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Penn History

Penn in the 18th Century Organization After the 1791 Union

This exhibit was researched, written and created by Mary D. McConaghy, Michael Silberman, and Irina Kalashnikova in 2004 as part of the celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday.


By the end of the eighteenth century, the University of Pennsylvania was made up of the same schools that had existed at the beginning of the American Revolution – the Charity School, the Academy (including the English, Mathematical, and Latin Schools), and College. The only addition came in 1765 with the founding of the Medical School.

Even before the end of the eighteenth century, the charters for this institution show the evolution of nomenclature and organization of the various schools. In the mid-eighteenth century the institution was known as the “College, Academy, and Charity School of Philadelphia.” When the Medical School was added in 1765, the College and the Medical School became a university, although the term “university” was not added to the institution’s official title until the 1779 charter granted by the new state government created the University of the State of Pennsylvania. For the next ten years, this new institution took over the property and organization at the Fourth Street Campus, operating under the new state charter. Proponents of old College organization, however, continued to work for the reinstatement of the property and mandate under the old charters, finally achieving these goals in 1789. Thus there were two rival institutions – the College on the Fourth Street campus and the University of the State of Pennsylvania in the Hall of the American Philosophical Society.

The 1791 union of the two rival institutions of the “College, Academy and Charity School of Philadelphia” and the “University of the State of Pennsylvania” came about when Pennsylvania drew up a new state constitution and also adopted a new charter creating the “University of Pennsylvania”; this charter remains in effect today. Thus, in late 1791 and early 1792, the trustees and faculty engaged in a lively discussion of a variety of proposals regarding the organization and curriculum of the various components of the two institutions as the University of Pennsylvania.

The faculty suggested creating two departments: the arts and medicine, with the recommendation for the addition of a professor of law as well. The department of the arts would include the college, but also the English, mathematics and Latin schools of the academy. The trustees proposed an organization into three main divisions: the Charity Schools, the Department of Medicine and the College. The College included the Philosophical School (what we would now call college), plus the Academic schools of English, Math and Latin).

Academic and Collegiate Departments as Established in 1791

Partly because of financial limitations and enrollment realities, the plan actually adopted by the trustees in December of 1791 set up the College and the Academy (comprised of the Latin, English and Mathematical Schools) and included five professors, two of whom were to teach at the college level only. These professors were to be compensated for their services by a combination of salary and tuition; and some of them lived in faculty housing.

Given the small number of students enrolled in the college compared to the academy, it is not surprising that professors were often assigned multiple duties in more than one school. During the next two decades, it would be unusual for the college to have as many as thirty students enrolled; in fact, in some years the college had no graduates. The Academy, on the other hand was thriving. In any given year there were more than a hundred students enrolled in the English School, over sixty or seventy in the Mathematical School, from fifty to seventy students in the Latin or Grammar School. With a full-time faculty of five or less and a college student body of around 30 students, the college professors had to do more than teach at the college level. It is not surprising that the number of college professors actually declined by one and teachers had to teach more and more subjects. It is also not a surprise that each professor either had to serve as provost or vice-provost or had to be in charge of one of the academy schools in order to justify their salary.

The exact subjects to be taught by each professor continued to be tweaked during the few months after the granting of the new charter; by the time faculty appointments were made in March and April of 1792 the number of professors was fixed at six and the general curriculum and responsibilities of each were defined as follows.

  • Professor of Natural Philosophy had the following responsibilities:
    College (or Philosophical School or Department): This professor taught the upper two college classes the subjects of natural history and chemistry. He was also responsible for the instruction of all college students in the higher branches of mathematics.
  • Professor of Moral Philosophy had the following responsibilities:
    College (or Philosophical School or Department): This professor taught the upper two college classes the subjects of ethics, rhetoric, economics, politics, logic, metaphysics, history, and chronology as well as those Latin and Greek authors “calculated to improve the pupils in polite literature.”
  • Professor of Latin and Greek Languages had the following responsibilities:
    College (or Philosophical School or Department): This professor’s responsibility in the college was to teach Latin and Greek to the lower classes in the college.
    Latin (or Grammar) School: This professor served as the Master of the Latin School where he taught the elements of Latin and Greek, the authors of rhetoric and also ancient geography
  • Professor of Belles Lettres and English had the following responsibilities
    College (or Philosophical School or Department):
    English School: This professor’s primary responsibility was as Master of the English School where he taught criticism, composition, oratory, geography, writing and common arithmetic, with as many assistants as required by the number of students enrolled.
  • Professor (or Teacher) of Mathematics had the following responsibilities:
    Mathematics School: This professor served as Master of the Mathematical School where he instructed students not intended for College in the following subjects under the heading of practical mathematics: arithmetic, bookkeeping, history, geography, navigation, surveying, gauging and drilling.
    Latin School: This professor taught arithmetic and bookkeeping to the first class
    College (or Philosophical School or Department): Students during their first two years of College were taught the following subjects: the higher rules of arithmetic, algebra, practical geometry, plain and spherical trigonometry, conic sections, fluxion (differential calculus), surveying, gauging, navigation, mensuration (measuring), and the use of use of globes and maps.
  • Professor of Law was added to the Department of Arts with the appointment on April 3, 1792 of James Wilson
  • Professor of German and Oriental Languages had the following responsibilities:
    German School: This professor’s primary responsibility was to serve as Master of the German School and to teach in Latin and Greek to the students in German.
    College (or Philosophical School or Department): This professor’s secondary responsibility was to teach German to those students in the College who wanted to learn the language.

The German professor was paid a smaller annual salary than the five other professors, but was also to receive the entire tuition of his students. He was to head the German School where German-speaking students would be instructed in Latin and Greek classics through the medium of the German language; the idea being to supply ministers in the extensive German community who were fluent in both German and English. Professor Justus Henry Christian Helmuth was mentioned from time to time in the minutes of the Trustees minutes during the following years, but the German School never successfully took hold within the University. The German professor, despite his title, became a part-time instructor at the University, just like the professors of other modern languages.

The other supplementary teaching staff included the occasional French or Spanish tutor or drawing master, engaged to teach students who desired such instruction; these teachers were not paid a salary, but were compensated directly through the tuition they charged their pupils. There was also a writing master to attend daily in the Latin School as well as tutors to assist in the schools with high enrollments.

The Medical Department (or Medical School) as organized after the 1791 charter consisted of six chairs or professorships separate from the faculty of the College and Academy.