An educator and pioneer in the American university movement, Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908) today remains recognized for his accomplishments as the first president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. From 1875 until his retirement in 1901 he helped make Johns Hopkins one of America's first major graduate schools.
Daniel Coit Gilman was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on July 6, 1831, of old New England ancestry. He spent his early youth in Norwich but later lived and attended school in New York, where his parents moved when he was of high school age. He entered Yale as a member of the class of 1852, and while there began a life-long friendship with fellow student Andrew D. White, who was later to become the first president of Cornell University.
In 1853 Gilman and White sailed for Europe as attachés of the American legation in St. Petersburg. While in Europe Gilman travelled in England, France, and Germany digesting stores of knowledge regarding European education. He spent the winter of 1855 attending lectures at the University of Berlin.
Near the end of 1855 Gilman returned to New Haven and Yale to accept employment with the Sheffield Scientific School. As chief administrator and secretary of the school's board of directors Gilman became a leading spokesman promoting instruction and research in science and technology. Demonstrating what was to become known as the "new education" in his writings and addresses, his experience with the Sheffield School was to set the tone of the rest of his career. While in this position Gilman came to know the geologist James Dwight Dana, whose biographer he subsequently became. At Dana's request he proposed a plan for the complete organization of a school of science. In this plan, published in 1856, Gilman acknowledged how far ahead Europe was in providing opportunities for the study of "science for its own sake" as well as training in the professions.
While at Yale Gilman became professor of physical geography and remained in that position until he left for the University of California. In spite of his duties, he found time to serve as school visitor for the New Haven Public Schools. He became active in a number of reforms, among which were the promotion and creation of a public high school in New Haven. Later he was made a member of the newly created Connecticut State Board of Education.
In 1872, following the election of Noah Porter to the presidency of Yale, Gilman accepted the presidency of the University of California. While in California he introduced improvements in spite of the obstacles interposed by the California legislature and those who wanted the university to become chiefly a school of agriculture. Gilman remembered his experience in California as "brief but significant" because he was there at a time "when it was important to show the distinction between a university and a polytechnic institute."
Gilman's main career achievement was the creation and development of Johns Hopkins University, which grew out of the university bequest of Johns Hopkins, Baltimore financier. At Hopkins' death in 1874 the $3,500,000 bequest passed into the control of 12 trustees whom he had chosen seven years previously. The trustees sought the advice of three well known university presidents—Charles Eliot of Harvard, James B. Angell of Michigan, and Andrew White of Cornell—who agreed that Gilman should be president of this new undertaking.
Gilman accepted the position in 1875 and spent the summer of that year in Europe seeking ideas and searching for a faculty. From the beginning his purpose, as well as that of the trustees, was to establish an institution, national in scope, where intellectual training would be of a higher order than that available in other American colleges and universities. In February 1876 Johns Hopkins University opened with a faculty of six well chosen men, aided by a number of younger associates. Part of the early success of Johns Hopkins was the method of choosing students to match the abilities of the faculty. Scholarships of $500 each were offered to 20 college graduates chosen by examination. Candidates for the degree of doctor of philosophy were to have as "severe a course of training as would be required at a German University."
Early Gilman biographers have emphasized the strong German influence on Gilman during the formative years at Johns Hopkins, saying it was the "German doctorate" that became the aim of the graduate school and the "German seminar" that became its method. It has been generally held that Johns Hopkins started primarily as a graduate school and later developed its undergraduate program. More recently it has been argued that Gilman was not as "single eyed" in his interest in graduate education and research as tradition envisions and that he placed the effect of higher studies on students over their contributions to the advancement of knowledge. Gilman's success, it is said, came "because his aims were plural." Nevertheless, the establishment of graduate education emphasizing research and scholarly publications as a leading element in American universities dates from the founding of Johns Hopkins University. Seventeen years after its founding funds became available for the opening of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, offering one of the most advanced programs for the training of doctors existant at that time.
Gilman, at age 70, resigned the presidency in 1901 and between 1902 and 1904 served as president of the newly formed Carnegie Institution, where he continued as a trustee until his death. Interested in public improvement throughout his life, he succeeded Carl Schurz as president of the National Civil Service Reform League and was also connected with the Peabody Fund, the Slater Fund, and the Russell Sage Foundation. On October 13, 1908, he died at his place of birth—Norwich, Connecticut.
Further Reading on Daniel Coit Gilman
Gilman is listed in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, the Biographical Dictionary of American Educators, and the Dictionary of American Biography. A biography which merits attention is Abraham Flexner's Daniel Coit Gilman: Creator of the American Type of University (1946). Francesco Cordasco's Daniel Coit Gilman and the Protean Ph.D: The Shaping of American Graduate Education (1960) provides a critical perspective on Gilman's contributions to American higher education. An interpretation of Gilman's years at Johns Hopkins is Hugh Hawkins' Pioneer: History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874-1889 (1960), winner of the Moses Coit Tyler Prize in American Intellectual History. Gilman's contributions to periodical literature include his Life of James D. Dana and a volume on James Monroe in the "American Statesmen Series." Especially helpful in understanding Gilman as a university president is his Launching of a University, published in 1906.