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

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

Surprises on top of surprises! First we learn early in the late spring of 1994 that President Taliaferro of the Lake City Agricultural Institute had received the doctorate in mathematics from Johns Hopkins, when that was the leading institution in the country for graduate study. But then in mid-July we chance upon a biography [1] of President Albert Murphree published in 1928, written by the first Professor of Journalism, Orland Kay Armstrong, after Murphree's death on December 20, 1927, a biography which is not even listed in the on-line card catalogue. To our amazement, we learn that Murphree had majored in mathematics in college, and was hired in 1896 at the West Florida Seminary in Tallahassee as the instructor in mathematics. Who says that mathematicians cannot be excellent and innovative administrators!

It is interesting to see the many points of similarity between Sledd and Murphree, although they apparently had a falling out resulting from the decade of politicking leading to the passage of the Buckman Act and the campaigning for the presidency of the University of Florida. Both Sledd and Murphree were sons of the Confederacy born in 1870; primary sources in the case of Sledd and material in [1] in the case of Murphree prove that both men would allude to the Southern cause during the Civil War when exhorting students. Both had a very sincere desire to build up the quality in southern university and high school education, and to instill a fine moral character in their graduates. To that end, both men emphasized clean, amateur athletics and a rigorous code of student conduct. Both men taught school briefly before undertaking their serious college work. Both Sledd and Murphree married into distinguished Southern families, had long, happy marriages, and were active in church work. Both were apparently talented college mathematics students, and both had taught mathematics, although Sledd's mathematics teaching was limited to a brief period at Randolph-Macon. Sledd became president of the University of Florida in his mid-thirties, Murphree when he was about forty.

Albert Alexander Murphree was born in Chepultepec, Alabama in April, 1870, the fifth child in a family that would comprise ten children. While his father's ancestors were Methodists, his mother was a Baptist who raised her children in the Baptist Church. At first, Albert was educated in a one room country school house described as follows by an older brother in [1, p. 21]

`` `Our schools were the typical one-room log cabins of that day. 
 The first school house Albert attended was such a structure, to
 which we walked three miles and from which we walked three miles
 back home at night.

'The seats in that school were made by splitting logs and fitting legs
into them.  At first we did not have any desks. Our books were few. Our
writing and ciphering was done on slates.  Father and some other men got
together and built a long desk with the hand-planed surface, and we were
tremendously proud of that.  For ink, we had pokeberry juice or `nutgall'.
This later ink was made from the ball that grows on the oak tree. We would
take the balls and boil them in water.  A dark brown juice was the result,
which made a very acceptable ink.  Our drinking water came from a spring
and was carried into the school room in a cedar bucket, from which we all 
drank out of a common gourd.' ''

When Albert was ten, the family moved to Walnut Grove, where Albert attended what was called the Walnut Grove College, chartered by the Alabama legislature which taught what would now be considered high school and junior college work.

On graduation from Walnut Grove in 1887, Murphree obtained a position in a country school in Tennessee. The next year, Murphree obtained a position as a superintendent of city schools in Cullum, Alabama. Then he was principal of the Summit Institute in Alabama. Armstrong's biography is not as graphic as Sledd's Autobiography of a Southern Schoolmaster in recounting details of Murphree's early teaching experiences; we only find in [1, p. 23]

`` ... It was a mighty humble beginning and he had all the trials
and difficulties both of teaching and discipline that the one-room
 school house teacher of the '80's experienced. It was splendid training
 for the young pedagogue.''

Following this work experience, Murphree enrolled in the University of Nashville, later merged into Peabody College. There he majored in mathematics. Unlike Sledd, apparently Murphree's further studies had to be undertaken while on the job; Murphree seems to have undertaken further work while serving as President of the West Florida Seminary, receiving the M.A. in 1902. On the other hand, as we have noticed in our reading for Chapter 4, both early faculty members W. L. Floyd and W. S. Cawthon of our own institution took masters work at the University of Florida while simultaneously serving on the faculty. Both Rollins College and the University of Alabama awarded Murphree honorary Doctor of Laws degrees, the latter institution in 1909 just as Murphree was leaving Tallahassee to take up the presidency of the University of Florida, after Andrew Sledd's resignation in April, 1909. Not only did Murphree enjoy studying science in college, but also enjoyed the work in public speaking and was additionally blessed with a tenor voice of sufficient caliber, that he was engaged as a soloist during his days in Tallahassee.

After completing his work at the University of Nashville, Albert felt it might be interesting to take a real change of locale and accepted a teaching position in a high school in Cleburn, Texas. Unfortunately, Albert contracted typhoid fever prior to the end of the term. We cannot resist quoting the lively account of his illness given in [1, p. 24]:

`` ... He wired his brother Walter and his brother Ethridge as to
his condition. The latter brother was then in Paducah, Kentucky. He
went at once to Cleburn and found a deplorable condition.  Two doctors
in the town, bitter rivals, were both attempting to treat Albert and
neither was proving effective, perhaps through thorough disagreement
as to what should be done.  Ethridge promptly called them together and
 came to an agreement with them in regard to how his brother should be treated.

After many weeks of suffering, Albert rallied and recovered.  Before the
sickness, he was a robust, well proportioned, hearty young man. The
disease left him emaciated and thin.  He decided, if possible, to
secure a school back in his native state, or nearby.  Word came that a
mathematics teacher was needed at the West Florida Seminary in
Tallahassee.  The job was offered Murphree, and he accepted.''

So Murphree arrived in Tallahassee for the academic year 1895--1896. Now Sledd had met his wife Annie Florence Candler while teaching at Emory College. Murphree made the acquaintance of one of the trustees of the West Florida Seminary, Colonel John Henderson. Henderson was a lawyer and a railroad counsel according to [1, p. 25]. He was vice-president and chief attorney for the Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad, for example, and was involved in Florida state politics. The Hendersons were Episcopalians, who had lived in Tallahassee for several generations. Again, it is tempting to quote [1, p. 27] concerning the marriage of the Murphrees:

``Professor Murphree and his bride left at once on a honeymoon trip in a
 private railroad car, furnished by Professor Murphree's newly acquired
father-in-law.  Mr. Wm. V. Knott, present state auditor and a
lifelong friend of Dr. Murphree, remembers being in Baldwin when the
train carrying the private car with the bridal party, passed through
on the way to Jacksonville and thence north.

`I waved my hand at the party anyhow,' Mr. Knott says with a twinkle.

The honeymoon was spent in Tate Springs, Tennessee.  They were gone about
three weeks.  Then they came home and took up their abode in the Henderson

Another school year was begun in September and it brought a big promotion to Professor Murphree.

A vacancy had occurred in the office of the President of the College. Professor Murphree seemed to be the logical man to fill it. Accordingly, at the age of 27, young, robust, and full of health, Albert A. Murphree was appointed President of Florida State College....''

We have seen in Chapters 3 and 5 that at our own institution up into the 1920's, it was common for staff members to play several roles, such as simultaneously being head professor of physics, Dean of the Engineering College, and head professor of electrical engineering. Another example was the combination of the head professorship of economics and history. We learn in [1] that just because Murphree had had a remarkably rapid rise to the presidency of the West Florida Seminary he did not abandon the teaching of mathematics to a new staff member, but kept on doing this as well as receiving his new administrative duties. Here are several reminiscences of Professor Murphree in the mathematics classroom from [1, p. 25, pp. 37--38].

`` `He was a real mathematician, and he knew how to teach his
subject,' recounted one of his former students, now a successful business
 man in Florida. `I remember how he would come to the board and review my
 work with a grim and critical eye. H'm, so that's the problem!'
he would say.

`Well, that part of it is wrong ... and that part of it ...!'
 and by the time he was through I
would find most of it was wrong, sometimes.  But Prof.  Murphree would show the right
way before he got through.' ''

F. W. Buchholz, a long time principal of Gainesville High School and then County Superintendent of Schools for Alachua County, had the following recollections of Dr. Murphree as a mathematics instructor during the time period 1901--1904.

`` `...I remember quite vividly how Dr. Murphree would come
driving up the hill every morning behind his big roan horse.
Occasionally he would walk the mile from his home to the college, but
most of the time he would drive the roan hitched to his one-seated top
buggy.  That horse always looked as though he received the best of

`Altogether I had four classes under Dr. Murphree: plane trigonometry,
spherical trigonometry, analytics and astronomy.  Dr. Murphree's classes were
no cinch.  He expected hard work and plenty of it.  His classes were always
planned, with the result that he knew exactly what he should do each morning.
He would bustle into the door directly on the moment, and would begin assigning
board work before he had reached his desk.  He never took time to call the roll
and yet the roll was always taken.  He would do this by glancing over the class
room at a time when the students were all employed.  His usual
schedule was board work first and then the assignment and explanation
of the succeeding lesson.

`Dr. Murphree was a natural-born teacher.  He seemed not to follow any particular
 pedagogical rules, but knew instinctively how to react to certain individuals
 and problems.  He could handle anything that came up.  He was very
clear in explaining the problems, but would not drill them over and
over, expecting cooperation, work, and attention from the students.

`He never had any difficulty in discipline. Because of his forceful personality,
 his well-planned work, and the clearness of his explanations, he had the
interest and attention of the class and his work was carried out according to
schedule.  Once in a while, when he did become angry, there was a real
explosion. He would tolerate no impertinence or shiftlessness on the
part of his pupils. At one time, the class in analytics had not been
keeping up with their work and one morning they walked into the
classroom to discover an exceedingly stiff and difficult examination
on the board.  No one passed, and the monthly grades suffered
accordingly.  The next month there was a great increase in diligence
in his classrooms.
`Dr. Murphree never had any difficulty in finding the culprits after a
 student escapade.  The day after Halloween, for instance, when a number
 of missing gates had been reported to his office, he would call all
 the boys together and ask the guilty ones to stand up.  They usually
 responded, especially if they had known him from previous experiences,
 and the matter was speedily readjusted. In case the guilty student
 did not respond when first called upon to do so, Dr. Murphree would take
 each student separately and begin a process of elimination by a series
 of questions worthy of the most brilliant lawyer.  He was always successful
 in his contacts with his students because he thoroughly understood boys.' ''

Class sizes at the West Florida Seminary in those times are reported in [1, p. 28] as averaging fifteen to twenty students.

In 1901, Professor L. W. Buchholz, the father of the student just quoted, joined the faculty of the West Florida Seminary from Tampa, where he had been county superintendent of schools. Buchholz and Murphree became long time friends. Murphree decided that two additional dormitories should be built and lobbied the State legislature to attain this end. During the academic year 1901--1902, these dormitories were completed. Also, as a partial means towards attracting students from a wider area of the state, Murphree got the legislature to change name of the institution to the Florida State College. Recall that in Chapter 2, we reported on Professor Marion canvassing for students prior to the opening of the term in Lake City. Well, L. W. Buchholz recalls in [1, p. 34] that Murphree sent him canvassing for students back in the western part of the state in 1903.

`` `I recall that there were only about 120 students enrolled when I went
there in 1901, and that all of these students came from Leon county,
 with the exception of students from two other counties.  With the additional
dormitories, the enrollment quickly grew.  And yet Dr. Murphree was
not satisfied with the scanty registration we were getting from the
counties west of the Chattahoochee River where the students seemed
inclined to go to colleges in nearby states. So in 1903 he asked me to
travel over the western end of the state in behalf of the college.  I
went out and did my best at the job.'

Whether or not Dr. Murphree's lieutenant did the job can be learned from the students of the college in that day, who recall that in the fall of 1904, over 400 students enrolled. There were so many of them that they could not all get into the chapel for the opening services, so Dr. Murphree conducted two chapels, in order that all could be accommodated. The records show that seventy-five students came from Hillsboro county alone, due in a large measure, no doubt, to the influence of their old educational leader [i.e., L. W. Buchholz].''

We have noted in reading the Sledd correspondence for Chapter 2, that the Lake City Agricultural Institute as well as the new University of Florida offered what was called Sub-freshmen classes. In Lake City, two years of work below entering college grade was offered. After the move to Gainesville, this was reduced to one year of pre-college work. In [1, p. 28], the following commentary is found on the state of public education in Florida toward the turn of the century.

``The college [i.e., West Florida Seminary] had one academic department. 
The only professional part of the college was the teacher training department
and Dr. Murphree seemed more interested in this than he did in any
other part, owing to the state's educational status.  At that time,
there were only five or six high schools in the state, and fully that
many minor colleges. Consequently, there was great rivalry among the
colleges and most of them had preparatory schools so that the students
could make up for the scarcity of high schools.  There was a
three-year preparatory school in connection with the college. Because
of the need, it was Dr. Murphree's great ambition to produce efficient
educational leaders and teachers for the public schools. A three-months spring
term for teachers was held every year, after the majority of public schools had
closed, so that the teachers could receive an additional education. At
least one-half of the students who attended this spring course were
twenty-five years old or over.''

In 1905 with the passage of the Buckman Act, Murphree faced a career decision at the age of thirty-five; his father-in-law wished him to become a lawyer, Murphree himself still had his heart set on remaining in higher education and continuing to try to improve the educational standard in the South. As we know, he accepted the presidency of the Florida Female Seminary, when the presidency of the University of Florida went to Andrew Sledd. Both men had been the top contenders for this latter position.

As we further know, during the spring of 1909, Dr. Andrew Sledd resigned from the presidency of the University of Florida, and the Board of Control turned to Dr. Murphree. It was not an entirely easy decision to leave Tallahassee, since his wife had deep roots there, but the opportunity to build up the education of the young men in Florida seemed like a worthier endeavor than remaining in Tallahassee. We have discussed in Chapter 3 how the faculty recalled Murphree's reorganization of the university structure with the establishment of the Colleges of Agriculture, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Law. Thus Professor Anderson was both Dean of Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Graduate School as well as Professor of Latin and Greek. During the almost twenty years of the Murphree presidency, the enrollment grew from 186 students in 1909 to surpass 2,000 in the 1927--1928 academic year; much is made of this enrollment growth in Armstrong's book [1] published in 1928. During the Murphree presidency, the Teachers College, Summer School, Extension Division, College of Pharmacy, and College of Business and Journalism were all established. The Alumni Association was put on a sounder footing and the Anderson Memorial Organ was obtained for the University Auditorium. The Library was expanded and a Library Building was placed into service during 1925--1926, replacing cramped quarters first in Thomas Hall, later in Peabody Hall. Given Murphree's own keen interest in music, it is gratifying to see that the University Glee Club was organized in 1925 and the University of Florida Band was encouraged and enlarged. As we have seen in the 1911 University Record, President Murphree considered the campus Y.M.C.A. to be important, and was fully supportive of this institution. Perhaps reflecting Murphree's own musical talent, one of his four children, his daughter Alberta Murphree Worth, had a fine soloist voice and studied music at Peabody College and then the Baltimore Conservatory of Music. Elizabeth Simpson's Florida Oral History Project transcript [2] revealed that Mrs. Simpson studied voice with Berta Worth, this very same Murphree daughter, here in Gainesville, prior to World War II.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Murphree died in March, 1923, when President Murphree was only in his early fifties. He never recovered from this loss, [1, p. 131], although he tried to seek partial solace in outdoor activities such as golf with his male friends, like Colonel Walker. Murphree himself died less than five years later on the morning of December 20, 1927, only in his late fifties. Vice-president Farr succeeded Murphree for the rest of the academic year, then President Tigert took over the reins of our University during the academic year 1928--1929.

President Murphree was active in the affairs of the First Baptist Church, where Dr. Thomas V. McCaul was pastor since 1922. During the last years of Murphree's life, he taught the Men's Bible Class in Sunday school at this church. On January 29, 1928, a special memorial service was given at the First Baptist Church in honor of President Murphree. The seven remaining members of the University of Florida who antedated Dr. Murphree at this institution, Dr. James Farr, Dr. Charles Crow, Dr. James Anderson, Dr. John Benton, Major Wilbur Floyd, Mr. Klein Graham, [ed., the business manager] and Colonel Edgar Walker, gave a silver plate which was placed on the pew during this service where President Murphree usually sat. Here is the inscription of this plate:

In Memoriam




  1. Armstrong, Orland K, The Life and Work of Albert Murphree, published for the Murphree Memorial Fund, Record Company of St. Augustine, 1928.
  2. University of Florida Oral History Project, transcript of interview by Mrs. Emily Ring of Mrs. Elizabeth Simpson, November, 1977.