Dickson White was a U.S. diplomat, author, and educator, most known
as the co-founder of Cornell University.
was born in Homer, New York and educated at Yale University. At
Yale, he was a classmate of Daniel Coit Gilman, who would later
serve as first president of Johns Hopkins University. The two
were members of the Skull and Bones secret society, and would
remain close friends. He was also a member of the Alpha Sigma
Phi fraternity, serving as editor of the fraternity publication,
graduating from Yale in 1853, White spent three years studying
in Europe before returning to the United States as a professor
of history and English literature at the University of Michigan.
1865, White and Western Union tycoon Ezra Cornell founded Cornell
University on Cornell's estate in Ithaca, New York. White became
the school's first president, and his farsighted leadership set
the university on the path to becoming an elite educational institution,
with particular excellence in agricultural research and engineering.
14 years at Cornell, White resigned to serve as the U.S. Minister
to first Germany (1879-1881) and later Russia (1892-1894), and
as the first U.S. Ambassador to Germany (1897-1902).
serving in Russia, White—a noted bibliophile—made
the acquaintance of author Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's fascination
with Mormonism sparked a similar interest in White, who, like
most educated Americans at the time, had previously regarded the
Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a dangerous, deviant cult. Upon his
return to the United States, White took advantage of Cornell's
proximity to the original Mormon heartland near Rochester to amass
a collection of LDS memorabilia (including many original copies
of the Book of Mormon) unmatched by any other institution save
the church itself and its university, Brigham Young University.
1891, Leland and Jane Stanford asked White to serve as the first
president of the university they had founded in Palo Alto, CA.
Although he refused their offer, he did recommend his former student
David Starr Jordan.
died in Ithaca and was interred in Sage Chapel at Cornell.
to the conflict thesis
At the time of Cornell's founding, White announced that it would
be "an asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought
for truth's sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed
Religion" (Lindberg and Numbers 1986, pp. 2-3). Up to that
time, American universities were exclusively religious institutions,
and generally focused on the liberal arts and religious training
(though they were not explicitly antagonistic to science). In
1869 White gave a lecture on "The Battle-Fields of Science",
arguing that history showed the negative outcomes resulting from
any attempt on the part of religion to interfere with the progress
the next 30 years he refined his analysis, expanding his case
studies to include nearly every field of science over the entire
history of Christianity, but also narrowing his target from "religion"
through "ecclesiasticism" to "dogmatic theology."
The final result was the two-volume History of the Warfare of
Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Initially less popular
than John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion
and Science (1874), White's book became an extremely influential
text on the relationship between religion and science.
premise of the book—known as the conflict thesis—was
very prevalent among historains through the 1960s. Since the 70s
and 80s, many historians of science have reevaluated the history
of science and religion, finding little evidence for White's claims
of widespread conflict; instead, they often blame White for perpetuating
a number of scientific myths, such as the idea that Christopher
Columbus had to overcome widespread belief in a flat earth.