The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837. Key in this effort is to celebrate the intellectual life of the University. This Faculty History Website is intended as a component of the effort to document the extraordinary academic achievements of Michigan’s faculty in building and sustaining one of the world’s great universities. It provides access to a comprehensive database of information concerning the thousands of faculty members who have served the University of Michigan.
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Faculty Portraits

George Palmer Williams
The Michigan Alumnus 12

Of all the members of the University Faculty in the early days Professor George P. Williams stands preeminent in the affections of the old boys. Somehow he got hold of our heartstrings as no one else. If ever a student had any misfortune befall him or got into any trouble, to no one would he go so soon for advice and comfort as to "Old Punky," as the boys affectionately called him. The origin, by the way, of this nickname has never been definitely explained, but it is supposed to have arisen from the dryness of his wit.

There was a fatherly kindness in his bearing, a genuine sympathy in his nature that won our entire confidence. We have forgotten the little mathematics and physics we ever learned from him, we rarely think of the teacher of calculus and asymptotes, but our mind often turns with grateful feeling to the delightful man, the noble and generous soul, that charmed us with his presence, cheered us with his humor, and kindly tolerated the ebullitions of our exuberant spirits.

The college student pays unstinted admiration to a witty teacher. No doubt one secret of the hold, which Dr. Williams had on his students, came from this source, for no teacher ever had more ready wit and such genuine humor. The best stories and the keenest repartees became associated with his name. A proposal once made by an alumnus that the jokes attributed to Dr. Williams be collected and published if carried out would make an entertaining volume. But the shafts of his wit were never cruel and unkind.

Probably no one man had so much to do with shaping the fortunes of the University in the earliest days of its history. He was the first member of its Faculty, being appointed in 1841 to the chair of Ancient Languages, from which he was soon after transferred to that of Mathematics. He served the University for forty years, and for more than ten years, prior to the advent of President Tappan, he was virtually its head. His influence during that formative period was very great. The classes were small and every student sensibly felt the personal touch of the teacher.

The personal relation between teachers and students became intimate, and this closeness of contact doubtless in part accounts for the loyalty and devotion of the older generation of graduates to the memory of their professors. This feeling found tangible expression in the effort made some thirty years ago to raise a fund, the income of which should be given to the venerable professor in retirement from active service, in order to provide his declining years with additional comforts and to free his mind from sordid cares. After his decease the funds was intended to perpetuate his memory by the endowment of a chair to be called by his name. Unhappily this generous undertaking never has been realized owing to gross mismanagement of the funds. A portion, however, of the funds has been saved and is now accumulating with the hope of securing eventually the ulterior aim.

Dr. Williams belonged to the older type of the college professor. He was teacher rather than an investigator, a man of liberal training more than a specialist. And yet his attainments in mathematics and physics were by no means insignificant. He recognized, however, as teachers of science now a days are less inclined to, the vital relationship of all learning, and he was a staunch advocate of a broad education as the only sound basis for special and professional training.

As a teacher Dr. Williams was noted for accuracy and clearness of statement, and for consummate skill in detecting fallacious reasoning and erroneous methods. I recall an incident that occurred in my own class as an illustration. One of our numbers was at the blackboard explaining a problem in Analytical Geometry, which he had solved, as he proudly supposed, by a formula of his own invention and by a method superior to that given in the textbook. When the critical point was reached the professor interrupted the explanation with a question. "Mr. -, what have you done there?" "Simplified it," was the confident reply. "Yes, stultified it," came back from the chair, whereupon the professor pointed out the fallacy that lurked beneath the process to the surprise of the overconfident student.

Among the worthies of that earlier time when we were young and our teachers were enthroned among our divinities, dear old Dr. Williams will forever hold a large place in grateful memory, not so much for what science he taught us as for what he was to us as a man and a friend. His genial smile and benignant presence still haunt and charm our memory.