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Vassar Encyclopedia

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

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Charles Farrar

The first Chair of Chemistry and Physics, Charles Samuel Farrar taught at Vassar from 1865 until 1874. Popular with both students and faculty, he also oversaw the building of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, the first building on campus. In The Golden Age of Vassar (1915), Mary Norris ’70 described Farrar as a “man of wonderful magnetism, a subtle intellect, and a power of presentation that made the students breathless on his prayers and his lectures.”

The son of Samuel and Rebecca (Parker) Farrar, Farrar was born on August 7, 1825? in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He attended high school at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, before studying at Amherst College in 1846. After his first year, Farrar transferred to Dartmouth College and graduated in 1850. He then studied law for two years in Worcester, Massachusetts, with Judge B.F. Thomas. In 1852, he married Frances E. Worcester of Hollis, New Hampshire. She tragically passed away in 1863, leaving behind four daughters: Ellen and Frances, who remained with their father; and Clara and Julia, who lived with family friends, Rev. Thomas K. Beecher and his wife. In 1853, Farrar was offered the position as Principal of Gilmanton Academy, New Hampshire, where he and his two daughters resided for three years.

In 1856 Farrar assumed the Chair of Physics and Astronomy at Elmira Female College, where his colleagues reportedly referred to him as “both astronomer and go-getter,” qualities that probably explain his coming to Vassar Female College in 1863. At Elmira in 1858, he had begun the aquistion of astronomical equipment that led to his attempted founding of an observatory for the college. When some trustees rejected this plan and a wealthy citizen offered off-campus land and support for the project, Farrar founded, in 1861, the Elmira Academy of Science, the first president of which was Rev. T. K. Beecher. These events apparently attracted the attention of trustees planning Vassar Female College, where Farrar accepted appointment to the chair in astronomy and where he took up residence in 1863, charged with superintending the contruction of an Observatory and acquisition and arrangement of its instruments. Upon its opening, the observatory was considered unique in its design for the use of students. Farrar also oversaw the establishment and organization of the departments of physics and chemistry.

Charles Farrar often spoke of his love of Elmira, and his decision to leave was not an easy one. He found, however, a warm welcome at Vassar in the person of Matthew Vassar, who took a great liking to Farrar, often engaging him in conversation for hours. Writing in 1864 to Elmira’s President Augustus W. Cowles, Farrar spoke of negotiations with Matthew Vassar: “Nothing would make me happier than to be the means of securing to Elmira College so valuable a bequest as a Vassar Fund of $20,000… I believe that such a bequest to Elmira Female College would at the end of time prove to have paid better to the cause than any equal sum at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Considering the outlay of money, time, patience, and labor already made for Elmira College, $20,000 would be worth twice its own sum there, now.” In addition to the bequest for Elmira, Farrar received a yearly salary increase from $900 at Elmira to $2,000 at Vassar.

As planning for the opening of Vassar advanced, its founders’ desires to appoint, if possible, women to professorships had made little progress. With the cautious agreement in 1864 of Miss Maria Mitchell from Nantucket—whose extraordinary receipt, in 1847, of an international gold medal in astronomy had given her worldwide fame—to accept appointment at Vassar as professor of astronomy, Charles Farrar’s role in the new college changed. When Vassar opened in 1865, Farrar was Chair of Chemistry and Physics. His professorship included mathematics, physics, natural philosophy, and chemistry.

Charles S. Farrar

In Earliest Years at Vassar (1909), Frances A. Wood, a Vassar music teacher (1866–1870) and librarian (1880–1910), noted the popularity of Farrar’s lectures for both students and faculty. She recalled, “one day [he was] holding up a small vial in each hand, explaining elaborately the contents of each, and what the chemical effect would be when the two should be poured together. The class watched in breathless attention. ‘Now young ladies,’ and the bottles were lifted high so that all might see, ‘you will observe,’–repeating the formula–and then pouring them with quick, deft movement together. Nothing happened. Who that saw it but must remember the blank amazement of the professor’s face and the hearty laughter all round in which he joined. ‘Well, that never turned out so with me before.”

Farrar’s Sunday lectures on religion also drew many passionate listeners. “It would be impossible,” Mary Norris recalled, “to overestimate the enthusiasm his presence and his teaching, both secular and religious, awakened. Girls went to his Sunday lectures provided with note-books, and there was no thinker or essayist with whom their studies had made them familiar, whom they could for one moment consider superior to Professor Farrar. One of his admirers copied out her notes with the greatest care, declaring that when she published them she knew he would be recognized as the peer of Emerson.”

During his last seven years at Vassar, in addition to his teaching (?) Farrar was the General Superintendent for the Board of Trustees, responsible for the various departments of service throughout the college. In 1872, Farrar married Sarah W. Harris of Poughkeepsie, who bore his fifth daughter, Margaret. Two of his daughters, Ellen ’75 and Frances ’75, attended Vassar but did not graduate, as the family moved to Milwaukee.

In 1874, Farrar was offered the position as President of Milwaukee College (formerly Milwaukee Female College and, after 1895, Milwaukee-Downer College). Farrar had been recommended by Mary Mortimer, a retiring professor of physics and astronomy at Milwaukee College, who had met him at Elmira College. Milo P. Jewett, acquainted with Farrar from his time as Vassar’s first president and trustee, was also a trustee at Milwaukee Downer. Upon news of his resignation, a July 1, 1874 issue of the Vassar Miscellany commemorated that the department under Farrar “has never been in a more flourishing condition… In the place of lectures by the instructor, there have been references and individual research. The perfect order and accuracy ot the whole arrangement have been sufficiently proved by the progress made this year.”

During his tenure as President of Milwaukee College from 1874 to 1889, Farrar revitalized the struggling college. He rewrote the curriculum and spurred enrollment from women who were seeking personal study in history and the fine arts. He organized the construction of new buildings and stocked the college with new equipment, including models, charts, and manikins. In order to aid students on the various subjects in the study of art, in 1884, Farrar published Art Topics in the History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture, with Specific References to Most of the English Standard Works of Arts(1884), which remains, in 2018, in print.

After fifteen years at Milwaukee College, Charles Farrar retired in 1889. He died on March 12, 1903, at the age of 77.

Related Articles

Maria Mitchell Observatory

Original Faculty


Vassar Special Collections Biographical File.

“Personals.” Vassar Miscellany, Volume III, Number 4, 1 July 1874.

Hansen, Esther V. “Which Was the First Women’s College?” Vassar Quarterly, Volume XLII, Number 5, 1 May 1957.

Tarantine, Jessica. “Sunday provides time for contemplation, conversations.” Miscellany News, Volume CXLIV, Number 20, 14 April 2011.

Weir, Georgette, “Observatory Gets Landmark Status.” Vassar Quarterly, Volume LXXXVIII, Number 2, 1 March 1992.

Farrar, Charles. “Letter to President A.W. Cowles of Elmira College,” March 14, 1864.

Flower, Frank Abial, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, From Prehistoric Times, etc.,Chicago: The Western Historical Company, 1881.

Norris, Mary Harriot. The Golden Age of Vassar.Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1915.

Wight, William W., Annals of Milwaukee-Downer College, 1848–1891, Milwaukee, WI, 1891

Woods, Frances A., Earliest Years at Vassar: Personal Recollections. Poughkeepsie: The Vassar College Press, 1909.

JLD, 2005, MT, 2018