Rediscovering Francis Huntington Snow at the University of Kansas
When the University of Kansas was formed, the Methodists picked the first professor, the Baptists picked the second, and it was a battle between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists for the third. The Congregationalists won and on August of 1866, a young Francis Huntingdon Snow received a letter from Kansas informing him of this “election to the Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Science in the State University of Kansas.”
The first appointees had selected the more sought-after fields of classics and humanities and F.H. Snow, often called Frank, was stuck with science.
The young Snow came to Kansas from training at the Seminary on Andover Hill, where he had indeed enjoyed and performed well in science courses. His education occurred in the midst of the Civil War. On July 18, 1863, Frank received a letter of “appointment” to the U.S. Army under the Conscription Act—he was “drafted”—and journeyed with 30 others from Fitchberg and was the first one found to be physically fit to serve. However, Frank was what we would today call a “conscientious objector.” In his words: “I am eager to enlist with my patriotic self, but am still held back by a deeper Christian self.”
As was common in that day, Snow paid $300 “commutation money” and returned to civilian life. Many others who lacked any such convictions also paid their way out, or hired substitutes to go in their place. Snow wrote: “I am greatly mortified to be in such company, among so many sneaks and cowards.”
Snow was no sneak or coward. He found he could serve in the Christian Commission that traveled with the Union troops. He manned a “coffee wagon” that not only provided coffee to troops, but also allowed him to read letters for illiterate soldiers and write their letters to be sent back home. And he aided surgeons in hospitals after battles.
And Snow and his coffee wagon were at Appomattox at the signing of the surrender.
So the young Snow was a mature man when he arrived to begin teaching at the University of Kansas in 1866. But with high schools barely established, and their quality variable, the entering class was tested and found not ready for college-level work. As was common in that day, the students would have to study another year in a university preparatory school before being found ready for college work (a historical lesson that I am afraid is lost on today’s education administrators!).
That gave young Snow a breathing period to explore the nearby countryside and begin collecting specimens for what he called the “science cabinet,” a collection that was to become the nucleus for the much larger K.U. Natural History Museum. Snow was a short man and rode a pony rather than a horse. Astride his spirited pony Gypsy, his friendliness and sincere responses to farmer’s questions earned him and his growing institution a good reputation. In the1880s, Snow discovered and promoted Lewis Lindsey Dyche, a naturalist, taxidermist and showman who expanded the natural history collections and for whom the Museum building is named.
While Darwin’s “Origin of Species”sold out in 1859, it took a few years to cross the Atlantic and permeate into the thought of American scientists. Snow had come to specialize on hover flies that buzz around flowers and pretend to be bees. He described perhaps 40 new species, and contributed a quarter of a million insect specimens through collecting and trading. Thus by the 1880's, the idea of evolution put it all together. Nor did this perturb his belief in God, for he continued giving occasional sermons as well as teaching Sunday school. However, since Snow found the concept of evolution to underpin many aspects of life, he gave up teaching Sunday school to avoid disturbing the sensibilities of some of the ladies. Nevertheless, his evolutionary answers were taken as commonsense by Kansas farmers who asked about the origins of the many fossils they discovered for him.
In June of 1890, Francis Huntingdon Snow was inaugurated Chancellor of K.U. Snow stepped down in 1901, having appointed many distinguished faculty.
Today, students walk past Snow Hall at K.U. and never know about the young Civil War conscientious objector who was at Appomattox, who rode a pinto pony as he assembled the natural history museum collections, who preached sermons and taught Sunday school, and who thought evolution was the big idea that made it all make sense.