like to say a bit about a few of them as time permits. Let me start by describing a little history of their establishment.

The first of these, the John E. Sinclair Professorship in Mathematics, was established in 1915 by Professor Sinclair to "show affection for the institute where in the early years Mrs. Sinclair and I taught together ..." He had taught mathematics at WPI for 39 years. His second wife, Marietta, was an instructor in French and German. His son and son-in-law were graduates of WPI. Professor Sinclair also invented the ratchet wrench. His descendents still own the Lowell Company, which he formed to manufacture and market his wrench. I find it very interesting that a professor of mathematics in the 19th century was also an engineer and inventor—rather unusual today. It was clearly Lehr and Kunst in action! There is currently no occupant of this chair.

Forty seven years passed before the second professorship was created at WPI. John Woodman Higgins, Class of 1896, and owner of Worcester Pressed Steel, was the younger son of Milton P. Higgins, first superintendent of the Washburn Shops. John, his wife, and his sister established his eponymous engineering chair in 1962. Many will recognize Higgins as the founder of the Higgins Armory Museum, which he built next to his factory to house the collection of medieval armor he had amassed. Yiming Rong, of Mechanical Engineering, today holds the John Woodman Higgins Professorship.

Given our venue tonight we should also acknowledge the generosity of Aldus C. Higgins (Class of 1893) and his wife, Mary. John's older brother, Aldus eventually took the reins of Norton Company from his father, Milton, who had left the Washburn Shops in 1886 to co-found and run the Norton Emery Wheel Company. Aldus and John both grew up on the campus in a house at the comer of West and Salisbury streets (where Goddard Hall stands today). When Aldus returned from law school with his new wife, Milton bought them the triple-decker next door where Aldus and Edgenie Higgins raised their two children, Elizabeth and Milton the second. Many years later, Milton the second would also endow a professorship in his name. Unfortunately Edgenie died young. Years later, Aldus and his second wife, Mary, built this, their dream home. Mary lived here the rest of her life and bequeathed the house to WPI.

The 1960s seemed to launch a steady stream of these endowments, perhaps due to the "maturing" of the investments that WPI had infused into enterprising young men six decades earlier. A notable exception to that earlier infusion, George F. Fuller, was not an alumnus of any college. In fact, his high school education had been interrupted by the death of his father. Nevertheless, he rose from office boy to president of Wyman-Gordon Company and his foundation funded his eponymous professorship in mechanical engineering in 1964. The George F. Fuller Professorship in Mechanical Engineering is now held by Richard Sisson of Mechanical Engineering.

George C. Gordon, Class of 1895, and his two older brothers were all WPI alumni. His brother Lyman founded Wyman-Gordon Company and George spent some of his career there as well, going on to the presidency of Park Drop Forge Co. In 1970, George presented WPI with the largest single gift up to that time, $5 million. A significant fraction of this gift was used to build Gordon Library. Mr. Gordon also specified the creation of an endowed professorship with some of the money. He named it after Professor Leonard P. Kinnicutt, who, he said, had most influenced the course of his life by convincing him to remain in school.

Professor Kinnicutt was very well liked and respected, both within and without WPI. He was the first WPI faculty member with a doctorate and was an internationally recognized expert in sanitary chemistry. He also reputedly conducted an unofficial student loan program out of his own pocket and was credited with helping many students get through WPI. Hong Susan Zhou of Chemical Engineering currently holds the Leonard P. Kinnicutt Professorship.

I think you can see from these few descriptions that the generosity of these benefactors had many motivations. The professorships whose history I have described comprise the first four created at WPI. There are 10 more. In the interest of time, I will just mention them and their present occupant, if any.

Continuing in chronological order of their establishment:

The Harold J. Gay Professorship in Mathematics, established in 1968 by his widow, Hazel M. Gay, in honor of the memory of Professor Gay, who taught mathematics at WPI until his untimely death at age 49, is presently held by Umberto Mosco of the Mathematics Department.

The George I. Alden Chair in Engineering, established in 1970 by the Alden Trust to honor the former professor and head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, later the co-founder of Norton Co., is currently held by Nikolaos Gatsonis of Mechanical Engineering.

The Kenneth G. Merriam Professorship in Mechanical Engineering, established in 1977 by an anonymous donor to honor this long-serving WPI professor, Mechanical Engineering Department head, and founder of the Aeromechanics Program, is currently held by Ryzard Pryputniewicz of Mechanical Engineering.

The Harry G. Stoddard Professorship in Management was established in 1982 by the Stoddard Charitable Trust to honor a former president of Wyman-Gordon. There is no-one in this chair, at present.

The Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities was established in 1985 by the Alden Trust to honor Paris Fletcher, a longtime trustee of WPI. There is no one in this chair at present.

The Walter and Miriam B. Rutman Distinguished Professorship was established in 1987 by Miriam B. Rutman to honor Walter Rutman (Class of 1930), past president of the Herald Press in Providence, R.I. There is no one in this chair at present.

The Ralph H. White Family Distinguished Professorship, set up in 1987 by his son and grandson to honor the founder of R.H. White Construction Co., is presently held by Malcolm H. Ray of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The Howmet Professorship in Mechanical Engineering, established by the Howmet Corporation in 1987, is held by Diran Apelian of Mechanical Engineering.

The Milton P. Higgins II Distinguished Professorship in Manufacturing, established in 1988 by Milton P. Higgins II, is presently held by Robert L. Norton of Mechanical Engineering.

The James H. Manning Professorship, established in 2004 by Frances B. Manning to honor her husband James, (Class of 1906), is held by Ed Ma of Chemical Engineering.

On behalf of all the recipients of these honored positions, and for WPI, I salute the vision of all the benefactors of these professorships and thank them for their generosity to WPI.

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