A Little History

by Dr. James D. Long
(From Biology Department Newsletter, 1990)

I have been collecting a few facts and fallacies about the Biology Program at SHSU through the years, hoping one day to arrange these tidbits into a history of the Department.  Although I did not witness everything that has ever happened on our campus, as some may think, I have seen a lot of our history unfold since I was a student here in the 1950s.  I have decided that I will probably never sit down long enough to write all these items down at one time, and am beginning a series of shorter notes with this issue that I hope will prove more interesting for NEWSLETTER readers.

Sam Houston Normal Institute had its beginning in 1879 with the first class assembling during October in Austin Hall. The earliest list of faculty I can find citing anyone teaching a science is dated 1884. Among teachers listed is I. R. Dean given as the 'Natural Science' Instructor. Other topics taught include 'professional work, mathematics, music and calisthenics, physiology, elocution, drawing, language and literature.' Although limited to only seven teaching positions, subjects included in a 'normal' curriculum seemed well represented.

Mr. Ira (or Ibzan?) R. Dean was a native of North Carolina and had graduated from Peabody Normal College at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1881, before coming to Texas. He was the second in a family of seven and had seven children of his own. He taught on our campus until 1888. While on the faculty he became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Huntsville and was ordained as a minister by that congregation on April 10, 1889. On leaving Huntsville later that year, 'he became a pastor at Waxachachie, Texas, and at a number of other Texas locations during ensuing years. Mr. Dean was replaced in 1888 by two faculty who had major impact on science institutions of that era.

The first of these was R. B. Halley (not Hay-ley!) for whom the biology building which most of you knew was named.  Professor Halley was a much loved physical science teacher who remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1919. He was noted for his memory of people. At the first meeting of his class, he asked each of his students to rise and give their names. After this one exposure, he knew them by name ever more!

A second member of the 1888 faculty was Professor Walter M. Coleman listed as teaching 'physiology and natural science.' He was the first we would later call a biologist. In an 1899 publication commenting on SHSU's first twenty years, Mr. Coleman is described in the colorful fashion of that era quoted here in its entirety:

“Walter A. Coleman is a native Texan and graduated in the class of 1879-80 at the Sam Houston Normal Institute. The next few years found him an earnest student at the Washington and Lee University, where he graduated in 1884. As a teacher his first laurels were won in Belton, Texas,  where he held the position of Principal of the High School for two terms. In 1887 he was elected a member of the Faculty of the Normal Institute.  After holding this place for two years, being ambitious to thread the labyrinths of science more thoroughly and enjoy the advantages of travel as well, he resigned and went abroad. During his absence he attended the University of Berlin, and the Royal School of Science in London. In 1890 he was re-elected to his former position here and has since been devoting his best energies to his duties in the Institute. Professor Coleman is in the full vigor of both mental and physical manhood, systematic in all things, and so spiced with originality and humor that his teaching cannot be otherwise than impressive. He was married a few years since to Miss Satis Barton, of Tyler, Texas. Professor and Mrs. Coleman are both artistic in their taste, fond of the culture of flowers, fruits and all the accessories to a pretty home. For this reason, they are now building a model suburban residence, on grounds sufficient to furnish ample field for the exercise of their energy and skill.”

Professor Coleman continued on the faculty until 1908 when he returned to the University of Berlin to conduct research in Physiology. In 1909 he continued his studies at a hospital in London and was later named a Fellow of the Physical Society of London. During his career here and elsewhere he accumulated an impressive list of publications including both books and articles. Titles such as 'Hygienic Physiology' and 'Mental Biology' suggest a wide range in interest. Professor Coleman returned to this country living a while in Washington, D.C., and at Corpus Christi, Texas. He moved to British Suva on Fiji and, after 'going native' for a while, died there in 1925. As a graduate student here at Sam, I lived in the 'model suburban residence' Mr. Coleman built at what was later 20th Street at Avenue M and the long-time home of Professor R. M. Woods.

(Next issue, a little more history.)