Knockin’ at history’s door
Professors and longtime friends Harry Dorn and Jay Stipes reminisce over John McLaren McBryde's legacy
“You have to get over here as quickly as possible,” Stipes told him.
Stipes, a professor of plant pathology in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been known for years on campus as “the tree doctor,” and even has an email address to back it up: email@example.com.
What few knew about Stipes: In the 1980s, a woman named Mary McBryde Miller had worked with him on her master’s degree about boxwood decline, and the two had become friends.
Miller, as it happened, was the granddaughter of John McLaren McBryde, the fifth president of Virginia Tech, from 1891 to 1907. McBryde had propelled the University so far forward during his 16-year tenure that he is known as the “Father of Modern VPI.”
But before that morning in 1998, Dorn and Stipes didn’t know a whole lot about the changes McBryde had made, nor about his own leading-edge scientific methods and teaching. Only after visiting with Miller would they learn the extent to which one former Virginia Tech President’s vision had shaped what the university would become more than a century later. Dorn just knew that from the sound in Stipes’ voice, he should hurry.
Stipes told him to come to the big house at the corner of Prices Fork Road and West Campus Drive.
“There’s no house there,” Dorn told his friend.
“It’s behind the trees,” Stipes told him, and of all people, the tree doctor usually knows what’s behind the trees.
As they walked toward the house, Stipes and Dorn saw that they were stepping back in time. They got to the front door of a grand, southern house and knocked. Miller welcomed them, in what Stipes still remembers as a Southern accent as comforting as a soft breeze.
She told them she was now 90 years old, and that her family had once lived on campus next to what is now Davidson Hall. When the university grew, they moved to the Prices Fork Road house, which in those days sat on 250 acres stretching from Toms Creek Road to Glade Road.
“The ambience there was like a museum,” Stipes said. “I’ll never forget that the carpet was dark, and the walls were filled with books. You could tell right away it was a scholar’s residence, and the order of books and the tall windows just gave it the feeling of antiquity.”
Dorn and Stipes told this story over a video call in September; Dorn with his wavy silver hair, operating their computer. Stipes in a faded orange Virginia Tech ballcap, scooted up in an office chair over Dorn’ shoulder. When Stipes wanted Dorn to pause the show, he’d call out, “Let’s put a bookmark right there,” before inserting his own commentary.
One bookmark was a story Dorn had gleaned earlier, about how a young Mary McBryde had met her husband. Lawrence Miller was well-known for his findings about nematodes, tiny worms that can destroy crops such as cotton, peanuts, and soybeans.
“The way he met Mary was interesting,” Stipes said.
There was a large, diseased Dutch Elm tree on campus that was hollow in the middle. Miller, the nematologist, had contorted himself to get inside the tree to do some work – and got stuck.
“He was yelling for someone to help, and Mary came by,” Stipes said. “That’s a good story. She got her husband out of the trunk of a rotting Elm tree.”
Dorn and Stipes interact with each other like lifelong pals, because they almost are. They quickly became friends at Virginia Tech in 1974 upon Dorn’s arrival in the Department of Chemistry, and the next thing you know they were having families at the same time, then hanging out as one big group.
“We had both families at one time going to the beach together,” Dorn said.
“And we’ve shared Thanksgiving dinners,” Stipes chimed in.
“We went to Alaska with our wives once, too,” Dorn added.
So, it’s no wonder that Stipes wanted Dorn there at the McBryde house that day, not to mention that the conversation would undoubtedly get into chemistry, Dorn’s expertise.
As intrigued as they were seeing the inside of the house, it’s not why Miller had invited them. She had a few academic items that her grandfather had passed along, including the chemistry text of the day and jotted notes that cast a revealing light on McBryde’s scientific leadership.
McBryde had come to the university, then called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, in 1891 from South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he’d been president for the past eight years.
“He had offers to be president of University of Tennessee and University of Virginia also. Can you believe it?,” Dorn said, as Stipes cackled in the background: “He left South Carolina because he didn’t like the fact that they moved all the agricultural stuff to this new place, called Clemson.”
College presidents were also teaching faculty in those days, and Dorn marvels at the notes that McBryde penciled into the chemistry text of Elements of Chemistry by Charles Adolphe Wurtz. On page 38 of the text, McBryde had added several elements discovered after the book was printed and placed them on the periodic table: samarium, scandium, and thulium.
Dorn noticed that McBryde had begun to write the formulas in a different style than typical for those days. At the time, the number of atoms in a chemical element was written as superscript.
“In the textbook he was using, they were superscript,” Dorn said. “McBryde’s notes put them in subscript. He already knew what was going to happen and his are in subscript. That is interesting to me.”
Stipes read into that: “I think he was prescient. He didn’t just lecture from yellow notes, he was in touch with the changes of the day. That’s the message I get here.”
McBryde, specifically, was a professor of agricultural chemistry, and when he moved to Virginia Tech he brought along a colleague from South Carolina College, Robert Davidson. Davidson, a professor of analytical chemistry, married McBryde’s daughter, Anna, the following year.
Set aside all historic documents and notes, and it’s here that McBryde put Virginia Tech on a course that not only fomented its growth, but also made it an invaluable resource for helping the country address issues critical to its future.
McBryde recruited and assembled a faculty to focus on significant issues of the day. One such issue was the emerging problem of assuring the safety of the nation’s food supply, and Davidson led the charge.
“Davidson knew that the contents of cattle feed needed action by lawmakers,” Dorn said. “You have to realize at the time that people were starting to recognize that they needed what became the Food and Drug Administration.
“It’s safe to say that he did as much as anyone in the United States to advance the science of agricultural chemistry and analytical chemistry.”
It didn’t matter to Davidson, McBryde, or the other scientists they worked with whether the knowledge came from chemistry, agriculture, horticulture, or a combination of those fields. What mattered was: how to produce an increasing amount of food, for both people and livestock, to feed the growing country.
Dorn and Stipes have gleaned from the papers that Miller gave them that day in 1998 that McBryde pushed the university toward research and learning that, much like today, is intently focused on finding solutions to society’s problems. And just like today at Virginia Tech, McBryde saw that faculty working across disciplines led to the most practical, sustainable solutions.
“I think it is remarkable, in a sense, that both the origins of science and agriculture really originate from the McBryde story,” Dorn said.
Mary McBryde Miller passed away two years after Dorn and Stipes visited her house. Stipes remembers finding out about her passing by seeing her obituary in the newspaper. He says he wasn’t sad, because she had gotten her affairs in order – partly by making sure that her grandfather’s historical documents had been passed along.
Dorn was in his mid-50s, Stipes in his early 60s, when they met with her more than two decades ago. As they each have gotten closer to the age Miller was during that visit, it seems the meeting has become more poignant.
“Right!” Stipes said.
“Exactly,” Dorn chimed in.