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Faculty Portraits VI

Alexander Winchell
The Michigan Alumnus 361-364

Alexander Winchell, LL.D.
Michigan Portraits VI

"Oh, then is life, within our life con

The scene of conflict to no eye revealed—

A shoreless depth, heaved in a star-
less night—

Its billows swelling in resistless 

And in the compass of its throes we 

The conscious proofs of immortality."

Alexander Winchell. 

Alexander Winchell was a member
 of the faculty of the Department of
 Literature, Science and Arts of this
 University in all thirty-one years. 
 This long term of service was divided
 into two periods. The first of these
 was from 1854 to 1873 and the second
 from 1879 to 1891. For the first year
 and a half he occupied the chair of
 Physics and Civil Engineering. In
 1855 he was made Professor of Geol
ogy, Zoology and Botany, which position he resigned in 1873 to become 
Chancellor of Syracuse University, N. 
Y. After an absence of six years, 
 part of which time was spent at Syra
cuse and the remainder at Vanderbilt
 University, Tenn., he returned to Ann
 Arbor to take charge of the work in 
geology and paleontology, and con
tinued in this position until his death 
which occurred here Feb. 19th, 1891.

Although he was but twenty-nine
 when he first came to Ann Arbor he
 was already an experienced teacher, 
the subjects which he had taught be
ing of unusual range for they covered 
about all of the natural sciences as 
well as the classic languages. 

He was born in the town of North-
east, Duchess County, N. Y., Dec. 31, 1824, of English and Scotch-Irish 
parentage, the oldest of eight chil
dren. His parents had both been 
teachers in the public schools and his 
natural aptitude for learning received
 wise guidance. He early exhibited a 
fondness for mathematics and it is 
said of him that "on the day he was
 seven years old he recited without
 mistake the entire multiplication table 
to twelves, and had completed Emer
son's, First part of mental arithmetic. 
 This taste for mathematics and the 
exact sciences continued throughout 
his entire life and both guided and
 governed his thought in those more
 speculative fields into which his later 
studies carried him. At the age of 
sixteen he had made substantial progress in the Greek and Latin lan
guages as well as in natural science
 studies and had spent two years in the 
preliminary study of medicine with
 an uncle who was a physician. At 
this age he began his career as a teach
er and his fondness for teaching prov
ed to be so great that he decided to
 make it his life work. While still
 enrolled as a pupil he accepted teach
ing engagements and pursuing his 
studies privately he was graduated 
from the America Seminary, N. Y., at 
the age of nineteen and from Wesley
an University, Middletown, Conn., at 
twenty-three. Henceforth he devoted 
himself more exclusively to the teach
ing of natural science and between the 
ages of twenty-three and twenty-nine 
filled positions in New York, New
 Jersey, and at several of the higher 
institutions of learning in the South—
until he was called to the University 
of Michigan. His contributions to
 science during this period were many 
and varied. Wherever opportunity
 offered for scientific observations he
 caused it to yield rich returns. Long 
before he entered upon his duties at
 Ann Arbor he had gained the favor
able recognition of leading scientists 
because of the value of his original 
work in botany, zoology, astronomy, 
 geology and paleontology.

By reason of the richness and vari
ety of his learning combined with a
 readiness and picturesqueness of ex
pression in portraying his thought, 
 both by word and pen, Professor Win
chell became an able and influential 
advocate of the importance of science
 branches as a part of a broad and
 comprehensive scheme of education
 and he was ever untiring in his ef
forts to gain a due share of recogni
tion for these studies both in the sec
ondary schools and the University. 
 He claimed that "the influence of
 science and the human mind, espec
ially in its formative stage, is more 
healthful to a normal growth, and 
more conducive to moral rectitude and, 
 more stimulating toward a right am
bition than any other field of knowledge." In making popular and at
tractive the study of geology, and in 
interpreting and bringing within the 
scope of ordinary minds the action 
and reaction of force and matter in 
the wonderful processes of world-
building and planet creation, and in
 peopling the earth with its infinite va
riety of forms vegetable and ani
mal in an evolutionary sequence, Al
exander Winchell has had no superior
 and but few equals. His imaginative
 faculty was strongly developed and 
under the safe and skillful guidance
 of a judgment and reason well trained by habits of exact observation it
 tempted him on bold flights into the
 realms of the unseen both of ages past
 and yet to come, and gave him a just
 claim to the title of both seer and
 prophet of Cosmic Events. To such 
as are able to behold and share with
 him, in some measure at least, these 
rational visions and to appreciate the 
soundness and breadth of that knowledge which formed the foundations
 of the pinnacle on which his feet were
 firmly planted, the greatness of the
 man was revealed. One of these has 
said of him: "to him it was given, 
 among the few, to grasp as a central
 and cardinal principle the consan
guinity of the universe and rise from 
terrestrial details to cosmical generalizations and enlisting in his service 
the astronomer, the chemist, the phy
sicist and the mathematician, deduce 
from their data the conclusions to
 which, given time and the continu
ance of nature's present order, they
 must inevitably lead." The unusual
 scope and thoroughness of his attain
ments in the results of scientific discovery, taken in connection with his 
profound religious convictions and 
his facility in expressing his thought 
made him a most effective mediator
 at a time when the apparent conflict 
between religion and science had need of a rational basis for reconciliation.

His whole soul was enlisted in ef
forts to harmonize these contending
 opinions and much of his best work 
for the religious and lay press and on 
the lecture platform dealt with this 
theme in some one or other of its as

No attempt can be made here even
 to summarize the writings of this remarkable man. A glance over the list
 of his published works causes amaze
ment at their number and the variety 
of the subjects dealt with when we
re member how fully his time was occupied with his teaching and other
 duties. His published books and formal papers alone "are equivalent to
 eight thousand average printed octavo pages". His literary labors ex
tended over about forty years and his
 published writings are therefore equal
 to an average volume every other year 
during this long period."

Among the most notable of his 
books "Sketches of Creation" (1870), 
 "Reconciliation of Science and Reli
gion" (1877), "Preadamites" (1880), 
 "Sparks from a Geologist's Hammer" 
(1881), and "World Life" (1883), 
 deserve chief mention because of the 
interest they have aroused and the in
fluence they have had on the mould
ing of opinion. 

This great fertility was due not so 
much to excessive or prolonged hours 
of labor as to the admirable system 
and method in his work to which he 
had trained himself. His powers of 
concentration were great and his
 memory reliable but these were much
 aided by the notes and abstracts which 
he habitually made and classified of
 all his reading and observations on
 whatever subject, so that they were at 
hand to serve for ready reference. 

The spirit of the true teacher and the ability and desire to impart knowl
edge to the sincere scholar was never 
better shown than in Alexander Win
chell but between him and the indif
ferent or thoughtless pupil there was 
a great gulf fixed which he did not
 attempt to bridge. 

While by no means lacking in sym
pathy and a sense of humor, trifling
 with serious subjects or indulgence in
 misfit levity in his classroom, if he 
condescended to notice it at all
 brought just rebuke. 

There is a tinge of poetic sentiment
 apparent in much of his scientific
 writing and imagery and among his 
private papers were found many bits
 of original verse some of them of ex
ceeding beauty. Music and poetry
 harmonize well and indeed are almost
 necessary accompaniments of such a 
mind and it is but natural that in both
 he took great delight and showed 
more than an ordinary capacity for
 expressing his emotions through these 
channels. The selection which heads 
this sketch is taken from his poem
 delivered at the twenty-fifth anniversary of his class at Middletown. His 
interest in music is shown in the fact 
that he was among the earliest pro-
motors of the musical organization s
now connected with the University 
and was both president and director 
of the University Musical Society. 
 Although he was somewhat reserved
 in his manner toward strangers and
 bore an air of preoccupation, at times, 
 which gave to the casual observer an 
impression of coldness and formality, 
 he was, in fact, of warm and sympa
thetic nature, large-hearted, and
 abounding in tender emotions. Of
 this his intimate friends and pupils 
were made well aware by frequent
 acts of kindly interest shown them 
without ostentation.

His erect and well-proportioned
 physique, fine features, noble head and
 dignified but courteous address com
ported well with the teachings he im
parted and were the fit accompani
ments of his mental attributes. He 
was in appearance the ideal teacher, 
calculated to inspire confidence and

His self-poise and philosophic tem
perament is exhibited in the fact that 
for the last twenty-five years of his
 life he was well aware of the progress 
and nature of the serious malady 
which caused his somewhat sudden

But he never allowed this knowl
edge to obstruct the steady current of
 his work nor interfere with any re
sponse to what seemed to be the call
 of duty, no matter how arduous the 
task it imposed; nor did he utter com
plaint or permit useless alarm to those
 whose pleasure it would have been to
 minister to him. 

His last days were spent not only
 at his routine work but in special ef
fort to comply with a request from his
 students and others to set forth the 
claims of the theory of evolution in
 that comprehensive application of it
 to all created things that his extensive 
learning and reasoning had brought 
him to entertain. 

The final lecture of this unusually
 popular course still remained to be de
livered when he was stricken down. 
 It was to have become the summing up 
of all that had preceded it and would 
have made a fitting close to a life-
work so memorable, since the follow
ing synopsis of it which remains to
 us beautifully epitomizes the results
 of his work and the faith which it had

"Evolution reveals the universe as 
one empire; establishes the unity of
 creative intelligence; and proves hu
man kinship with the infinite mind."

William James Herdman, '72, '75m