Daniel Coit Gilman and Johns Hopkins University

Before the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 most American colleges and universities were nearly exclusively teaching institutions. Research, as it is now known and practiced, took place outside of academe but was not extensive nor was it well supported financially. At the same time in Europe, three predominant university models existed: British, French, and German. Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908), the founding president of Johns Hopkins University, took the German model, altered it slightly, and nearly singlehandedly, changed the historical path of the American university. Most 19th century American colleges and universities had originally been chartered as seminaries. Their faculty taught a wide variety of courses and had little time left for other scholarly pursuits. The state of medical education, too, was just short of scandalous. Students were admitted with no previous higher-level academic preparation and there was hardly any science to be had or to be learned in the medical curriculum. Gilman’s work in California and at Johns Hopkins changed both types of institutions.

Gilman’s life and training was especially apt for an educational reformer. He had earned a degree in geography at Yale and later had spent two years in Europe as an American diplomat with the United States minister to Russia. While in Europe he visited many universities. When he returned to the United States he took a job as a librarian at Yale. There, a former professor recruited him to revise the third edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the American Language; he ended up a co-editor of that model edition. It was the first dictionary to incorporate scientific methods in lexicography (Kendall, 2011). After, Gilman helped found Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School and also taught geography. In 1872 the University of California (not yet settled in Berkeley) invited him to become its second president. While there, he successfully integrated several existing schools, including a medical school, into a larger, collaborating unit. From his work emerged the University of California-Berkeley, today the flagship campus of that system. He left California in 1875 to become the first president of the Johns Hopkins University. The money to found that new institution had been donated by a wealthy benefactor, Johns Hopkins. He had become rich through his family business and his wise investments. The company shipped goods to Virginia and North Carolina and took whiskey as payment. It then sold the whiskey in Baltimore. Hopkins invested much of his profits with the new Baltimore and Ohio railroad. He willed his estate, $7,000,000 (an enormous sum at that time), to found the Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Daniel Coit Gilman assumed the presidency of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 and promptly created the modern research university. He took the German university as his model but made several key changes. One change was to require students to have adequate academic preparation prior to beginning advanced (e.g., graduate school) studies. In order to recruit graduate students, he offered the first fellowships. Those fellowships were enormously successful in attracting well-qualified students to Hopkins.

Marginal definition: fellowship-a form of payment for students by which part or all of tuition and/or other expenses are paid by the school. In return, fellows provide hours of service, usually by teaching or conducting research, in exchange.

Another change he instituted was to create the now familiar academic department headed by a chair and housed in a school or college headed by a dean. Departmental faculty now had to be specialists in their fields and they did not to teach outside of their academic area. Gilman’s first hires were mostly natural scientists (he hired G. Stanley Hall later, see below). His reorganization of the American university was spectacularly successful and was widely imitated, so much so that it is nearly impossible to find other models in the United States today. Less imitated, however, was his policy toward women. In his inaugural address at Johns Hopkins, he said:

"That they are not among the wise, who depreciate the intellectual capacity of women, and they are not among the prudent, who would deny to women the best opportunities for education and culture."

Despite those words of his, it would still be many years before women were routinely admitted to American colleges and universities (including Johns Hopkins). Nevertheless, Gilman’s new plan revolutionized American higher education and paved the way for the rapid growth of psychology and other academic disciplines in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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