Penn State commemorates 150 years of graduate education

By Michael Bezilla
June 03, 2013

The year 2013 is a milestone in Penn State's history. One hundred fifty years ago, the University conferred its first graduate degree. Since then, it has conferred more than 100,000 master's, doctoral and other advanced degrees.

On Jan. 6, 1863, C. Alfred Smith became the first student at any American college or university to receive the degree of Master of Scientific Agriculture. This landmark event occurred less than four years after Penn State had opened its doors as one of the nation's pioneer colleges of agricultural sciences.

Tangible evidence that Smith had completed program requirements consisted of a simple handwritten certificate signed by Evan Pugh, Penn State's founding president. Pugh himself held a doctorate in chemistry from Germany's University of Gottingen and while studying in Europe had won international acclaim for his research in how plants fix nitrogen in the soil.

Pugh was profoundly influenced by the German model of the university, where, as he later wrote, "no teacher contents himself with merely attending to his classes. . . . He is studying constantly himself, making original investigations and publishing them to the world." And so he believed it should be at the new institution that would one day become The Pennsylvania State University. In addition to serving as president, Pugh was also professor of chemistry, teaching undergraduates, pursuing research on the chemical compositions of commercial fertilizers, and guiding Smith's advanced-degree studies.

For much of 1862, Pugh also mentored a second graduate student, Augustus F. King, who had earned his baccalaureate degree from Columbia University, where his father, Charles King, was president. Tragically, while visiting his father in New York in August 1862, the younger King suddenly took ill with typhoid and died.

Thus to Smith went the singular distinction of being the first to receive a Penn State graduate degree. He had already made history as a member of the institution's first baccalaureate graduates in 1861. He returned to Penn State as professor of chemistry and physics in 1877 and still later served as an alumni representative on the Board of Trustees.

Following Smith in 1863 were eleven more resident graduate students who enrolled under President Pugh's tutelage. According to college catalogs of that era, graduate students paid no tuition nor even room and board, providing they demonstrated "a high standard for scholarship and conduct throughout the last two years of their undergraduate course."

Graduate education's promising start under Pugh wilted after the president succumbed to typhoid early in 1864. Nearly 20 years passed before a president of like vision and abilities would again lead Penn State. Nevertheless, Pugh and his students helped to establish a foundation from which eventually grew a diverse program of graduate scholarship. Advanced-degree programs became systematic and institution-wide standards were implemented with the creation of the Graduate School in 1922.

Today, Penn State offers more than 150 graduate-degree programs, typically conferring about 3,000 master's and doctoral degrees—including the M.D. and J.D.—each year, testament to the University's reputation as a world-class center for learning and discovery.

  • portrait of C. Alfred Smith

    C. Alfred Smith, recipient in 1863 of the first graduate degree ever awarded by Penn State.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives
  • portrait of Evan Pugh

    Evan Pugh, Penn State's founding president.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives
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Last Updated August 29, 2013