Museum exhibit honors science life of Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To coincide with the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ (EMS) 125th anniversary celebration, the EMS Museum & Art Gallery is unveiling a new exhibit on Friday, Oct. 14, dedicated to Evan Pugh, a science pioneer and Penn State’s first president.

“Evan Pugh: Student to Scientist” explores two distinct stages in the life of Pugh, a Pennsylvania native who combined his love of chemistry with agriculture. Pugh’s early life began on his family farm, but he later traveled to Europe to study plant science.

“We recently unboxed the museum’s historic instruments and technology collection, which had been stored for over a decade,” said Patti Wood Finkle, collections manager of the EMS Museum. “It was exciting to research and create an exhibit based on actual objects that had been owned and handled by Penn State’s first president, Dr. Evan Pugh.”

Pugh was intrigued by the European push to apply science to farming. In 1853, he boarded a boat for Germany to learn the intricacies of marrying agriculture and science. He received his doctorate in organic chemistry, and then went to the Rothamsted Laboratory near London where he determined how nitrogen was introduced to plants.

At the time, that question was being hotly debated and the young scientist developed and conducted an experiment that would solve the riddle, earning him a place in the London Chemical Society. During his time in England, a letter arrived asking him to become president of a new type of educational institution. He agreed, and it was his insistence that the science labs at the new Farmer’s High School have plenty of supplies and state-of-the-art equipment that set the course to make Penn State what it is today.

The exhibit will feature ceramic crystal models made by Pugh as a student, herbaria images from the Pennsylvania Agricultural College (PAC) Herbarium of his plant collection, lab supplies provided to the first graduating class (1861) by Pugh, and a piece of equipment from his famous nitrogen experiments. While studying in Europe, Pugh was given a stipend for scientific equipment, according to the Penn State University Libraries archives. The items he returned with in 1859 — including his microscope — are among the items on display in the exhibit.

The exhibit will remain on view for a year. For more information, visit the EMS Museum & Art Gallery website.

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