George Thomas Bowen


George T. Bowen was the first prominent scientist recruited to teach in a Tennessee college. A Rhode Island native, he was admitted to Yale in 1819 with sophomore standing. He graduated in 1822, then went to the University of Pennsylvania, earning a M.D. in 1824. As an undergraduate Bowen became deeply involved in scientific research. The Yale faculty gave him total access to the chemistry lab, and the medical school faculty was equally supportive. Most of his studies concerned the chemistry of minerals, and he published in the leading journals of the era.

With an earned doctorate and nine major publications, the twenty-three-year-old Bowen joined the University of Nashville faculty in May 1826 to teach chemistry, optics, and natural history. Although the Board of Trust of the University of Nashville approved a resolution on December 20, 1826, stating that optics was best taught by a mathematician, it nevertheless allowed Dr. Bowen to offer the course. Bowen enraged at least one colleague, perhaps because he used the laboratory mode of instruction in science courses, an innovation that may have seemed barbaric to some. Despite the protests, however, Bowen had initiated the tradition of excellence in science teaching at the University of Nashville.

In Nashville, Bowen studied the chemistry of spring water and obtained a Tennessee meteorite for analysis. Before he could publish results of his studies, he died of tuberculosis on October 25, 1828. While his untimely death makes it difficult to assess his influence on the intellectual history of antebellum Tennessee, it is clear that he brought the laboratory mode of instruction to Tennessee colleges, a significant achievement.

Suggested Reading

James X. Corgan, “George Thomas Bowen (1800-1828),” Wyndham D. Miles and Robert F. Gould, eds., American Chemists and Chemical Engineers, vol. 2 (1994), 27-28

Citation Information

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  • Article Title George Thomas Bowen
  • Coverage 1803-1828
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018