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Welch, Adonijah Strong

Published onJul 30, 2021
Welch, Adonijah Strong

(April 12, 1821 – March 14, 1889)

Quick Facts 

First president of Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), serving from 1868 to 1883.

Adonijah Strong Welch, President, Iowa State College, 1868-1883, 1937 by Othmar Hoffler (American, 1893 - 1954). Oil on linen. Commissioned by Iowa State College. In the Presidential Portrait Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U84.35

Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library

Born in East Hampton, Connecticut, Welch moved to Michigan in 1839 to attend college and begin his career in academia. He earned a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and also studied law in Detroit. In 1851, Welch became the first principal of Michigan State Normal School (Eastern Michigan University), a role he served in for 14 years until health problems forced him to resign.

Welch married Eunice P. Buckingham in 1859 and the couple had three children.

In 1865, Welch moved to Florida where he became involved in the orange and lumber industries. Two years later, Eunice died and Welch won election to the U.S. Senate. He chose a shorter two-year term because he had also been offered the position of president of the newly established Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University).

Welch arrived at Iowa State in October 1868 and that same year he married Mary Beaumont Dudley and they had two children.

A strong supporter of political and gender equality, Welch developed the first classes in agriculture and mechanical arts to fulfill the land-grant mission of what was referred to as the “People’s College” while also promoting the educational advancement of women. The first class was comprised of 173 students, including 136 men and 37 women, thus making Iowa State the first land-grant college to be co-educational from the start.

Welch quickly expanded the college’s offerings, creating professorships for courses in human physiology, English language and literature, political economy and constitutional law, logic and psychology, botany and horticulture, zoology and entomology, chemistry, geology and mineralogy, physics and mechanics, descriptive geometry and architecture, civil engineering, science and art of teaching, military engineering, French and German, and vocal and instrumental music and drawing.

In addition to his administrative duties as president, Welch taught classes in psychology, landscape gardening, and stock breeding.

Welch’s second wife, Mary, established and led the Department of Domestic Economy from 1875-1883. These first courses in the domestic sciences were the foundation for what is now known as the College of Human Sciences. Welch Residence Hall is named in her honor.

In the 1870s, Welch laid the footing for the outreach and service components of Iowa State’s land-grant mission by introducing Farmers’ Institutes. This enabled university experts to share their work beyond the campus confines through county and state Farmers’ Institutes, short courses, Excursion Days, and Farm and Home Week. Welch was also instrumental in launching the movement for Experiment Stations.

Leveraging his landscape gardening expertise, Welch is perhaps best known for designing Iowa State’s early campus. He took special care to transform the raw prairie farmstead into a beautiful college campus with a vibrant combination of natural and manmade elements. He reportedly scattered walnuts on the campus lawn to determine the placement of trees and shrubs. His vision gave way to the expansion of the Main Building (the predecessor to Beardshear Hall), and the construction of South Hall (Welch’s residence), the Physical and Chemical Laboratories (located near the current site of Pearson Hall), the college Workshop, and what is now known as Music Hall. Welch Avenue, which runs north and south through Campustown, is named in his honor.

Welch’s intellect and strong leadership skills combined with a gregarious, generous personality attracted much support from university stakeholders as well as bipartisan support from state leaders; however, support for Welch would be tested in the latter part of his presidency.

In 1883, Welch was granted a one-year leave of absence to accept a request by the United States Commissioner of Agriculture to investigate and report on the organization and management of agricultural schools in Europe. It was during this year abroad that opponents unsatisfied with the college’s development sought to remove Welch from office. This external dissension manifested as Welch and his wife’s salaries were cut, and supportive faculty had their appointments changed, were pressured to resign or were reassigned to less favorable administrative positions.

Despite strong internal support from the university as well as community stakeholders, the State Board of Education removed Welch as president in November 1883. He opted to remain in Germany with friends for a year following his dismissal. But in December 1884, Welch returned to Ames to accept the position of professor of psychology and sociology, largely to help stabilize the college community's contentious atmosphere.

Five years later, Welch was forced to leave the college again due to declining health. He resigned his position and remained at his winter residence in Pasadena, California until he died on March 13, 1889. Friends held funeral services a week later in the college chapel. Welch is buried in the Iowa State University Cemetery on the northwest side of campus.

Selected Sources

Nienkamp, Paul. "Welch, Adonijah Strong" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web.

Earle D. Ross, A History of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (1942)

Allison H. Sheridan, ed., The Land Grant Act and the People’s College Iowa State University (2011)

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