The Education of David Starr Jordan

At an early age Jordan’s attention was directed toward botanical studies, and to satisfy this interest he prepared for college, taking his first lessons at the Gainesville Female Seminary. (5) In 1869, having won a scholarship to Cornell, Jordan entered the University to begin his college education. (6) The following year (1870), women, for the first time, were admitted to Cornell and among the three who enrolled was David Starr Jordan's sister, Mary Jordan. At the time of his graduation in 1872, Jordan had completed so much extra work he was awarded a Master of Science degree (M.S.), and not the Bachelor’s of Science degree (B.S.) awarded to the other students of his class. (7)

Instructor, David Starr Jordan

During his years at Cornell University (1871-1872), David Starr Jordan was an instructor in botany. In 1873, Jordan took the position of Professor of Biology at Lombard University, in Galesburg, Illinois. This position at Lombard required Jordan to teach classes in German and Spanish, Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Mineralogy, Physics, Zoology, Political Economy and Paley's Evidences of Christianity. (8) In the summer of 1873, Jordan spent his first of two summer sessions attending the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island. It is without question that the influence of Louis Agassiz, and the two summers of participation in the Anderson School of Natural History, attending as a student the first year and then as an instructor of marine botany the second year, contributed to the academic development of David Starr Jordan. It was during his first year on Penikese Island, working toward devoting himself to the study of marine algae, when Agassiz asked him to undertake a study of the fishes of the region. Through the examination of the catches of the pound-nets at Martha’s Vineyard, Jordan became well acquainted with fishes of the region. Thus began a life’s journey for David Starr Jordan, as he would become one of the preeminent leaders of ichthyology, the branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish.

After the first summer session on Penikese, Jordan traveled to Harvard College to become a curator of fossil vertebrates in the Museum of Comparative Zoology; a position offered to him by Agassiz. While Jordan was at Harvard, Agassiz received a request from a Dr. Russell Z. Mason in Appleton, Wisconsin to suggest a student for the position of Principal of the Appleton Collegiate Institute. (9)

The Appleton Collegiate Institute was a preparatory school that was organizing its curriculum on the theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, (1746-1827) and Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), with the teaching of science to be a special emphasis. Quoting Jordan from his book Days of a Man, he describes the events to follow: From Agassiz's answer nominating me for the position I was allowed to copy a few sentences which, after all these intervening years, I may be pardoned for printing:The highest recommendation I can give Mr. Jordan is that he is qualified for a curatorship in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. I know no other young man of whom I can say that.” This statement was sufficient, and I at once set forth for Appleton to undertake my new duties. (10)

David Starr Jordan remained as Principal at the Appleton Collegiate Institute for one year (1873-1874). Though Louis' Agassiz had passed away, Jordan returned to Penikese for the next summer session (1874), serving as the instructor for the course in marine botany. In the fall of 1874, Jordan was a teacher of natural history at the Indianapolis High School, today’s Shortridge High School, in Indianapolis, Indiana (1874-1875). During this time, Jordan studied medicine at Indiana Medical College, where he earned a medical degree (M. D.) in 1875. Next, Jordan became a Professor of Natural History at Northwestern Christian University (later Butler University) in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he earned his Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in 1878. In the fall of 1879, Jordan began teaching at Indiana University, in Bloomington.

In 1885, at thirty-four years of age, Jordan was elected the seventh president of Indiana University, becoming one of only two scientists presiding over an American university, and the youngest college president in the nation. As President of Indiana University, Jordan became known as a distinguished academic leader, securing the school's position as a prominent educational institution.

In the spring of 1891, the former California Senator Leland Stanford recruited David Starr Jordan to be the first president of a newly formed academic institution named Leland Stanford Junior University, established in honor of the Senator's deceased son. (11) In his position as President of Stanford University, Dr. Jordan welcomed personally the first students and first professors, and it was his pride that, for the first five years of the life of the institution, he knew each and every student and professor by name. Personal contact, Jordan insisted, was the great welding force in education, and he encouraged his students always to treat their professors as fellow students who were just a little farther along the road of education. (12) Like his mentor Louis Agassiz, Jordan was a firm believer in co-education, enabling women students to come to an academic education on equal terms with the men. Just before Stanford officially opened its doors to students, a dormitory for women was rushed to completion in just ninety days. (13)


(5) Wylie, Theophilus Adam (1890). Indiana University : Its History From 1820, When Founded, To 1890 : With Biographical Sketches of Its Presidents, Professors and Graduates : and a List of its Students From 1820 To 1887. Indianapolis : Wm. B. Burford.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Burns, Edward McNall (1953). David Starr Jordan: Prophet of Freedom. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press.

(8) Jordan, David Starr (1922) The days of a man: being memories of a naturalist, teacher, and minor prophet of democracy. Volumes 1-2. World Book Company. Yonkers-on the Hudson. New York.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Russell, Issac. (1910). David Starr Jordan. The American Magazine. 70: 176-178.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ibid.