Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Winter 2009

William McFarland Patton: Soldier, engineer, teacher, administrator

Working under extreme conditions to build railways through marshes and swamps may not have been the proverbial piece of cake for William MacFarland Patton, but he had experienced far worse conditions while still a teenager.

Eighteen-year-old Patton, who later became dean of engineering at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (shortened popularly to VPI and known today as Virginia Tech), was a sergeant of Company B at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) when that college's corps of cadets marched 67 miles to fight Union troops in the Civil War Battle of New Market. He may have left VMI after the battle, returning in 1867 and graduating in 1869, although VMI lists him in the class of 1865.

In his youth, Patton attended private schools in Richmond, Va., where his father was a well-known politician and attorney. Young Patton entered VMI in 1862 to major in civil engineering, and soon after graduation, he traveled to the Caribbean and Central America to work in his chosen field.

The Civil War veteran returned to his alma mater in 1873 as an adjunct professor of civil engineering. He was named a full professor the following year, when he also received a commission from the governor of Virginia as a colonel in the Virginia Militia. He left VMI in 1882.

Bridge-building appealed to Patton, and he spent the next five years as the top engineer in bridge construction projects for various railway companies. Among his projects were bridges across the Susquehanna, Ohio, Schuylkill, Warrior, Tombigbee, and Mobile rivers. He also engineered the construction of a railway between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, "one of the most difficult and complete engineering schemes in the country," according to John W. Stull's 1908 biographical sketch of Patton. Later, he oversaw construction of the Chicago Drainage Canal.

He returned to VMI in 1887, again as a professor of civil engineering, and left two years later.

Patton Hall rendering from the early 1990s
Patton Hall rendering from the early 1990s

Between 1889 and 1896, Patton focused on writing two books that earned him a national reputation in engineering: A Practical Treatise on Foundations and A Treatise on Civil Engineering. Stull says that Patton's second book "is recognized in the engineering world as one of the most valuable contributions to the profession [that] has ever been printed." Advanced engineering classes used both tomes as textbooks, and engineers used them as reference books.

In 1896, VPI hired Patton as chair of its civil engineering department, and in 1904, he took on the additional responsibility of dean of VPI's new Department of Engineering. He flourished as a teacher and administrator on the Blacksburg campus, where President John M. McBryde described him as having a "lovable disposition, high character, and fine judgment" and said he was "beloved by his students."

Following Patton's death on May 26, 1905, members of the VPI Alumni Association wrote: "He was ever ready and willing to help a student to master difficulties both in the classroom and out of it, and he never appeared to tire of explaining to any of us, who were too dull to see them, any engineering principles which we failed to grasp, but which were perfectly simple to him."

The college yearbook, The Bugle, dedicated its 1906 volume to Patton's memory, and later, Virginia Tech recognized his contributions by naming a building in his memory. Appropriately, Patton Hall now houses civil engineering, the profession to which William MacFarland Patton had dedicated his life.

CLARA B. COX is director of University Publications.

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