1819-1860 Overview

Robert Bruce

Early History: The Western University of Pennsylvania

The Pittsburgh Academy was a preparatory school. Students who wanted to continue their education would have to travel miles to the east to attend a university. With this in mind, the Trustees petitioned the legislature in 1818 for a charter to found the Western University of Pennsylvania. The university was granted its charter on February 18, 1819, and soon thereafter the trustees began gathering a faculty and preparing buildings.

In 1822, Dr. George Stevenson, President of the Board of Trustees, announced the opening of the University, saying,

From the acknowledged talents, and superior acquirements of the reverend gentlemen, who have undertaken to discharge the arduous duties of the highly responsible stations assigned them; there is reason to believe, that the means of instruction in the Western University, will not be inferior to those of any literary establishment in Pennsylvania.

The trustees chose the Scotsman, Robert Bruce, as the first Principal of the university, and in 1822 he announced a faculty of five:

  • The Reverend Robert Bruce, Principal and Professor of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and Mathematics
  • The Reverend E.P. Smith, Professor of Moral Science and the General Evidences of Christianity
  • The Reverend John Black, Professor of Ancient Languages and Classical Literature
  • Father Charles B. Maguire, Professor of Modern Languages and Universal Grammar
  • The Reverend Joseph M’Elroy, Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

With a one year hiatus (when Gilbert Morgan served as Principal), Bruce would serve as head of the university until 1843. He was much admired and an important figure in the city. During his tenure as Principal, there was considerable pressure to turn the curriculum toward practical ends—engineering, surveying, law, and medicine. 

Chancellor Heman Dyer

Heman Dyer became the third Principal of the university in 1843, after serving as Dean under Robert Bruce.  Under Dyer, the pressure continued toward practical ends. There was considerable pressure to separate the classical curriculum from a curriculum that focused on engineering and technical studies. Literature and the rhetorical arts were well served, Dyer said, by the traditions of Western Pennsylvania oratory, and by the “literary societies that existed even among the mechanics outside the university.” When he formed his faculty in 1843, Dyer waited to appoint a Professor of English, saying that he would need additional funds to support the position.  

In 1846, James Thompson was appointed as Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. In 1847, Charles Elliott was appointed as a Professor of Rhetoric, History and Belles Lettres. In 1849, the Pittsburgh Gazette published a series of memorable debates between Elliott and Lemuel Stephens, whom Dyer had hired as a Professor of Engineering, over a plan of instruction for the undergraduate curriculum at the Western University of Pennsylvania.   Attention to the curriculum was quickly interrupted however, when in July of 1849 the university building was destroyed by fire. This followed the considerable disruption caused by the great fire in Pittsburgh in 1845, a fire that destroyed a third of the city. The university would remain closed for the next six years, until 1855. Charles Elliott left for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Lemuel Stephens went to Girard College in Philadelphia. We were unable to follow James Thompson’s career.