Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
William Smith Clark Papers
William Smith Clark was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, July 31, 1826. He attended Williston Academy in Easthampton, Massachusetts, in the first class, that of 1844. He graduated from Amherst College in 1848 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. As a boy, he became interested in collecting birds and plants; at Amherst College, under the influence of the professors, he became greatly interested in science, especially mineralogy. As a result, he went to study in Germany, where he obtained his Ph.D. at Georgia Augusta University in Goettingen in 1852.
He returned to Amherst College to an appointment as a professor. For the next fifteen years, from 1852 to 1867, he was a member of the Amherst faculty, where he became known as an educational innovator, a fine and inspiring teacher, and a fund raiser for the college. His teaching at Amherst College was interrupted only by the Civil War, during which he served the Union Army with distinction from 1861 to 1863. Soon after his return from the war, he became the leader in the successful efforts by the town of Amherst to become the seat of a new agricultural college just authorized by the Massachusetts General Court under the provision of the Morrill Act, the "Land Grant Act" that established state agricultural and mechanical colleges throughout the United States. Just before the new Massachusetts Agricultural College opened its doors in September 1867, he was appointed president, the third to hold the title, the first two having no school over which to preside. He held the presidency of MAC for twelve years, until 1879.
Clark taught and administered the affairs of the struggling college. He insisted on making his school into a general liberal arts school, not simply a training school for farmers-to-be. Early in 1876, he obtained a leave of absence from MAC and accepted the appointment by the Japanese government to open a new agricultural college on the model of MAC. He went to Japan in the late spring and arrived on his fiftieth birthday in Sapporo, where he opened the Sapporo Agricultural College in mid-August. He remained there for eight and a half months, during which he established the school, taught four hours a day, served as the technical advisor to the island of Hokkaido, and paved the way for the conversion to Christianity of all the members of the first class. At SAC, he demonstrated anew his qualities as a fine teacher that had been revealed at both AC and MAC. He was a great inspiration to his students, all of whom became leaders in Hokkaido or nationally in Japan. As a result of his highly successful mission, his name remained well-known in Japan more than a century after his brief stay there. All Japanese school children since his time have learned as a motto his farewell statement, "Boys, be ambitious, (B.B.A.)", since extended to students of both sexes.
On returning to MAC in 1877 he found that the school's existence had become even more precarious than before. He resigned as president early in 1879 and accepted the presidency of an innovative "floating college" which was to circumnavigate the globe. However, the unfortunate premature death of the promoter brought that venture to an end shortly before the intended date of departure. Clark then became involved with a shady character with whom he founded the firm of Clark and Bothwell, a mining venture. Within a year Clark made and lost a considerable fortune. The collapse of the firm, with the disappearance of his partner, resulted in losses to the investors in the mines operated by the firm, including many citizens of Amherst.
Clark's health failed immediately after the firm's collapse in 1882 and he remained a semi-invalid until his death on March 9, 1886. Although he was a leading citizen of Amherst and prominent in the affairs of the Commonwealth, his fame has endured primarily in Japan.