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Vassar Encyclopedia

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

Overview of Original Faculty

In 1865, Matthew Vassar and President John H. Raymond selected nine professors to serve as Vassar College’s first faculty. Each professor became the head of one of nine departments, which ranged from Philosophy to Physiology and Hygiene. The following list details each of the nine original professors and their respective accomplishments.

Alida Avery
Alida Avery

Alida C. Avery, born in New York in 1833, served as both professor of Physiology and Hygiene and campus physician. Following the lead of brothers Thomas and George, Avery began studying medicine in 1857 and attended medical school in both Philadelphia and Boston. Before being recruited by Vassar, she was Assistant Physician of the city of Cleveland. During her nine years at the college, Avery served as “general sanitary manager,” secretary of the faculty, and president of the Floral Society. She moved to Colorado in 1874, where she opened a private practice and energized the movement for woman’s enfranchisement. Avery died in 1908 in San Jose, California. (See Alida Avery)

Henry B. Buckham, professor of English Language and Literature, faced numerous challenges upon assuming his position at Vassar. According to an 1866 report to President Raymond, most of Vassar’s original students proved unfit to pursue a college course in grammar, rhetoric and literature. Attendance in the original English classes fluctuated wildly, and after a short while, Buckham deemed even the remaining students “hopeless cases.” Unsatisfied with the caliber of both his students and his assistants, Buckham created a preparatory program and devoted most of the first semester to reviewing basic rules of grammar. By February 1866, students considered Buckham “a very fine teacher,” but abhorred his “horrid compositions.” In addition to heading the English department, Buckham directed Bible school on Sundays. (See Henry Buckham)

Charles Farrar
Charles Farrar

Charles S. Farrar, professor of Mathematics and Physics, originally served as the chair of Physics and Astronomy at Elmira Female College. Impressed by his qualifications, the Vassar trustees consulted Farrar during the construction of the observatory in 1863, and eventually offered him a teaching position.Charles Farrar)

William L. Knapp, professor of Ancient and Modern Languages, was born in New York in 1835. After working at Colgate University, Knapp came to Vassar, where he taught Latin and French. Although he was one of the youngest members of the first faculty, Knapp always gave “an impression of responsibility and ability.” Cornelia Raymond described him as a “brilliant linguist” with a “delightful personality.” He left Vassar after only two years, however, and moved to Europe, where he became Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel La Catolion of Spain in 1877. He later served as professor of Modern Languages at both Yale University and the University of Chicago. He died in 1903.
(See William Knapp)

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell, born in 1818, was the only faculty member specifically chosen by Matthew Vassar. The daughter of a self-taught astronomer, Mitchell discovered a telescopic comet at the age of twenty-nine. In 1859, she was awarded an Equatorial Telescope “on behalf of the women of America” after a trip to Europe. As an instructor at Vassar, Mitchell always conveyed a “high seriousness of purpose” and was considered “first on the faculty for reputation.” During her twenty-three years as a Vassar professor, she became famous for throwing “Dome Parties” at the Old Observatory, and chaperoned two trips to observe total eclipses of the sun.Maria Mitchell)

John Raymond
John Raymond

John Raymond, in addition to serving as president, taught Mental and Moral Philosophy. An “original and energetic” professor who “always taught by lectures,” Raymond championed the virtues of a liberal arts education, and was “insistent upon high standards” in all divisions of college life. His scholastic standards, however, proved too high for two-thirds of the students who entered the college in 1865, so Raymond established a preparatory program for students who failed their entrance exams. While known for being a strict and dogmatic educator, Raymond often exhibited a decidedly paternal side, donning a Santa Claus costume at Christmastime, and reading original children’s stories to groups of students. A devout Baptist clergyman, Raymond became notorious for delivering longwinded sermons during Sunday chapel.John Raymond)

Sanborn Tenney, professor of Natural History, was born in New Hampshire in 1827. After graduating from Amherst College, Tenney began teaching at Vassar in 1865 and remained there only three years before transferring to Williams College.(5) He wrote several textbooks on Geography and Natural History, including A Manual of Zoology, which was published during his time at Vassar. He died suddenly in 1877, while preparing for an “exploring expedition” to Colorado. (See Sanborn Tenney)

Edward Wiebe
Edward Wiebe

Henry Van Ingen, professor of Design, earned the students’ admiration and love like no other original faculty member.Henry Van Ingen)

Edward Wiebé, a German émigré, became the first professor of Music in the United States. During his two years at Vassar, the Music department was a “curious conglomeration” in which students played both independently and in groups of four or eight. A “nervous, ambitious, strenuous man,” Wiebé soon became infamous for his high, often unrealistic, standards. In 1880, Wiebé wrote The Paradise of Childhood, which introduced the concept of “Kindergarten” to the United States. Professor Frederick Louis Ritter replaced Wiebé in 1867, and the Music department “flourished” under his direction. (See Edward Wiebé)

Related Articles


  1. Vassar Miscellany. July 1872. p. 63. Farrar’s 1864 letter to then Elmira president A. W. Cowles seems to present ulterior motives for his interest in Vassar during this period. He complains of Matthew Vassar considering higher education for women “a cause almost his own” and outlines his plans to ask the founder for a $20,000 donation on behalf of Elmira, arguing “the bequest to Elmira… would at the end of time prove to have paid better to the cause [of women’s education] than any equal sum at Vassar College.”
  2. One destination was Burlington, Iowa, and the other was Denver, Colorado. While in Colorado, Mitchell visited then ex-charter faculty member Alida Avery, a Denver resident.
  3. The men received $2,500 a year without the cost of board, while Dr. Avery received $1,000 a year plus board, and Mitchell received only $800 a year and an apartment in the Observatory. In 1870, Mitchell and Avery wrote this brief note to President Raymond: “We desire to call your attention to the fact, that, after nearly five years of what we believe to be faithful working for the good of the College, our pay is still far below that which has been offered at entrance, to the other professors, even when they have been wholly inexperienced. We respectfully ask that our salaries may be made equal to those of the other professors.” Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters. Ed. Henry Albers. New York: College Avenue Press, 2001. p.200.
  4. In a February 1871 letter, Maria Mitchell begged Raymond to condense his coming sermon, saying, “I want to hear you preach tomorrow, and I also want to see the moon pass over Aldebaran. [Pencil sketch of the moon passing over a star] Can’t you let me do both? … why need you shew [sic] us all sides of the subject? The moon never turns to us other than the one side we see, and did you ever know a finer moon? … I wouldn’t ask such a favor of you, knowing as I do, what a difficult thing it is for you to pause, when you are once started…”
  5. Although Tenney remained at Vassar for only a short while, he had a great effect on the students. In fact, several students went so far as to name their children after him.
  6. Cornelia Raymond writes of Van Ingen: “…of all those early professors I can safely say that none came closer to the students or was more loved.” (from her “Some Faculty of Earliest Vassar.” Vassar Quarterly. May, 1935.
  7. Van Ingen would make fun of a certain bow or hat a girl chose to wear to make the point that the “simple is more beautiful than the ornate [and]… the function of art is to reproduce the beautiful.” Obituary. Haight, Elizabeth Hazleton. Daily Eagle. 1898.


Plum, Dorothy & Dowell, George. The Magnificent Enterprise. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1961.

Alida C. Avery O’ Brian, John. “Death of Dr. Alida C. Avery.” The Sherburne News. Vassar College Special Collections Biographical file.

Henry B. Buckham Buckham, Henry. “Report of the Professor of Rhetoric and Letters” for first college year ending June 27, 1866.”

Charles S. Farrar Letter from Caroline E. Slade. February 11, 1866. Vassar Special Collections. Letter from Mary Coe Thompson. November 18, 1865. Vassar Special Collections.

William L. Knapp Norris, Mary Harriott. The Golden Age of Vassar. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1915. p. 44-48. Miscellany. Letter from Cornelia Raymond to Seronde. March 22, 1929. Biographical File, Special Collections.

Maria Mitchell Vassar Alumnae Monthly. June 1911. p. 128. Plum & Dowell. p. 9-10. Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association Chronological Record. Special Collections Box 14. Obituary. Tribune, August 16, 1878.

John Raymond” Daniels, Elizabeth A. “John Raymond.” American National Biography. Ed. Garraty. Oxford University Press, 1999. vol.18. “Miss Cornelia Raymond Recalls When Her Father Was Santa Claus at Vassar College Festivities.” Sunday Courier.

Sanborn Tenney Obituary. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Dec. 1, 1877. Vol. 45. p. 211. Letter from Plum to Parkhurst. April 13, 1962. Letter from Plum to Couch, Jr. May 20, 1963. Scrapbook lent to Vassar College Special Collections by A.L. DeVries. 1953.

Edward Wiebé Forbes, Elliott. “A History of Music at Harvard.” Harvard University, 1988. p.16. Norris, 132, 136, 134. Letter from William Wiebé, June 2, 1929.

SL, 2004