This exhibition examines the multi-faceted life and career of Edgar Fahs Smith (1854-1928), whose long and dedicated service to the University of Pennsylvania culminated in a decade-long term as Provost–then the highest position in the University. We focus on specific aspects of Smith's life–his "nine lives"—in order to reveal the distinct role each played in his larger "life."
After a childhood spent in York, Pennsylvania, Edgar Fahs Smith took his bachelor's degree at what is now Gettysburg College, and then did graduate work with the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler at the University of Göttingen, receiving his Ph.D. in 1876. He returned to take up an assistantship at Penn to Frederick A. Genth, professor of analytical chemistry, and soon became an enormously popular and engaging teacher. After Genth sought to replace Smith with his own son, however, Smith felt the need to pursue an independent academic position elsewhere. A professor of chemistry at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he moved in 1883 to Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, where he taught until 1888. Following Genth's removal from Penn, several former students and colleagues successfully petitioned for Smith's return as Genth's replacement. Recalled to Penn, Smith remained here for the rest of his career as Professor of Chemistry (1888-1920), Vice Provost (1899-1910), and finally as Provost (1911-1920).
During this time he was closely involved in all aspects of the University: teaching, research, faculty relations, alumni, and fundraising. Early in his career, he was instrumental in efforts to improve the quality of teaching and research at American universities, in order to keep American graduate students from going abroad to Germany for training in chemistry, and he supported the publication of current research in American periodicals. Involved in a wide variety of societies, committees, and other organizations, both within and outside the University, Smith received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career. His interests gradually turned from scientific research to the history of chemistry, notably the work of early American chemists. His many collections, which originally served as his own research library, now form the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection in the History of Chemistry, housed in the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library. After his retirement in 1920, Smith continued collecting and writing until his death on May 3, 1928.
Student, scientist, educator, historian, administrator, man, citizen, collector, and legacy—Smith's "nine lives" show the range and extent of his interests and abilities. His responses to the challenges he faced as he negotiated his place in these divergent and often contradictory worlds are enlightening. To understand this straightforward yet complex man more completely, Smith's own unpublished memoir is quoted extensively throughout this exhibition. Smith's "Recollections" consist of over six hundred typed pages, first begun in 1917 and then continued in 1920. Rambling yet fascinating, Smith's experiences and encounters reveal himself and his world, and give us his distinctive perspective on the University of Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century.
Smith's self-portrait depicts him as someone who recognized good in others, even those who treated him badly. He tried, no matter the circumstances, to advocate what he thought best for the University. He was intimately concerned with and involved in the lives of his students, both as professor and as provost. He was fundamentally honest and sincere in his dealings with others. Although not a natural administrator, he led the University through difficult and contentious times. He made his way in society without ever really belonging to it, preferring to lead a simple life. A man of intelligence and integrity, he is someone to whom Penn continues to owe a great deal. We honor his memory with this exhibition on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth.