Mathematics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the first 65 years

Author - Dr. Paul Ehrlich - Math Professor - University of Florida - Gainesville

When we survey the list of fifteen men that comprise the faculty of the University of Florida during its first academic year of operation 1905 - 1906 after the passage of the Buckman Act of 1905, we find that five professors Farr, Yocum, Conner, Blair, and Cox were relatively old hands on the Florida educational scene, having been at the Lake City Agricultural College, one of the ancestors of our current institution, since 1901 or even before. Yocum, the Professor of Philosophy, had even been President of the Lake City Agricultural College in 1892 - 1893 and 1897 - 1901. Professor James Anderson had been in Tallahassee at the Florida State College from 1903 - 1905. W. L. Floyd, who was Professor of English and Science in the Normal Department in 1905 - 1906, had been at the East Florida Seminary since 1892, with time out during 1902 - 1903 for graduate study at Harvard. On the other side of the picture, Dr. Andrew Sledd recruited faculty from outside Florida in his building program starting in 1904 as will be discussed in Chapter 2. Hence we find nine faculty members which are not quite such old Florida hands: Sledd himself and Benton, Crow, Flint, Hochstrasser, Rolfs, Thomas, Schmidt, and Sellards. However, Professors Flint, Hochstrasser, Schmidt, and Sellards had already been hired by Sledd in the summer prior to the 1904 - 1905 academic year, the last academic year before the Buckman Act of June, 1905, and were thus professors at the University of Florida in Lake City, as the Lake City Agricultural College was renamed in 1903. This then gives us a total of ten faculty out of 15 who had been on the academic staff of the University of Florida prior to the establishment of our current institution in 1905. Hence, we have some grounds for considering all of the mathematics faculty at the Lake City Agricultural College as our mathematical predecessors if we look at the question from a slightly broader viewpoint.

When I was reading Professor Samuel Proctor's dissertation The University of Florida: Its Early Years, 1853 - 1906 to obtain background for studying the 1904 Sledd Correspondence at the University Archives, Smathers Library, I was astonished to learn that the President of the Lake City Agricultural College had received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in 1896. Thus it dawned on me that from a broader viewpoint, Dr. Thomas Taliaferro, President of the Lake City institution from 1901 - 1904, has certainly to be considered also one of the mathematical ancestors of the current department, given that most of the faculty which were here during the earliest years of the University of Florida at Gainesville had come from Lake City.

We have two sources of information about President Taliaferro, first, the Sledd Correspondence of 1904 obtained from the University Archives, Smathers Library (which includes a draft of Taliaferro's report on the academic year 1903 - 1904 at the Lake City Institute). Second, Chapter 16 of Proctor's thesis [1] concerns the Taliaferro Presidency at Lake City and is the primary source for all the material presented below.

The Taliaferro family ancestors included pioneer Virginia settlers related to the family of President James Madison. The Taliaferro's came to Florida after the Civil War, and built up logging and lumber businesses and by 1900 held investments in banks in Jacksonville and Tampa, a wholesale grocery business in Tampa, and timberlands throughout Florida. One uncle, James P. Taliaferro, was even a United States Senator for Florida. Thomas Hardy Taliaferro was born in Jacksonville on March 22, 1871, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1890 with a degree in Civil Engineering, then taught mathematics at that institute and the following year, at the Missouri Military Academy. In 1892, Taliaferro began graduate work in mathematics at Johns Hopkins. He graduated in 1896 with a thesis on The Focal Surfaces of the Congruence Formed by the Tangents to the Lines of Curvature of a Given Surface, with supervisor J. Williard Gibbs. Following receipt of his Ph.D., Taliaferro became an Instructor in Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University.

After the resignation of President Yocum in 1901, the Board of Trustees of the Lake City Agricultural College met on campus on June 6, 1901, and Joseph Parrot, one of Henry Flagler's Florida business associates, nominated Taliaferro for the Presidency. Taliaferro was elected on the first ballot and accepted the position in a letter dated June 18, 1901.

The Lake City Agricultural College thus came to be headed by a large tall man nearly six feet tall, with reddish bro wn hair and initially, a brown beard to make him look older. Taliaferro was only thirty when he accepted the position, hence was the youngest man ever to be president of the Lake City College and one of the youngest college presidents in the United States at that time. Somehow, Taliaferro seemed to get on badly with the existing faculty almost from the first, perhaps being too impulsive, arrogant and patronizing. Much of the goings on at the Lake City Institution are detailed in a book written by Professor James Farr, the first Professor of English and German at the University of Florida [2]. Relations with the faculty went from bad to worse; apparently most upsetting were Taliaferro's methods and behavior when conducting classroom visits, for it is reported that he was more than willing to criticize the instructors in front of the students.

Taliaferro's last academic year 1903 - 1904 at the Agricultural College was particularly unpleasant and unfortunate. Letters from alumni all over the state, probably overstating the case, reached the Board of Trustees. It was especially rumored that the morale of the faculty had reached a low ebb and that student discipline was in shambles. It was claimed that if one student wanted to insult another, he would call him a Taliaferro and that the students often referred to the President as that hairy old ape. Apparently during the chapel service on March 31, 1904, the President remarked in such a fashion that he did not want to see any April Fools tricks played on campus, that this only served to encourage student pranks. During the night, guns were fired and bricks were thrown into windows of the rooms of studying students. Lights were smashed in the halls. When Captain Clark went out holding a lamp to quell the disturbance, the lamp was broken by a student throwing a piece of wood at the Captain. The next day, nearly the entire student body hid in the woods. Apparently, gun fire and vandalism on campus continued throughout the remainder of the semester.

During the spring elections of 1904, there was much devisiveness between liberals and conservatives. It was rumored that Taliaferro was trying to force the faculty to vote for his uncle's re-election. Foster Hall burnt down and a series of diseases swept the campus, according to Taliaferro's annual report, cf. Appendix A.

Eventually, the faculty started writing to the Board of Trustees asking that various charges be investigated, starting with Professor Cox of Engineering. The suspicious Taliaferro had in early April interviewed Cox in his office and made him give a promise of loyalty. However, by April 9th, Taliaferro charged that Cox had broken his pledge and called for his resignation. Cox invited the faculty to join him in protesting this action to the Board of Trustees. On April 11, Taliaferro, after conferring with the Chairman of the Board suspended Cox for insubordination on the basis of this treasonable letter, and ordered Cox to turn over his keys, papers, and other things relating to the Department of Engineering. Following Cox's suspension, seven faculty held a secret meeting and agreed to write to the Board of Trustees. Taliaferro regarded this as gross insubordination, because according to proper procedures, all communication to the Board of Trustees was supposed to pass through the President. Without waiting for any action on the part of the Board of Trustees, Taliaferro announced that he would call for the resignations of Professors Cox, Miller, Borger, Hadly, Gossard, Blair and Cooper effective at the end of the term. On April 26, the Board met in Special Session and instructed the President and faculty to take no further action prior to the ending of the term.

Even though it appeared that maybe a temporary peace had been arranged, it did not last. On April 27, Taliaferro issued a decree dismissing the offending professors , forbidding them to appear on campus, and ordering the student body to ignore these faculty. The faculty attempted to hold class in defiance of this order. The next day, Taliaferro had the classroom windows nailed down and the doors padlocked. Only the laboratories and library remained open. Some of the senior classes met outside, but mostly, classes failed to meet, and also, many students were ordered home by their parents, who had read about the disturbances at the Lake City campus in the newspapers.

With this turn of events, the Board could not refrain from taking action. The faculty lodged formal charges against Taliaferro and demanded his dismissal. The Board heard testimony from various faculty members on June 4, 1904. By June 21, 1904, the Board had taken its decision: both President Taliaferro and the seven dissident faculty members were asked to resign.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Taliaferro left Florida to return to Johns Hopkins for a year of post-graduate work. In 1905, he accepted a position as Assistant Statistical Editor in the Bureau of the Census and in 1907, Taliaferro became Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Maryland. Perhaps, Taliaferro had been mellowed a bit by age and his experiences in Lake City, for he had quite a successful career at the University of Maryland, where he remained on the staff until 1941 and was eventually known to the students as Doc. Telly.

In 1919, Taliaferro became the first Dean of Engineering; in 1920, Professor of Mathematics; in 1927, Dean of Arts and Sciences; and finally, in 1937, Dean of the Faculty.

George Callcott [3, p. 238] writes in his history of the University of Maryland that from 1892 until 1912, this institution was simply the Maryland Agricultural College and

 ``served much like one of the agricultural agencies growing
 up around it, providing the farmers' sons who came its way with
 a practical, vocational education. A multitude of presidents had
 failed by trying to push the institution beyond the immediate needs
 of the rural community, but patient [President] Richard W. Silvester
 succeeded by sensing exactly what the farmer wanted and then
 identifying the institution with these wants, however modest
 they were.'' 

Callcott describes Taliaferro's role in the early growth of Maryland as follows ([3, p. 240 - 241]):

``The other practical professional program was engineering which expanded 
from one part-time instructor in 1892 to eight instructors in 1912.
 At first [President ] Silvester soft-pedaled engineering, calling it 
 `Rural Roadbuilding', `Farm Drainage', or `Farm Machinery'; but as 
 students persuaded their parents to let them leave the farm, the 
 president eventually admitted that the College was training technologists
 headed toward the city. Engineering, like agriculture, had its difficulties
 in emerging to academic respectability, and well into the twentieth century
 students spent much of their time studying blacksmithing, carpentry and
 mechanical drawing. Gradually, however, able Professors like Harry Gwinner
 and Thomas H. Taliaferro began to establish the bridge between mechanics
 and physics and to separate the subject into such technical fields as civil,
 mechanical and electrical engineering. The engineering program produced
 some of the most outstanding graduates the institution has had. Taliaferro's
 presence at the University of Maryland beginning in 1907 is commemorated 
 still today by Taliaferro Hall, an engineering building.'' 

Taliaferro's presence at the University of Maryland beginning in 1907 was commemorated by Taliaferro Hall originally an engineering building, but now renamed the Francis Scott Key Building.


  1. Proctor, Samuel, The University of Florida: Its Early Years, 1853 - 1906, Dissertation, University of Florida, February, 1958.
  2. Farr, James, The Making of a University: The Personal Memoirs of one Associated with its Growth, unpublished manuscript, University of Florida.
  3. Callcot, George, A History of the University of Maryland, Maryland Historical Society, Garamond/Pridemark Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1966.

Appendix A: President Taliaferro's Annual Report

In this appendix, we will allow President Taliaferro through the medium of his own writing, to present his own version of his last year in Lake City. A handwritten draft of the President's Report for the academic year 1903 - 1904 happens to be contained in the 1904 Sledd Correspondence files at the University Archives, Smathers Library, dated by coincidence June 21, 1904, the very day the Board of Trustees asked for his resignation.

First, Taliaferro begins by reporting that starting June 30, 1903, the Lake City institution had ceased to admit female students. As an apparent consequence, three lady faculty were dismissed: a Lady Principal, an Instructor in Romance Languages, and an Assistant in Biology. On the other hand, Mrs. F. H. Swanson was appointed Matron in charge of the Dining Hall, a personage who will turn up in early Seminole Yearbooks with the corresponding position here in Gainesville.

Taliaferro after summarizing these personnel changes, writes

``There seems to have been an inability on the part of the Faculty to recognize the disadvantageous conditions, arising from Fisk, Farr, etc., under which we labored this year, and a disposition to sit back and grumble rather than to work themselves, encourage the students and stimulate an interest. They have seemed to be totally ignorant of their responsibility in the matter and incapable of understanding their obligations to the Institution.

The remnant of military regulations governing Students has been a blessing. The new regulations have worked well but a few changes will have to be made in them in order to obtain the best results as regards discipline and scholarship. I believe however that we have the proper solution of the questions.

I have been pleased to note among the students a great change regarding the Institution. Where they were used to grumble they are now enthusiastic in comparison. We have lost many this year from various causes but with a few exceptions they have stated their intention of returning next year and bringing others with them. It is a hopeful sign although I do not expect great additions to our student body for some years to come. The State is not ready.


After consultation with the Executive Committee Mr. Widman was sent out as a canvasser for students, he is now working in West Florida. As stated to the Board in December, after the fire, the Dining Hall Fund is behind. This has been due to high prices, food, board, falling off in students, etc., including bad debts. In accordance with the advice of Board I did not attempt to change quality of food and thus reduce expenses. In order to grow we must make the students comfortable. Many repairs, improvements and additions to equipment were made during the past year. The brick dormitory and Foster Hall were remodeled. Some changes were made in the wooden dormitory. The old Preparatory building was transformed into a reading room and Library with a lecture room for the Professor of English. The main building was repaired and now contains the offices, Commercial Department, lecture rooms, Assembly Hall, etc. The chemical laboratory was remodeled. The green house was thoroughly renovated. A shed was built for faculty work. A sewage plant was installed, it still needs a little work done on it. A rifle range was built for the military department. A new hay barn and a wagon shed were built. Plans were laid for improving the Campus but were given up on account of the fire. Apparatus was added to nearly every Department. Books were added to the Library. A certain amount of money was for the first time assigned to each Department and the method has worked well. There will each year be changes regarding the amount assigned. Debts were paid and the Institution is paying as it goes. We need money however in every Department. We have kept within our appropriation. The Alpha Tau Omega established a Chapter of the Fraternity at the University and the Kappa Alpha Fraternity is still discussing the situation. Jealousy at Tallahassee stands somewhat in the way. The fire which destroyed Foster Hall also destroyed the effects of the students who for the first time left their goods and chattels behind them when leaving for the holidays. As they were informed after consultation that the Board would try to do something for them although there was no legal obligation, I trust the Board will be able to give them something on their loss. The loss for the students amounts to about 1200 or 1500, instead of 250 as they left nearly everything behind them. A small fire occurred in the wooden dormitory but no insurance was collected as in order to collect a few dollars we would have probably had our rate increased. The illness in the Institution was deplorable as it upset everything. I do not know how it could have been helped with the weather conditions far from normal and contagious diseases prevalent everywhere. We had outbreaks of Scarlet Fever, Measles + Chicken Pox and many students left as a result but we saved more than I had any hopes of saving. The Boca Raton Station was closed in September.


During the past summer I served on the High School Commission and with a view to the improvement of our curriculum to accord with this work done by the public schools the preparatory course was remodeled and raised. The other courses will be raised as conditions permit. The students who graduated the past year undertook a higher grade of work than any previous graduates and the indications are that the character of work done was an improvement over that they had done in previous years. As the work was increased I expect the grades to be lower.


Permission was given Dr. Chalker to clean up the ravine back of the University and the result has been beneficial, especially as regards Mosquitos. Furniture was bought after the fire to replace that destroyed. A good bargain was made. I recommend ...; that renovation of the wooden Dormitory and necessary repairs be authorized; that the new Dormitory be begun, that a President's home be built; that Dr. Yocum's resignation be accepted; that F. H. Rolfs appointment be approved; that steps be taken to obtain an athletic fee of 5 from each student; that the Trustees of the Institution in Osceola County be requested to furnish funds for the Farmers Institutes; that the Physician question be discussed again; that plans be made concerning Legislative matters pertaining to appropriations, etc.; that some money be appropriated to reimburse in a small degree the student losses by fire.

                                    Respectfully submitted                     
                                       T. H. Taliaferro

June 21 - 1904''