Department History

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The Early Years (1820-1880)

The territory that is now Florida became a United States possession in the year 1821, only thirteen years after John Dalton described his Atomic Theory of Matter as “the new system of chemical philosophy.” Before statehood in 1845, children studied with tutors or in private elementary schools, much like their peers in other parts of the country. By mid-century, however, Florida’s population began to clamor for increased educational opportunities as it sought the goods and comforts of better living.

Chemistry was first offered in the United States as part of the curriculum at Yale (1846) and Harvard (1847). When pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies began providing laboratory experience, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offered the first experimentation in a college laboratory setting.

In 1851, the Florida Legislature decreed that seminaries of higher education would be created east and west of the Suwannee River, with the locations to be chosen according to physical and monetary gifts made on behalf of the school.

Tallahassee offered ten acres of land and $2000 per year for the privilege of being the western site. This offer was accepted: the West Florida Seminary (WFS) had found a home. To allow female students similar academic opportunities, the local academy for girls soon began sharing space with WFS. Education has always been important to the citizens of Tallahassee. In 1854, the Florida Institute (for Boys) was established on a hill one mile west of the Capitol. Younger students were taught English, classical languages, mathematics and science. English rhetoric and literature, logic and the “mental and moral sciences” were available in the upper divisions.

The Florida Institute’s curriculum transferred to the seminary in its entirety. The early years of education in the state were tenuous, but educators were persistent in their efforts throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Peabody Education Fund offered a measure of financial support. Little is known about the academic offerings in the sciences of this time, but considering the difficulties of maintaining the seminary and the classical backgrounds of its teachers, it seems safe to assume that offering classes in the sciences was not a popular concept.

WFS became coeducational in 1882, although non-curricular facilities for males and females remained separate. Despite the fact that this arrangement lowered costs, many patrons objected strongly to it. Education was coming of age, however, and the Seminary would soon serve as the foundation for the State’s first institution of higher learning.

Florida had never had the resources to establish the university mandated by the 1868 Constitution. A young man from Michigan, Reverend John Kost, persuaded Governor Bloxham to allow private enterprise to undertake this initiative in Tallahassee. The charter Kost received authorized him to organize Florida University in five divisions. Although only one of these was completed–a College of Medicine and Surgery that began its first term in 1883–it shared WFS facilities and allowed students to take chemistry courses.

West Florida Seminary Student Body, c. 1900