It was a sunny Saturday, June 20, 1863. The term was almost over; students and teachers were about to disperse. With the papers full of news of Civil War hostilities, alumni and family members gone South to fight, there was an overtone of uncertainty about the future. But for at least a day’s respite, twenty Williston students — ten young men and ten young ladies — went on a plant collecting expedition — “botanizing,” as they called it — to Southwick, about ten miles from Easthampton. How much of this was serious scientific pursuit and how much an excuse for a picnic, we will never know. Even at still-coeducational Williston Seminary (the Ladies’ Department would be closed in 1864), opportunities for mixed social activity were few.
The organizer and chaperone was William Austin Richards, Williston 1855, Amherst ’61, who upon his graduation had returned to Williston as a teacher of Latin and Greek. Richards planned to teach for a few years to gain a little experience and cash, before studying for the ministry. None of his Williston responsibilities included anything scientific; natural history must have been merely an avocation. And although a document refers to the “botany class,” there was no formal course in the Williston catalogue. Nonetheless, at least some of the students took the scientific side of the day very seriously.
One of these was Mary Lydia Nelson — “Mollie” — a senior from West Suffield, CT. Mollie went home and meticulously pressed the day’s collection of plants. Almost unbelievably, 154 years later, her specimens remain in nearly pristine condition. Mollie did everything right. There are 57 folders, each a sheet of paper 23 x 18 inches (11.5 x 18″ folded.) Mollie chose a very high quality heavyweight rag paper with almost no acid content, so there has been practically no chemical reaction between plants and paper. She secured each plant to the paper with nearly invisible white cotton thread. Almost every specimen was carefully labeled with phylum, genus, and species.
Mollie retained her plant collection as a cherished keepsake. It stayed in her family and against all odds, was always well stored, away from extremes of temperature and humidity. In 1983 Mrs. J. R. Nelson, widow of one of Mollie’s descendants, presented the collection to Williston Northampton. Continue reading →
The Archives Acquire a Fascinating Record of Science Teaching
It was one of those phone calls that vastly improves one’s week. “My name is Will Wyatt – I’m a dentist in Texas. I have what appear to be a notebook from a Williston biology class, dated 1890. Would you like it for the Archives? If so, I’d be happy to donate it.”
Would I like it? That would have been an understatement. Among the more important things we collect are examples of academic work: what was studied, and how it was taught, going back to our beginnings 175 years ago. We actively seek current student work, as well as that from the past. Consider: all the other things we save and cherish – theater photos, box scores, school newspapers, and dozens of other categories, most of them well-represented in this blog, wouldn’t even exist without the academic program. It provides a context for everything else in our daily lives at a busy school. Academics are the most important thing we do at Williston.
So yes, we were thrilled to accept Dr. Wyatt’s generosity – the more so given the age of the item. It is relatively easy to lay hands on student papers from 2015. Anything from the 19th century is another story entirely. And as shall be seen, this particular item is very special.
The document is a set of teaching notes for an 1890 Williston Seminary biology course taught by William Tyler Mather (1864-1937). Mather, Williston class of 1882, went on to Amherst College, graduating in 1886. He taught at Leicester Academy, 1886-1887 then, like many Williston and Amherst alumni, returned to Williston to teach (1887-1893). During this time he also completed a master’s degree at Amherst (1891). In 1894 he entered Johns Hopkins University, earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1897. In 1898 he became Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, Austin, where he remained the rest of his life. (This would tend to partially explain how a set of teaching notes found their way from Easthampton to “a very eclectic used book store” in San Antonio, where Will Wyatt purchased them in the 1980s.)