George Palmer Williams


Philosophy 1841-1854, Mathematics 1854-1863,

Physics 1863-1881

GEORGE PALMER WILLIAIMS was born at Woodstock, Vermont, April 13, 1802.  He was graduated Bachelor of ARts from the University of Vermont in 1825, and then studied about two years in the Theological Seminady at Andover, Massachusetts.  He did not complete the course, but took up teaching, which proved to be his life work.  He was Principal of the Preparatory School at Kenyon College, Ohio, from 1827 to 1831.  In 1831 he was elected to the chair of Ancient Languages in the Western University of Pennsylvania, but after two years he returned to Keyon College, where he remained until he called, in 1837, to the branch of the incipient University of Michigan at Pontiac.  In 1841, when the College proper was opened at Ann Arbor, he was made Professor of Natural Philosophy.  In 1854 he was transferred to the chair of Mathematics and in 1863 to the chair of Physics.  From 1875 to 1881 he was Emeritus Professor of Physics.  He received the degree of Doctor of Laws from Kenyon College in 1849. The University Senate in a memorandum relative to his death declared that: "Dr. Williams welcomed the first student that came to Ann Arbor for instruction; as President of the Faculty he gave diplomas to the first class that graduated, and from the day of his appointment to the hour of his death his official connection with the University was never broken." In 1846 he was ordained to the ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church; but he did no regular parish work, except for a short time in Ann Arbor. He was first and last a teacher, beloved by his colleagues and pupils and universally respected and honored. Some years before his death the alumni raised a considerable fund, the proceeds of which were to be paid to him during his lifetime and after his death were to be used for maintaining a professorship named in honor of his memory. He died at Ann Arbor, September 4, 1881. In 1827 he was married to Elizabeth Edson, of Randolph, Vermont. She died in 1850 leaving a daughter, Louisa (afterwards Mrs. Alfred DuBois); and in 1852 he married Mrs. Jane Richards. (See page 33.) 

Burke A. Hinsdale and Isaac Newton Demmon, History of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1906), pp. 221-22.



By Martin Luther D’Ooge, ‘62

The Michigan Alumnus, October 1905, Page 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.