James MacAlister and Drexel’s Beginnings
To mark the inauguration of John A. Fry as the 14th president of Drexel, this week the University Archives blog will feature essays on past presidents.
"Betwixt the Mind and Things": James MacAlister and Drexel’s Beginnings
by Martha Cornog
Perhaps surprising to us today, the newly-birthed Drexel Institute gave no collegiate degrees. In setting up the original organization, James MacAlister envisioned something in the spirit of vocational guilds.1 Founder Anthony J. Drexel together with collaborators George W. Childs and Drexel’s wife Ellen Rozet Drexel had intended a vocational emphasis,2 but they themselves were not educators. So it was Drexel’s first president who pulled together overall structure, departments, and faculty. And through MacAlister, who had emigrated from Scotland at age 10 and had run the public school systems in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the original “Drexel Institute” concept took shape: advanced vocational training, somewhere between high school and any later higher education.
“[Drexel] does not aim at producing learned scholars, nor qualifying persons for professional life; its purpose is to thoroughly instruct and train young men and women for successfully engaging in artistic, scientific, and industrial pursuits…. And this has become all the more important of late years, owing to the entire breakdown of the old system of apprenticeship and the [now widespread] use of machinery in almost all mechanical operations.”3
Such “institutes” with vocational emphasis existed in other cities, such as New York’s Pratt Institute and the Cooper Union, but in 1891 Philadelphia had none. And thus the Drexel Institute’s original departments ran the gamut from “domestic science,” featuring courses on sewing and hat-making, to hands-on blacksmithery.
In his personal journal, MacAlister recorded a quote from English philosopher Francis Bacon about the purpose of education: “the cultivation of a just and legitimate familiarity betwixt the mind and things.” Well should Bacon’s words resonate with MacAlister, since one of his first duties as president was to gather together these “things” of concern. Much of his correspondence in 1891, his first year at the helm, involved preparing Drexel’s Main building for its first students: arranging heating equipment and furniture for the structure itself, clock-in apparatus for the roving watchmen, cooking ranges for the domestic sciences department, blast pipes for the blacksmith shop, and niceties such as the candelabra for the Grand Court. MacAlister surely had a secretary, but he took a personal interest in these details regardless. After all, Drexel was designed to fill an educational vacuum in just this sort of work.
MacAlister’s personal interest in detail extended, of course, into faculty matters. One letter in the Drexel Archives collection of MacAlister’s papers regretfully discharges a lecturer in modeling since the course was to be replaced with one in woodcarving. Other letters concern finding competent women instructors—both broad-minded and ladylike—to travel to Cuba and teach dressmaking and millinery at “an industrial home for the training of the orphan children of Havana.”4
Still another letter extends into student life, disciplining a young women for skipping class and for her “habit of engaging in conversation with young men,” which was apparently “not acceptable to the Faculty.” A.J. Drexel himself is said to have remarked while observing students, “I want them to lead happy as well as useful lives,”5 but apparently the young lady pushed the happy part a little further than was deemed appropriate by the president.
MacAlister presided over his relatively independent “guilds” for the first 22 of Drexel’s years, a time when each department functioned as “a law unto itself” and ran its own affairs.6 Each department presided over its own admissions, scheduled its own classes according to whatever schedule it pleased, and for the first two years even set its own commencement date. Such anarchy was not to last, as we shall see in a future article about Drexel’s presidents. Meanwhile, the man lives on as the namesake of MacAlister Hall, which was built in 1974 as the Educational Activities Center and renamed in 1977. Housing the Pennoni Honors College and the College of Arts and Science as well as the Drexel Writing Center, the Drexel Bookstore, and Mad Dragon Recording Studios, the building echoes MacAlister’s interest in the variety and breadth of both “the mind and things.”
1. Edward D. McDonald & Edward M. Hinton, “James MacAlister,” Chapter 3 in Drexel Institute of Technology 1891-1941: A Memorial History, Philadelphia: Drexel Institute of Technology, 1942, p. 35.
2. McDonald & Hinton, “The Foundation,” Chapter 2 in Drexel Institute of Technology 1891-1941: A Memorial History, Philadelphia: Drexel Institute of Technology, 1942, pp. 16, 19, 21.
3. Quotation from an article dated January 6, 1892 in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, reproduced in McDonald & Hinton, pp. 13-14. The Public Ledger was owned by Anthony J. Drexel and George W. Childs, Drexel’s closest friend and a collaborator in the project to found the Drexel Institute.
4. According to the MacAlister correspondence files, MacAlister had received an unanticipated letter requesting help with improving the Cuban educational system from John R. Brooke, Military Governor of Cuba. This was in 1899 during the period when the United States had taken temporary control of the island right after the Spanish-American War. It does not appear that the two men were acquainted. However, Brooke had grown up in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, close by to Philadelphia. While his long and distinguished career with the U.S. Army during the Civil War and afterwards took him away from the area, it is likely that he kept in touch with residents of his earliest home region and in so doing learned about the Drexel Institute and its mission. Brooke eventually retired to Philadelphia and died there.
5. McDonald & Hinton, “The Founder,” Chapter 1 in Drexel Institute of Technology 1891-1941: A Memorial History, Philadelphia: Drexel Institute of Technology, 1942, p. 14.
6. McDonald & Hinton, “James MacAlister,” p. 35.