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Science Education in Early California Colleges, 1850-1880


Higher education institutions in California worked to make the state more prosperous through the science taught and conducted in these institutions during the state’s first three decades. This dissertation examines the role of science in these early California colleges and how they interacted with the state’s political economy. The colleges founded in this period worked to provide an education that students would recognize as leading to good jobs. While many of these schools were religiously affiliated, the institutions needed students regardless of their religious background in order for the schools to survive.

These early colleges were able to provide services both to students and to the state in general as they reached the public through various means. These included utilizing scientific equipment for conducting experiments and analyzing mineral ores and illustrating scientific concepts with collections of animals, plants, and minerals. Additionally, lectures and public demonstrations brought science to a wider audience and helped to financially support the schools. Jesuit schools Santa Clara College and St. Ignatius College engaged with areas of mining, agriculture, and electricity. Protestant schools, such as the University of the Pacific and the College of California, also emphasized scientific education, including teaching it to women. The state’s healthcare infrastructure was strengthened by the start of medical education in the state with the University of the Pacific’s medical department and the Toland Medical College. Future teachers of California’s children were taught science in the California State Normal School. The federal Morrill Act’s passage allowed California the financial resources to establish a land grant institution, and the University of California was founded with a curriculum emphasizing mining, mechanic arts, agriculture, and engineering.

The dissertation relies on archival sources–such as catalogues, diaries, and board meeting minutes–that are generally located on the present-day campuses of these institutions. Analysis of these documents provides evidence of how these institutions, through their science education, helped California’s economy to prosper.

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