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Rogers, William Barton, 1804-1882



  • Existence: 1807 December 7 - 1882 May 30


William Barton Rogers (1804 - 1882) was a geologist and educator, more broadly known as the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1861, and the school’s first acting president.

Rogers was born on December 7th, 1804 in Philadelphia, as the second of four sons from Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Blythe [1]. Patrick Rogers, originally from Ireland, emigrated to the U.S. out of fear of arrest from his published defiance against the British government and his progressive views pertaining to the “catholic question” [3]. Upon his arrival to the United States, Patrick Rogers continued his studies as a physician, and attended the University of Pennsylvania receiving a degree of “Doctor of medicine” [2]. Leaving Philadelphia, the family would relocate to Baltimore in 1812, and later to Virginia in 1819 where Patrick would become professor of natural history and chemistry at the College of William and Mary [2]. William Barton Rogers, as well his three brothers – James, Henry, and Robert – would follow similar scientific endeavors as their father, engaging in the fields of chemistry, geology, and medicine. The brothers would on occasion collaborate professionally on publications, surveys, and share in the founding and participation of several scientific organizations [1].

Now in Williamsburg, Virginia, William Barton Rogers would attend the College of William and Mary starting in 1819 [1]. He’d remain at school for the next four years, in which it remains unclear whether he officially graduated. Soon afterward, Rogers would return to Baltimore with his brother Henry, where the two would establish a school in Windsor, Maryland. During this period, between 1826 and 1827, Rogers would also conduct lectures at the Maryland Institute of Baltimore [1].

Immediately following his father’s passing in 1828, Rogers moved back to Virginia to succeed his position as professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at William and Mary. Rogers would maintain his post at the College until 1835, when he became the chair of natural philosophy at the University of Virginia [4]. In the same year, he would be appointed as the official geologist to the Commonwealth of Virginia, heading the state's geological survey [1].

As a professor Rogers lectured on physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and natural history. As part of his time conducting geological surveys, Rogers completed much of his work with his brother, Henry. With Henry, also a state-appointed geologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the two would become well-known among geologists of the nineteenth century for their meticulous fieldwork and controversial theories (some of which have since been rejected by modern science)[5]. In addition to his field work, Rogers became involved with the development of many scientific societies. Among them included the National Academy of Sciences, the American Social Science Association, and the American Association of Geologists and Naturalists (later called the American Association for the Advancement of Science)[5]. Rogers also served terms as president of the American Association of Geologists and Naturalists in 1847, the American Social Science Association beginning in 1865, as well as the president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1879 to 1882 [5].

During his tenure at the University of Virginia, and throughout the early 1840s, Rogers would often visit New England. Over his time there, he’d become personally fond of the newly industrious and intellectualized Boston area, creating professional relationships, even being elected as an honorary member of the Boston Society of Natural History in 1842 [5]. As part of his frequent Massachusetts visits, he'd also become professionally linked with noted banker, author, and genealogist, James Savage. In 1849, Rogers would marry Savage’s eldest daughter, Emma Savage [1]. Emma Savage would later compile and edit her husband's Life and Letters.

After speaking to Boston philanthropist, John Lowell, in 1846, Henry Rogers asked his brother William, still settled in Virginia, to draft a plan for a scientific school [1]. Rogers' reply included ideas of innovative education models, emphasizing a mixture of practical and theoretical learning: “The true and only practicable object of a polytechnic school is, as I conceive, the teaching, not of the minute details and manipulations of the arts, which can be done only in the workshop, but the inculcation of those scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them, their leading processes and operations in connection with physical laws.” [1].

Rogers would not permanently relocate to Boston until 1853, where he’d conduct public lectures and once again focus himself towards establishing a polytechnic school in the area. In 1859, the governor of Massachusetts announced that parts of the newly filled land in Boston's Back Bay should be given over to "public educational improvements." [6]. In 1860, the Associated Institutions of Science and the Arts commissioned Rogers to author a grant proposal, which resulted in his 30-page pamphlet, Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology [1][6]. The pamphlet was widely disseminated, and called for the establishment of an institute that would have three components: (1) a Society of Arts, which would sponsor discussions and publications about industrial arts and science; (2) a School of Industrial Science; and (3) a Museum of Arts [6].

The Act to Incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was officially approved on April 10, 1861 [6]. As the first meetings were held in the spring of 1862, Rogers was formally chosen as the Institute’s first President [6]. The actual organization and development of the Institute were significantly delayed by the Civil War, as well as other financial issues. Rogers, however, continued to create the curriculum and core education policies as outlined in his 1864 piece, Scope and Plan of the School of Industrial Science of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [5]. The first classes at the Institute were held in February 1865 – just weeks after the conclusion of the War – in the Mercantile Building in downtown Boston, while construction on the first building, later named after Rogers, was completed in 1866 [1][3].

In 1868, due to his declining health, Rogers ceased his duties as a Physics professor at the Institute. Not long afterward, Rogers would retire altogether from MIT in 1870, effectively leaving his post as President [5]. Later, as a favor to the school, he’d return as interim President in 1878 on the condition that the school actively search for a replacement. Rogers would remain as acting MIT President until his passing in 1882 [1].

1. Elizabeth Andrews, Nora Murphy, and Tom Rosko “William Barton Rogers: MIT's Visionary Founder” MIT Libraries (October 2004) 2. “William Barton Rogers” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 18 (May 1883) 3. “William Barton Rogers: Race and the Founding of MIT” MIT Black History 4. “William Barton Rogers, 1804-1882” MIT Libraries (November 1995) 5. “William Barton Rogers: Chronology” MIT Libraries 6. “Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology” MIT LIbraries (January 2001)

William Barton Rogers: Slavery

Despite his legacy as a reform-minded educator, William Barton Rogers was a known enslaver as part of his Virginia household until the early 1850s, roughly a decade before he founded the Institute.

Rogers lived in Virginia where slavery was still legal from 1819 until 1853, especially on the campus of the College of William and Mary where he then held a professorship. Documents from the time indicate that in this setting, Rogers had as many as six enslaved persons in his household until his relocation to Massachusetts in 1853.


Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Alfred P. Rockwell correspondence

 Collection — Box Shared C: [Barcode: 39080036789508]
Identifier: MC-0446
Scope and Contents of the Collection The collection of Alfred P. Rockwell correspondence consists of letters written between 1868 and 1869 from Rockwell to his wife, Katharine Virginia Foote Rockwell, after he was offered a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The letters describe the physical and financial state of the Institute and the personality and educational philosophy of its first two presidents, William Barton Rogers and John Daniel Runkle. Letters from Rogers are also included in the collection....
Dates: 1867 - 1876

William Barton Rogers II papers

Identifier: MC-0003
Scope and Contents of the Collection The substance though not the bulk of the papers consists of letters from Henry Darwin Rogers to his nephew William Barton Rogers II, son of James Blythe Rogers. From 1852 to about 1857 William Barton Rogers II worked as an assistant to Henry D. Rogers on the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. The papers of are interest because they shed light on the working methods of the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania.The collection includes correspondence from Henry Darwin Rogers instructing...
Dates: 1838 - 1919

William Barton Rogers papers

Identifier: MC-0001
Abstract This collection contains the personal correspondence of William Barton Rogers, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Family and professional correspondence, notes, articles, lectures, clippings, and drafts of articles on scientific topics, documents relating his philosophy on science and technology education, and many antecedent documents relating to the establishment and early years of MIT are included. An important part of the collection is drafts of...
Dates: 1804 - 1950; Majority of material found within 1834 - 1882