newspaper clippings including images of campus from the 1850's

A Chemical Reaction

Remembering the Days: A UofSC Podcast – Episode 3

When Professor Richard Brumby asked his chemistry students in 1850 to attend extra lectures, you'd have thought by their agitated reaction that he had asked them to jump off of a cliff. What resulted was a mob scene, a textbook bonfire and suspension of nearly the entire junior class of students at South Carolina College.

Show notes
Learn more about student riots and rebellions at South Carolina by signing up for one of South Caroliniana Library’s monthly Historic Horseshoe Walking Tours, where you’ll also find out about the founding and construction of South Carolina College, and about early student life on campus.



“A chemical reaction”

“Old Fossil, he said, ‘Go!’, but it was no use you know! Old Fossil, he said, ‘Go!’, but it was no use you know!”

It’s the sound of a college campus protest — “Old Fossil, he said, ‘Go!’, but it was no use you know!” — or at least how we imagine the students at South Carolina College might have sounded one hundred seventy years ago when they got angry with a chemistry professor.

“The Junior Class, swore at last:
Be damned if they would go!” 

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, where we amble across the Horseshoe and take a stroll down more than 200 years of memory lane at the University of South Carolina.

If you’ve listened to other episodes of this show, you already know that the student body here in the first half of the 19th century was a lively group. And in 1850, there was an incident — one of several that occurred back then — that demonstrated just how excitable the students could become.

Here’s the scoop: Richard Brumby was a chemistry professor at South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s university. In the history books about the college, it seems that Brumby was one of the most unpopular faculty members. The students nicknamed him “Old Fossil,” and if they had had back then, it’s certain they would have labeled Brumby and his chemistry class as ‘Awful.’

In the late spring of 1850, Professor Brumby had been sick for a few days and missed several classes. He wanted to get the junior students caught up on the material and so he had what he thought was a modest proposal.

A religion professor was traveling for a few days — and since all of the junior students were enrolled in that professor’s course as well, Brumby directed the students to come back to his chemistry class at the appointed time for the religion lecture. That way Brumby could double up on the chemistry lectures and get everyone caught up.

Sounds reasonable enough. But the students weren’t having any of it. Here’s Elizabeth West, our resident historian and the University’s Archivist.

West: The junior class actually organized, there was a meeting with President Preston who attempted to defuse the situation. The students claimed that Professor Brumby did not have the legal right to force them to attend his class during another professor’s time periods. And so they were at an impasse...

Whoa, wait — the professor didn’t have the legal right to make them attend extra classes? Well, OK. So then what?

West: The students did have a very violent reaction. This was the junior class of the school, and so they decided they would burn their chemistry textbooks in protest. President Preston made an attempt to calm the situation but he actually had to give up and leave because the students were so upset. It was a rather frightening situation.

William Preston, himself an 1812 graduate of South Carolina College, was the president of the institution at that time, and he described what happened following the faculty meeting at which the students declared their refusal to attend Brumby’s extra class sessions.

“We had hardly adjourned, before I saw … the Chemical Text Books, which the members of the junior class had devoted as a solemn sacrifice to the flames. The junior class is entirely broken up.”

West: President Preston was trying to defuse the situation but his appeals fell on deaf ears and so he ultimately left the scene and eventually the students dispersed on their own but the result was pretty much the entire junior class was suspended.

Wow, your professor asks you to attend extra lectures for a few days. You refuse and then get suspended, so you burn your textbooks in protest. I know this guy Brumby wasn’t the most lovable of professors, but it still seems like a disproportionate response from the students.

I was curious to find out what would happen if students were to do the same thing today. So I talked to Alisa Liggett, the executive director of student conduct at the University of South Carolina. For the past 22 years she’s been working with students who sometimes haven’t made the most mature decisions.

She says the 1850 Brumby incident with the textbook burning, if all of that happened today probably no one would get suspended, but the students would likely end up on her doorstep in the Office of Student Conduct.

Liggett: If it’s your own book, today, you can burn it as much as you want to. It comes down to if it’s your own property, who are you really hurting and whether or not it affects the university.

You could absolutely get suspended for starting a fire, but usually if it’s in an open space and it can be contained we’re gonna talk about how to address it in a more adult way first. 

For as long as colleges and college students have existed, college students haven’t always chosen wisely their courses of action. The good news is that the folks here in the Office of Student Conduct understand that everyone is human and, unless a student has done something really bad, they’re probably going to get a second chance.

Liggett: This may come as a surprise to people but we really want to be student advocates…

You have to have as big a heart as your head.

So the next time an old fossil asks you to do a little extra work, try not to blow a fuse. As our university motto says, learning humanizes character — and, hopefully, it discourages making bonfires with textbooks.

This episode is sponsored by the South Caroliniana Library and its monthly Historic Horseshoe Walking Tours. Learn about the founding and construction of South Carolina College, and about early student life on campus — including rebellions and riots.

The reenacted voice of President Preston was masterfully orated by Thom Harman, and the cacaphonous caterwauling of an 1850 student mob was provided by Peter Schmolze and Kohl Friery. Script consulting by Joshua Burrack.

I’m Chris Horn — see you next time on Remembering the Days, a production of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about