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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Teaching Evolution at Vassar College

Published in November 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species introduced the theory of evolution by natural selection, changing the way scientists viewed the world and changing the way the world viewed science. Although the idea that complicated life forms descended from simple ones was not unique to Darwin, he was the first to propose a mechanism for evolution, which—combined with his meticulously gathered evidence and widely held high regard—made Darwin’s theory the central topic of scientific, social, religious and political debate. Darwin’s theory had many early proponents, but many people found the idea that life was anything other than the perfect creation of God deeply threatening, and many others thought it tantamount to heresy. In many places, laws were passed making it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in public schools and universities. The teaching of evolution at Vassar provides an interesting case study of how the heretical theory made its way into the classroom during some of the most contentious years of the new theory’s existence.

Shortly after the publication of Origin, in early 1861, Matthew Vassar and Vassar’s first president, Milo P. Jewett, searched for the scientist best qualified to become the first professor of natural history when Vassar Female College opened. Everyone involved in the hiring process—Vassar, Jewett, the college’s second president John Raymond, the trustees, and other members of the early Vassar community—were by all accounts very religious. Both Jewett and Raymond were ordained Baptist ministers, as were a majority of the founding trustees, and every president of Vassar also served as minister of Vassar’s chapel until president Henry Noble McCracken in 1915.

Deep suspicions of Darwin’s theory of evolution appear to have influenced the search for a professor of natural history. The choice, Sanborn Tenney, was probably hired because he had proved himself devoutly anti-evolution. In response to a letter from Jewett apparently inquiring about his position on Darwin’s theory, Tenney replied:

“[the] question as to whether I am infected with infidel theories created some amusement among my friends at the dinner table today; since this is the first time, so far as we are aware, that any queries were raised in regard to my Orthodoxy. Seriously, my private character, and my public teaching must answer the question as to whether I have infidel notions. I can assure you…that all fears in regard to my unsoundness can easily be removed.”

Tenney was a staunch believer in natural theology, the idea that all forms in nature are created as is by God. In his writing Tenney rarely mentioned the theory of evolution, opting instead to focus entirely on perpetuating the god-centered view of nature. In his 1865 textbook, Natural History: A Manual of Zoology, Tenney declared that the study of zoology “is eminently adapted to enlarge our ideas of creation and its Great Author. It makes known to us the Plan of Creation…”

Under Tenney, Vassar’s teaching of natural history stayed clear of Darwin’s theories of evolution. He taught every course offered in the field, including geology, physical geography, botany, and zoology, and from his appointment in 1865 until his resignation from the college in 1868, the theory of evolution was nowhere to be found in the Vassar curriculum. The principles of Tenney’s teaching are reflected in the zoology lecture notes of a student from the class of 1867: “Nature works everywhere according to a plan…from Aristotle to Cuvier the study of animals was conducted without reference to the plan which is now found in all books on the subject.” In 1868, however, when Tenney left to teach natural history at Williams College, his replacement, James H. Orton, would revolutionize the teaching of science at Vassar.

In 1855, ten years before Tenney began laying the foundations of Vassar’s natural history department, James Orton, an inventor and recent graduate of Williams (the head of the college’s astronomical observatory in his senior year), had abandoned his promising career in science to devote his life to religion, serving as pastor in churches in New York State and Maine. But this vocation did not last long. The appearance in the United States in early 1860 of Darwin’s Origin reignited Orton’s love of science. In 1866 he formally returned to science when the University of Rochester offered him a temporary appointment as substitute professor of zoology. In the following years, Orton embarked on a half-dozen expeditions to South America and gained recognition as an important American scientist. He wrote extensively about evolution, and he forged a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Charles Darwin.

As Tenney’s successor, in 1869, Orton came to Vassar at a time in America when espousing evolution, let alone teaching it, was controversial and at times dangerous. Considering the depth of the examination that Tenney underwent to assure Jewett, Vassar, and others of his avid opposition to Darwin’s theory, it is surprising that Orton was hired. Orton had been inspired to return to science from the ministry precisely because of Darwin’s theories, and in his scientific writings, he made no mention of God, being by all accounts a very outspoken proponent of evolutionary theory.

No record exists of the discussions between President Raymond and the trustees in this regard. In contrast to the many letters between Tenney and Jewett that focus heavily on Tenney’s religious beliefs, none of the correspondence between Orton and Raymond touch on Orton’s religiosity. And no evidence exists indicating that the Vassar community had changed its mind about evolution in the four years since the college opened. Administration at the highest level of the college had, however, shifted since the days of Tenney’s appointment. Appointed to the presidency in 1865, John H. Raymond stated that the curriculum ought not “inculcate a particular creed or system of belief.” Such contextual shifts may account for Orton’s arrival at Vassar, but the actual reasons for his hiring may never be known.

From the start, Orton taught and wrote about Darwin’s concepts of evolution and natural selection—thus making Vassar one of the few colleges in the United States including evolution in its curriculum. To appreciate such pedagogy in 1869, it is important to remember that teaching evolution in some public schools remained illegal for nearly one hundred years, as the last anti-evolution law was not repealed until 1967.

Tensions about how to reconcile religious convictions with a commitment to a curriculum that was both academically excellent and up-to-date continued at Vassar years after Orton was hired. At Commencement in 1873, President Raymond delivered a sermon discussing the contention between religion and science. In July of that year, the Vassar Miscellany commented,

While admitting that science, in its progress, may destroy many prejudices, and some dogmas hitherto held as inviolable truths, Dr. Raymond showed it to be impossible that the human mind, if it would maintain its own character, should ever assent to those extreme conclusions of the evolutionary theory which would annihilate a creative God.

President Raymond called on the graduating class to examine each scientific innovation persistently and fairly, but he also reminded them that their faith in God was the trait most essential to their natures. Raymond exhorted the class never to lose sight of this faith, lest they renounce the most basic part of themselves.

Three years later, in his 1877 Commencement address, Raymond appeared to have come to some resolution as to evolution’s place in a divinely centered understanding of the world. “Evolution,” he told that year’s graduating class, holds that “all attributes and potencies of manifold being were wrapped up in the primordial germ, to be thence…slowly unfolded…through rising stages of perfection.” Thus, in Raymond’s understanding of evolution, there was no essential conflict between the theory of change over time and the “recognition of God as the Original Source and Author of the illumination.” In the years between the college’s founding and Orton’s inclusion of natural history instruction at Vassar, Raymond had begun to reconcile the theory of evolution with a godly understanding of natural history.

In the early years of the college students and professors alike who initially had trouble reconciling Darwin’s revolutionary theory with deeply held religious convictions may similarly slowly transformed their views. Discussing the challenges of calculating geologic time in “Geological Time,” an article in Vassar Miscellany in January 1874, “A. M. R”—probably Annie Martha Reed ‘74— bears wary witness to these shifting paradigms.

To-day let the seeker after truth search the remotest Geological records, and call to his aid both theory and established fact; he can prove of the duration of Geological Time—what? Nothing beyond dispute, save that it is long….

Accepting the Mosaic account of the origin of mankind from one Adam, and noting the almost imperceptible changes in any one race during all historic time, we must believe that the ‘Era of Mind,’ the last and shortest of Geological periods, has endured for ages—long, indeed, compared with the meager number of years allotted it by chronological records! Works of his hands, belonging to the ‘Age of Stone,’ associate Man with extinct species of the early Post-Tertiary. And this is proved not alone by the proximity of relics left by the man and by the animal; but upon ancient weapons…a pre-historic race have graven figures of the Mammoth and the Mastodon—their associates in those early ages of the world….

The calculations of scientific men give us approximations of the length of Geological Ages. Various estimates have been made of the time required to form our globe, according to different theories adopted….

At the end, as at the beginning, one can but say, ‘Time is long.’ He, only, to whom ‘a thousand years are but as yesterday,’ knows how long.

Neither Tenney’s natural theology nor Orton’s godless march of evolution, this theory meshes the two into an intermediate theory that tempers religious conviction with dedication to the scientific method.

James Orton’s pioneering evolution pedagogy was cut short on September 25, 1877, when he died from complications due to injury and illness while on expedition in Peru. While his short life left Orton far from the level of fame and success enjoyed by his friend Darwin, his courage and professional integrity helped establish Vassar as a leading institution and made significant progress toward the teaching of evolution.

In 1878 William Dwight as appointed Vassar’s new professor of natural history and curator of the natural history museum. Unlike those of Tenney and Orton, who focused primarily on living vertebrates, Dwight’s career was built on paleontology. This provided an extra piece to the evolution puzzle, as Dwight’s teaching showed the students that the fossil record proved that the earth is billions of years old – a necessary requirement for a theory of evolution – and not thousands of years old, which would be consistent with the theory of natural theology. In 1889 Marcella O’Grady came to Vassar as a teacher of botany. The first woman to graduate from MIT with a degree in biology and promoted to full professorship of biology in 1893, O’Grady established Vassar’s first class devoted entirely to the subject of evolutionary biology, a senior seminar entitled, “Higher Biology.”

O’Grady was the first professor to encourage students to learn evolutionary theory by conducting their own experiments. Lab work in evolutionary biology became a requirement in her classes. Building on the foundation of this lab work at Vassar, many of her students held summer internships in evolutionary biology at Woods Hole Laboratory in Cape Cod, where she held a part-time position. O’Grady continued to expand the tradition of Vassar’s commitment to teaching evolution until 1896, when she left Vassar to conduct research at the University of Würzburg in Germany alongside her future husband, Theodor Boveri, on the theory that chromosomes are the key to passing on genetic information.

By the time Boveri began teaching at Vassar, her inclusion of evolutionary theory into the curriculum met with little opposition. A few individuals on the board of trustees still maintained the idea that evolution was heresy, but for the most part Boveri and her colleagues were free to teach what they saw fit, regardless of the personal beliefs of others. Evolutionary teaching and research was able to flourish at Vassar and, from Orton onward, remained an integral part of the science curriculum. 

Related Articles


Dwight, William, Biographical File. Vassar Special Collections Library.

Raymond, John H. “Baccalaureate Sermon,” Class Day Exercise, 1 September 1877.

Tenney, Sanborn, Natural History: A Manual of Zoology for Schools, Colleges, and the General Reader, Cambridge, 1865. 

“A.M.R,” “Geological Time,” Vassar Miscellany, Volume III, Number 2, (1 January 1874).

“Commencement Week,” Vassar Miscellany. Volume II, Number 4 (1 July 1873).

ES, LG, 2014