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2. First Faculty and Curriculum

T

he Regents selected a mere five permanent faculty members to get the budding University off the ground. Several of these pioneering members shared several curious experiences, notably, advanced training in physics and medicine and an intimate involvement with the Confederacy during the Civil War.


The first faculty member appointed was John LeConte, who prior to the War was professor of physics at South Carolina College (later, the University of South Carolina), and superintendent of the Mining Bureau of the Confederate States of America Mining Bureau.


Physics was therefore, Berkeley’s first established academic discipline.


Endorsed by the leading scientists of the day, including Benjamin Peirce and Louis Agassiz at Harvard and Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian, John LeConte accepted the University of California’s offer, partly drawn to the “ambitions of such an important project,” and partly pushed from his place at South Carolina College where he could no longer work among the carpetbaggers who had taken over his home.


It fell to LeConte, working with a committee of the Regents, to organize the University’s first administration, establish the admissions requirements, and create the curriculum. Later, he served twice as Acting President, then as third President (1876-1881).


Refugee of War


Three Months Personal Experience During the Last Days of the Confederacy,
Journal of John LeConte, 1864 (page 48 detail)

[BANC MSS C-B 452, Box 1:v. 1]


“ … great distress from the loss of so much property …. In all hours … the city was a roaring singing sea of flames….”

T

hus LeConte describes the scene at Columbia, South Carolina, upon his return home during the last days of the Confederacy.



Three Months Personal Experience During the Last Days of the Confederacy,
Journal of John LeConte, 1864 (pages 1-2)

[BANC MSS C-B 452, Box 1 v. 1]


Building a Faculty

B

y their first hires the Regents made it clear that physics and physicists were key to providing the University a solid educational foundation and endowing it with the prestige necessary to set new standards in public higher education. The second faculty member hired was Frederick Slate, also a physicist. He directed the laboratory and equipment room in South Hall, one of the first such student/research centered facilities in the country.


The Regents also offered a position to John LeConte’s brother, Joseph, trained as his brother was in both physics and medicine. His assignment was geology, botany, and natural history.


A decade later, W.J. Reynolds became the third physicist appointed, as lecturer, followed by F. Lewis and R.S. Minor.


Frederick Slate (1852-1930), ca. 1882
Frederick Slate (1852-1930), ca. 1882

[UARC PIC 13:3483]


Student-Centered Instruction

Physics Students in the Laboratory ("Little Joe" Second From Left), ca. 1890 [detail]
Physics Students in the Laboratory ("Little Joe" Second From Left), ca. 1890 (detail).

[UARC PIC 10n:26]


F

rom its inception, student-centered instruction was a dominant educational philosophy of Berkeley’s Physics Department – well before it became the popular pedagogy that it is today.


To this end, faculty meticulously maintained contact with students throughout their educational careers, partly to conduct the department’s practical research projects (as faculty in a land-grant “agricultural and mechanical” institution thought they responsibly should) and partly to secure the best students for faculty positions before other institutions had a chance to steal them away.


Joseph LeConte’s son, “Little Joe” (1870-1950), exemplified some of the beneficial results of this system. While still a student Little Joe led an experimental team in engine design and efficiency, or a lesson in “kinematics.” After completing a degree in mechanical engineering at Cornell in 1892, he returned to Berkeley and taught physics and engineering for 45 years.


Soon after returning to Berkeley, Little Joe read of Wilhelm Roentgen’s recent discovery of x-rays using a cathode ray tube. Finding a tube in the University’s physics laboratory (his uncle had brought it back from Germany), he and a small group figured out how to make “radiographs” – within just a few weeks of Roentgen’s announcement – possibly the first made in this country.


Advanced Laboratory Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1890 Advanced Laboratory Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1890
Advanced Laboratory Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1890
pages shown [1, 2] additional [title]
[BANC MSS C-B 452, Ctn. 2 v.12]


Internal Combustion Engine Used as a Pedagogical Tool, ca. 1890
Internal Combustion Engine Used as a Pedagogical Tool, ca. 1890

[Courtesy Department of Physics]


Steam Boiler Design Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1892 Steam Boiler Design Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1892
Steam Boiler Design Notebook, Joseph N. LeConte, ca. 1892
pages shown [cover, 1] additional [2, 3, 4]
[BANC MSS C-B 452, Ctn. 2 p.1-2]