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Pope, Thomas Elliott

Published onJul 30, 2021
Pope, Thomas Elliott

(1848 - October 29, 1928)

Quick Facts

Pope was the first person to bring state-of-the-art Chemistry to the college. What Pope taught between 1876 and 1885 was not much different from that taught at Iowa State as much as 50 years later.


Chemistry was taught at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) from the very beginning of the institution. Classes were initially held in a rough building used as a carpentry shop. In 1870, a 30 x 60 foot, one-and-a-half story brick facility was constructed for chemistry; a 40 x 70 foot addition was completed in 1875.

The subject was taught starting in the sophomore year and continued for two-and-a-half years, all taught by Prof. Albert E. Foote, the first to teach Chemistry at Iowa State. Foote was succeeded in 1873 by E.R. Hutchins as a temporary replacement until T.E. Pope was recommended for Foote's position at the Board meeting of February 24, 1876. He accepted the position by letter on March 30.

Thomas Elliot Pope was born in 1848 and spent much of his early life in Freemantle, Australia, where his father was United States Consul. His mother died when he was barely nine years old and he returned with his father to America.

He earned a BA degree with emphasis in Science in 1869 from Harvard. He then entered the Boston Institute of Sciences (later Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for graduate work emphasizing Chemistry.

In 1872 he was awarded the MA degree in Chemistry and Science. For a time he worked with his uncle, E.S. Richie, making nautical instruments. During this time he was introduced to the Midwest on a surveying trip down the Missouri River.

In 1874, he was back in Massachusetts as assistant to M.I.T. Professor James M. Crafts and between 1874 and 1876 he was an M.I.T. Analytical Chemistry assistant with Professor Charles H. Wing. In the fall of 1876 he came to the Iowa State.

Pope was the first person to bring state-of-the-art Chemistry to the college. In fact, the Inorganic Chemistry Pope taught between 1876 and 1885 was not much different from that taught at Iowa State as much as 50 years later during the decades immediately prior to World War II.

Pope was successful in equipping the Chemistry Laboratories with analytical balances so it was possible for students to make quantitative studies. These analytical techniques were applied to problems with hay, manure, compost, dairy products and feeds. In his report to the Board of Trustees in 1880, Pope said "the course is very thorough and no student can go into the senior year that is unable to analyze correctly inorganic substance."

Pope soon became known for the kind of Chemistry he was teaching and was invited to lecture in nearby institutions. He also gave short courses away from Ames.

Pope was a strong teacher who got along well with others in the college and was well liked by his students. Besides the regular offerings in Chemistry for engineering, agricultural and veterinary students he inaugurated a special course for students interested in all aspects of Chemistry. These individuals took more laboratory work and were regularly tutored by Pope.

He instituted a special "reading course" (seminar) that had students studying and discussing special topics from the meager reference material that was available. Since each student had a special desk in a laboratory, they were allowed to work anytime there was a chance to do so.

During each year of his tenure at Iowa Agricultural College, Pope was able to convince the Board to give him one paid assistant. All were graduates of the college. One of them, Ida Twitchell, was the first woman to hold a Chemistry staff position at Iowa State.

Pope's students were well trained and those he sent to eastern institutions did well. After several of his graduates distinguished themselves at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was invited to become a staff member there. He accepted the invitation and left Iowa after March 1, 1884.

He was praised by the Board "for marked success and valuable service to the College and great loss sustained by the College at his resignation." He continued to make substantial recommendations for departmental improvements. Pope was one of the early professors who preferred to live in the town of Ames instead of college housing on the campus.

A letter to Professor E.W. Stanton dated March 11, 1920 summarizes Pope's feelings for Iowa State and Ames:

“Your letter recalls many happy days at the Agricultural College and the friends I left there. Though I have never returned to Ames, I often think of you and rejoice in your prosperity and success.

“When I taught there we labored under many difficulties, lack of equipment, money and too few instructors. We had but few books for reference and were far from any library.

“I believe I was the first to have students do quantitative work and equip the laboratory with analytical balances. Each year I bought at least one expensive piece of apparatus for the use of the students and so was enabled to increase the efficiency and scope of their work, and while I know you have progressed in equipment, teachers and fame I do not think the students of late years can be more earnest than those I had. I was proud of their work and how it was the splendid showing made by the students I sent to be assistants in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was the cause of my being called to that institution.”

Pope became an Assistant Professor at M.I.T. in 1884, taught General Chemistry and helped Professor Wing in Analytical Chemistry. When Wing retired, Pope was put in charge of Analytical Chemistry. In 1886 he was put in charge of General Chemistry and also taught at Boston University. In 1895 he was promoted to Associate Professor and in 1900, Full Professor in charge of Inorganic Chemistry.

He retired from M.I.T. in 1913. President MacLaurin of M.I.T. said, "Professor Pope's devotion to the Institute, his enthusiasm for Chemistry, and his unusual sympathy for struggling students have combined to make him a teacher whose loss will be greatly felt".

He died at age 80 on October 29, 1928 in Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

Selected Sources

Taken from Harry J. Svec’s Chemistry at Iowa State University: Some Historical Accounts of the Early Years, edited by Katherine Svec

Departmental History:

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