150 Years

A Retrospective

On February 22, 1865, with the last shot of the Civil War yet to be fired, the Kentucky legislature accepted the provisions of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, thus giving birth to what is now the University of Kentucky. Deemed the “Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky,” the institution officially opened its doors in October 1866. The mechanical department offered courses in civil engineering and mining at Henry Clay’s former mansion and farm, “Ashland,” and in 1868, “A&M College,” as it was called, constructed its first building—the “Ashland Mechanical Works.” Tuition was $30 per year, accompanied by a $5 janitor’s fee.

150-webInitially an independent state institution that operated within Kentucky University (itself having recently combined with Transylvania University), the Kentucky legislature removed A&M College from Kentucky University in 1878. Two years later, the city of Lexington donated the old fair grounds on South Limestone—52 acres in all—for A&M College’s next home. One hundred and thirty-five years later, the present-day University of Kentucky remains in that location and the UK College of Engineering still trains aspiring world-changers in crucial engineering fields. In this article, which is not meant to be an exhaustive or chronological history, we would like to identify some of the important people, programs and places that have allowed the college to not simply survive, but thrive in a competitive educational arena.

Along the way, Thomas W. Lester, former dean and faculty member since 1990 and passionate historian of the college, will supply insightful and sometimes surprising commentary. After 25 years in the college, Lester will retire at the semester’s end.


For the first 20 years of its existence, A&M College taught courses leading to the degrees of Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts; however, students could not earn a bachelor’s degree specifically in engineering. That changed in 1886 when the school offered an engineering course that led to the degree of Civil Engineer (C.E.). John Wesley Gunn was the first student to earn this degree—and thus a degree from the College of Engineering—in 1890.

Thomas W. Lester (TWL): While John Wesley Gunn was the first student to obtain an engineering degree, William Benjamin Munson—A&M College’s first graduate (1869)—came to Kentucky to study engineering and would have earned an engineering degree if such a thing had been available. Munson was a sharp entrepreneur and his engineering background enabled him to become a prosperous proprietor and developer. He put the town of Denison, Texas on the map by organizing a railroad line, founding a cotton mill, a bank and a power company. Eventually, Munson owned ten million acres of Texas land.


Since John Wesley Gunn graduated in 1890, over 24,000 individuals have received at least one degree in engineering or computer science from UK. Our alumni feature leaders in politics, energy, transportation, manufacturing, medicine, aerospace, education and more. Seven mid-century-webalumni have been inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. In 1992, the college created the Hall of Distinction, which recognizes alumni who have demonstrated distinguished professional accomplishments, outstanding character and commitment to community service. The rows of plaques bearing the engraved visages of Hall of Distinction members along the atrium of the Ralph G. Anderson Building encourage current students who understand that those in the hall once sat in the same seats they now occupy.

TWL: One of the most significant attributes of our graduates has been their enthusiasm for, and their support of, the greater university. As a consequence, nine buildings on campus owe their existence to the philanthropic contributions of our alumni and several others have been named in honor of graduates and faculty of the College of Engineering.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, A&M College offered bachelor degrees in three different disciplines: mechanical engineering, civil engineering and mining engineering. The Department of Electrical Engineering was established in 1918 and became the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering when a computer engineering degree option was added in 2005. The Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and the Department of Chemical Engineering were created in 1956, with materials engineering added to the latter in 1997. The Department of Computer Science, which had resided in the College of Arts & Sciences as an outgrowth of mathematics studies, moved into the College of Engineering in 1994. The Center for Biomedical Engineering moved into the college in 2010 after over 30 years as an offering through The Graduate School and became an official department in 2013. In 1953, Carl J. McHargue received the first doctor of engineering degree; however, the college sorely needed to increase the number of its faculty with doctoral degrees in order to strengthen its graduate studies.

TWL: The arrival of John Oswald as the university’s seventh president in 1963 marked the beginning of a five-year period of enormous growth and vitality for the university’s academic offerings, especially its advanced degrees. Alumnus Robert M. Drake was recruited to the university from Princeton University by Oswald and became the college’s fifth dean in 1966. I view Dean Drake as the founder of the modern College of Engineering. He recruited a new cohort of faculty, many from Ivy League schools, who became the leaders in the development of a full complement of doctoral degree programs within the college.


Margaret Ingels became the first woman to receive an engineering degree from the college when she earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1916 (additionally, she became the second female engineering graduate and the first female to earn a graduate degree in engineering in the United States). Ingels worked in air conditioning at Carrier Corporation, became a spokesperson for the engineering profession and was an inspiration to women interested in engineering. Miss Ingels was posthumously inducted into the College of Engineering’s Hall of Distinction in 1993.

In 1951, Holloway Fields, Jr., became the first African- American student to receive an undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky when he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Fields enjoyed a long, productive career with General Electric and was inducted into the Hall of Distinction in 1998.

TWL: Not only is the current freshman class the largest and among the top three academically in the college’s history, it is also the most diverse with 19% female students and 21% minority students. The collegiate chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers provide both cultural and intellectual support for their student members and render important service to the entire college. Both have received national acclaim for their accomplishments. There has been a corresponding increase in the diversity of the faculty as well. Although the college has made gains, it continues to explore ways to serve underrepresented populations, as well as make them part of our faculty.


In 1891, a Purdue University graduate named F. Paul Anderson arrived at A&M College to teach mechanical engineering and establish mechanical engineering as a department. After making mechanical engineering one of the top departments in the whole institution, Anderson became the College of Engineering’s first dean in 1918 and served until his death in 1934. The next three deans, James H. Graham (11 years), D.V. Terrell (11 years) and Robert E. Shaver (nine years), gave the college stability over the next 30+ years, which allowed it to flourish through its 100th year. Robert Drake became dean in 1966, a position he held until he was appointed vice president of the University of Kentucky in 1972, at which time James E. Funk took over as dean. He served until 1979 and Roger Eichhorn and Ray Bowen held the post in turn through 1989.

In 1990, another Purdue mechanical engineering graduate, Thomas W. Lester, who had taught at Kansas State University and Louisiana State University, became dean of the college. Lester holds the longest tenure as dean of engineering in UK’s history, serving for 22 years. His influence and accomplishments were profound. The physical plant was modernized and expanded through the completion of a number of research and educational buildings under his watch, and access to the college’s degree programs was extended to western Kentucky with the creation of the University of Kentucky College of Engineering Extended Campus Program in Paducah—a site that allows students to complete a four-year mechanical or chemical engineering degree exclusively in Paducah. In addition, Dean Lester pioneered a program that offers automatic scholarships to students who meet the college’s demanding criteria.

After Dean Lester returned to the mechanical engineering faculty on a full-time basis in 2012, John Y. Walz, former chemical engineering department head at Virginia Tech and erstwhile professor at Yale University and Tulane University, accepted the college’s offer to become the next dean. Dean Walz has made the recognition of the college as one of the top 50 in the country a centerpiece of his agenda. He has worked vigorously to galvanize the support of engineering graduates, partner corporations and foundations in support of this quest.

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