The University Record, September 23, 1998
By Patricia S. Whitesell
Did you know that George Palmer Williams was the University's first faculty member, and that the University's first named professorship was created in his honor?
Williams was appointed in 1841 when the Ann Arbor campus first opened. Previously, he had served since 1837 as the principal of one of the University's branch campuses located at Pontiac. Williams began his teaching career at the University as professor of natural philosophy, then transferred in 1854 to mathematics, and then taught physics during his retirement from 1875 until his death in 1881.
He received his bachelor's degree in 1825 from the University of Vermont, later studying for two years at the Theological Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts. One of his first positions was as principal of the Preparatory School at Kenyon College, followed by a two year stint at the Western University of Pennsylvania as chair of ancient languages, then returning to Kenyon where he stayed until he was called to Michigan in 1837.
Williams was a favorite teacher to many students, who fondly referred to him as "Old Punkey." At the time of his death it was said that, "Dr. Williams welcomed the first student that came to Ann Arbor for instruction; . . . and from the day of his appointment to the hour of his death his official connection with the University was never broken."
As a special tribute, Franz Brünnow, who was the director of the Observatory, dedicated the English translation of his Handbook on Spherical Astronomy to Williams, who had served as the instructor in astronomy prior to Brünnow's arrival. The esteem Brünnow held for Williams was quite a tribute, considering the rigorously high standards the German-educated astronomer held. Professor of Latin Henry S. Frieze, who later became acting president of the University, described Williams in a memoir written about President Tappan:
He was one of the best of men; thoroughly sincere, absolutely free from all obliquity. His genial kindness, his pleasantry, his ever ready repartee, made him the favorite among all the professors of two generations. ...Perhaps also it is not generally understood that he was something more than an ordinary teacher. He was a profound scientist...
Alumni collected a considerable fund at the time of Williams' retirement in 1875, which supported him until his death. The fund was then used to establish the University's first named professorship, in Williams' honor. The George P. Williams Emeritus Professorship continues to be awarded to faculty who experience financial need during retirement. Williams was further honored in 1972 by physics Prof. H. Richard Crane, who chose to name his honorary professorship the George P. Williams Distinguished University Professorship of Physics. A portrait of Williams hangs in a place of honor in the Department of Physics.
This monthly column highlights interesting aspects of University history. Suggestions for future topics may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.