Cornell College Department
About Cornell Academics Admissions Alumni Athletics Offices Library
Home > Cornell Report > Fall2002


FALL 2 0 0 2

Cornell's renaissance man

  Charles Millhauser  

William Harmon Norton's extraordinary career at Cornell spanned 70 years as student, teacher, trustee, and secretary of the board. Although he officially retired in 1924, he continued as a trustee until 1940 and taught an occasional course until 1942.

His father, Roderick Norton (1819-83), brought his family to Mount Vernon in 1865 when he was appointed pastor of the Methodist Church. Two years earlier, he had been made a Cornell trustee and served as such until 1880, except for a two-year hiatus, 1872-74, when he was the Methodist pastor in Fayette, Iowa, and president of Upper Iowa University, 1872-73. He and his wife, Caroline Pardee, had two children. Daughter Mina (1849-75) and son William (1856-1944) both earned Cornell degrees.

Mina, Class of 1869, married William Galloway ( 843-78), Class of 1870. His studies were interrupted for three years by the Civil War, in which he lost a finger fighting for the Union at Chicamauga. Galloway was the founding editor in October 1869 of The Collegian, the first Cornell student newspaper. He became a lawyer and she a teacher. Tuberculosis claimed them both.

William Harmon Norton was 7 years old when his father began teaching him Latin. At the age of 10, he enrolled for a year in the junior division of Cornell's high school. Young William had to withdraw when his family moved to Manchester. Despite the fact that he was fluent in Latin, he was put back into the lowest grade at Manchester high school because he had not had a course in English grammar. After attending schools in Osage and Fayette (Upper Iowa University), he took a year off to teach in two country schools in order to earn money to finish his senior year at Cornell. He graduated with the Class of 1875. Cornell immediately engaged him as a tutor of Greek and Latin. Two years later he was appointed professor of Greek and Latin at a salary of $500 a year. In 1881, he became professor of Greek and geology and from 1890 until his retirement, he was professor of geology, a subject in which he was mostly self-taught.

Norton married Mary Florence Burr (1852-1950), Class of 1877, in 1883. She was related to Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and to Olive Burr, the wife of Cornell president Samuel Fellows. Following her graduation, Cornell hired her to teach French and mathematics. From 1883, she taught only mathematics, and in 1892 became Cornell's first associate professor. From 1905 until her retirement in 1919, she was professor of mathematics—and in 1909 Alumni Professor of Mathematics, the first Cornell woman to be given an endowed professorship.

The couple, who had no children, are especially remembered for their beautiful flower garden and excellent collection of recordings. On warm evenings, they would set up their phonograph in the garden and share the music with everyone who stopped by.

In 1980, the Carnegie Library was dedicated as the Norton Geology Center. Cornell offered its first course in geology in 1855, and in 1890 was the first in Iowa to establish a geology department.

Norton gave the college its anthropoid collection. These skeletons of apes and monkeys are often mistaken for deceased administrators, the tallest being, naturally, an ex-president.

Professors Mary Burr Norton and
William Harmon Norton


Charle Milhauaer is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at or 100 Intracoastal Place Apt. 307, Tequesta FL 33469.

<< >>
Maintained by: Office of College Communications Last Update: July 15, 2008 8:39 am
600 First Street West, Mt. Vernon, Iowa, 52314 ©2004 Cornell College; All Rights Reserved