In 1853, when Evan Pugh was 25, he took a steamer from New York bound for Europe. It was six years before he would ride into the Nittany Valley under a light October snow to assume the presidency of the Pennsylvania Agricultural College (the name by which he knew Penn State), and 107 years before his name became the title of one of the highest honors Penn State bestows on its professors: Evan Pugh Professors.
With a "box of minerals weighing 100 pounds, a chest of books and pressed flowers of 60 pounds, and [a] trunk of clothes," Pugh was going to study chemistry at Leipzig and Goettingen in Germany, and at Rothamsted near London. There, by 1859, he would win international recognition for his experiments on the use of nitrogen by plants.
The question he resolved was whether the nitrogen that plants need to grow came from the soil or from the air. Joseph Priestley had argued, in the 18th century, in favor of the air, and his opinion was seconded in the early 19th century, by Justus von Liebig, then the world's most famous chemist. In 1850, however, Jean Baptiste Boussingault of Paris, who had proved that the carbon in plants did come from atmospheric CO 2 , proposed that plant nitrogen came from the soil. His experimental results were not conclusive, however, and conflicting data were soon published by another Parisian chemist, Ville, and popularized by Liebig.
Pugh, who had just received his doctorate in organic chemistry from Goettingen, was fascinated by the nitrogen debate. He contacted Sir Joseph Gilbert at Rothamsted, according to his letter to fellow chemist Samuel Johnson, "to know if they would supply me with apparatus to make an investigation on the Boussingault and Ville nitrogen question. The result is that I am here. They have supplied me with about $500 worth of apparatus and we have been doing up the subject on a scale unprecedented. I have 12 glass shades 3 feet high and 9 inches in diameter and under them entirely isolated from the air we are growing plants and forcing NH 3 -free air into them daily... Our results indicate a confirmation of Boussingault. The evidence accumulates that Ville is an ass. I asked Bolard how he accounted for Ville's plants growing as they did. He answered, Il a ajoute sans doute. He said nobody in Paris trusted them. Indeed I have not yet decided whether to treat Ville as though he didn't exist (silent contempt) or to expose him."
As George Gilbert Pond wrote in Dr. Pugh's Career as a Chemist, a 1905 lecture, "Two years of incessant labor, masterful skill in the construction of apparatus, brilliant ingenuity in arranging details, every caution against error, sterilized apparatus and materials, though he knew neither the word or the thought which it carries today, and a wonderful gift of penetration to discover the many kindred problems involved, and of acuteness in their solution, all contributed to make this investigation one which was unsurpassed in accuracy and conclusiveness in the scientific annals of the world."
Yet Pugh "was a chemist because he was first of all a philosopher," as a colleague noted, "because he saw in chemistry the most fundamental of the sciences." His letters home to his friends and the essays he wrote for Chester County newspapers (now in the Penn State Room's archives in Pattee Library) describe not only the advances and setbacks of his scientific experiments, but also reveal him to have been an insightful observer of humanity. As such, when University President Eric Walker chose a name for Penn State's faculty honor in 1960, Pugh's was an apt choice. The Evan Pugh Professors are chosen, according to the official criteria, for research or creative activity "of the highest quality over a period of time" as well as significant contributions "to the education of students who later achieve recognition for excellence."
Phrased in Pugh's fluid and descriptive prose, the criteria might have read like this portrait of his first chemistry teacher in Germany: "Professor Erdmann, though not generally known in America, stands high as a chemist in Europe. He is the author of several books on chemistry, besides being an assistant editor of a chemical paper... which is strictly scientific in character.
We found him in his library. He turned from his books to welcome us, with a familiar affability that was well calculated to make the stranger feel at home... I saw enough to convince me that he was a whole-souled man, who could throw aside formal dignity, which is oppressive by its presence, and without fear of losing any of the real dignity of his standing as a man of science, could enter into friendly chat... He is a rather large man, with a fully developed chest, and a healthy appearance; with an expressive countenance which becomes quite animated in conversation. His phrenological appearance bespeaks a man of a well-developed practical intellect... His room was small, but well supplied with books and papers, and around on the walls were hanging the portraits of distinguished men of science... He introduced us into an adjoining room, of about equal dimensions, where he carries on his own experiments. No German teacher contents himself with merely attending to his classes, and sitting down at ease after he has got them at work. He is studying constantly himself; making original investigations and publishing them to the world."
In another letter, he writes: "It would certainly amuse you to see a professor of botany and zoology on an excursion with his students, and see him standing in a swamp on a tussock, as the centreing point of 20 or 30 young men, all enthusiastically engaged in conveying to him frogs, lizards, bugs, worms, moss, moulds, mushrooms, lichens, liverworts, all the matted herbage of cesspools, together with the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom. And yet he recognizes them all at a glance; is prepared to tell who first noticed them scientifically and whether they were known and properly classified by the immortal Linnaeus; what diseases they are subject to so far as those have been investigated."
Pugh brought these principles of active teaching and practical research to Penn State: Penn State's first graduate students were awarded the Master of Scientific Agriculture degree in January 1863 under Pugh's direction.
Information on Evan Pugh from the Penn State Room archives, Pattee Library, and Penn State: An Illustrated History, published in 1985 by the Pennsylvania State University Press