William Smith, John Ewing, and the Teaching of Science in Early Philadelphia, 1754–1800

Nicholas Spicher Johns Hopkins University There was only one functioning college in British North America at the turn of the 18th century. By the American Revolution, eight more had been founded, and several more were chartered by 1800. What did these colleges teach? Who were the instructors, and on what sources did they base their teaching? What methods did they use? Until recently, many historians have assumed that the colonial colleges were intellectual backwaters whose only purpose was to train future clergy in the bare essentials of classical grammar. Other historians, upon looking more closely at the curricula of the colleges, have recognized the role of the sciences to the point of overstating it. By examining the approaches of individual professors to the subject of natural philosophy, and the methods they adopted, I hope to develop a more intricate picture of colonial science education. My work in Philadelphia during the month of September, made possible by a PACHS dissertation research fellowship, has revealed a great deal about not only what college students were taught, but how. The University of Pennsylvania, formerly the College of Philadelphia, provides a particularly interesting example of how the methods of individual college instructors could vary widely. The school had two natural philosophy instructors in the 18th century, both of whom also served as the provost of the college. William Smith arrived from Scotland in the 1750s, having received his education at the University of Aberdeen during a period of educational reform. Smith took many of the reformists’ ideas, most notably the use of experimental demonstrations in lectures, and introduced them to the college. A close examination of Smith’s lecture notes (both those in his own hand and those taken by students) reveals that virtually every aspect of Smith’s course was centered on experimental demonstration. Using a variety of apparatus, Smith ensured that students saw with their own eyes exactly the phenomena that Newtonian physics described. Such an approach would have placed natural philosophy in a different light, and perhaps a more privileged position, than other subjects. Smith’s substitute while he traveled abroad raising funds for the college was John Ewing, who was educated at Princeton. Unlike Smith, Ewing did not place demonstrations at the center of his course. Rather, Ewing designed his course with examination in mind. Ewing’s examinations were intimately tied to the lectures; the questions and answers were modeled on church catechisms, a popular means of distilling knowledge of both religious and secular topics. The well-structured question-and-answer format not only presented the appearance of a hierarchy of knowledge, but also lent itself quite well to examinations. Records show a strong correlation between Ewing’s lectures and his examinations, indicating that Ewing gave a high priority to the examination as part of the student experience. This is not to say that Ewing never presented demonstrations in his lectures; but they were present as a supplement to the course, and not at its heart. Later, personal as well as professional tensions developed between Smith and Ewing as they competed for the provost position. Although the documentation is scant, at least one letter indicates serious hostilities between the two professors stemming from questions about the fairness of Ewing’s examinations. At Penn, therefore, the stark differences between two men supposedly teaching the same subject indicate that there are more dimensions to early American science teaching than previously recognized. I plan to continue examining the records from other natural philosophy courses throughout the early American colleges in order to determine the extent to which other professors may be classified according to demonstration-based or examination-based teaching methods. While I do not think either category is absolute, placing other instructors relative to the archetypes of Smith and Ewing will allow for a fuller understanding of the range of instructional practices. Aside from the notes of professors themselves, textbooks provide a valuable insight into the areas professors found most important. I therefore plan to examine the texts used at early American colleges to determine if they mirrored the prevailing teaching methods, introduced new methods, or both. Finally, I will look to other scientific subjects, such as chemistry and natural history, to determine the extent to which the newer, demonstration-based instruction was wedded specifically to the subject of Newtonian natural philosophy. I am deeply indebted to PACHS for providing the funds that made this research possible. I am also grateful to the individual libraries and archives I was able to visit with this fellowship: the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University. Finally, I thank the Chemical Heritage Foundation for offering their Brown Bag Lunch series as a venue where I could present this research and receive valuable feedback