Skip to:

1850s

first medical building on campus

The first medical building, built 1850, with an addition in 1864, used until the West Medical Building was completed in 1903.

Americans in the mid-nineteenth century often held competing notions of the basic purpose of education. It was not uncommon to hear some version of the argument that when it came to education in general, practical training and intellectual pursuits should be entirely distinct. On our campus and many others in the nation there were some who held the view that education was intended to perfect the intellect of the elite, and there were others who sought to adopt the best aspects of differing educational systems to serve the needs of all in our democratic society.

When the State Legislature developed a new constitution in 1851, it reorganized the definition of the University of Michigan, stating that it should have departments: literature, science and arts; medicine; law. Other departments were expected to emerge when need and funding allowed. While the Medical Department was underway at the beginning of this decade, the Law Department only began to form in 1859. At this time, unlike today, pursuing medicine or law was not a type of graduate study. Young men (and the occasional outrageous woman) drawn to medicine or law typically entered into a course of study directly from secondary school that focused on practice more than abstract theory. Both had a very significant apprentice or internship component in learning by doing.

photo of Henry Tappan

Henry P. Tappan, President of the University of Michigan from 1852 to 1863.

This decade begins to see the emergence of graduate education. In 1852 University President Henry P. Tappan was eager to promote the postgraduate education available to those who had attained B.A. or B.S. degrees. Tappan was a national leader among those who believed the colleges and universities should have an educational system similar in some ways to what was provided in Germany. He attempted to introduce an emphasis on research and learning formats beyond the typical rote memorization.

There were indicators, too, that interest in graduate education was growing among students: in 1854 the number of master’s degrees granted jumped to eighteen from four in the previous year.

By 1858 more stringent rules were adopted for granting Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees upon examination. They required that students pursue a course of studies, pass an examination, and compose a thesis, according to a plan worked out by President Tappan. The first degrees earned through examinations were granted the following year.

President Tappan was a man of vision and conviction regarding the value of graduate education. In his report to the Regents in 1859 he stated: “In these higher courses we’re advancing to the scope and dignity of a true University and maturing the noble plans of the founders. Nor need we despair of success. The more we enlarge our facilities of affording education, the more we extend our influence. These Institutions will ultimately command the highest success."

Last updated: December 6, 2016 - 11:14am