Professor Manly Miles
Dr. Manly Miles, circa 1877. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives.
Manly Miles, M.D., was a pioneer of scientific agriculture, becoming the first—and only—professor of practical agriculture in the United States when he was appointed to that newly created position at the State Agricultural College of Michigan. His contributions to the science not only helped to put M.A.C. in the forefront of the field, they created a legacy of experimental research that continues to this day.
Manly Miles was born July 20, 1826, at Homer, New York. At the age of eleven his family moved to a farm in the vicinity of Flint, Michigan, where he learned firsthand the day-to-day aspects of farm management. He attended Western Reserve College and later Rush Medical College, Chicago, where he earned a medical doctorate in 1850. Dr. Miles returned to Flint to open a private practice, and in 1851 was married to Miss Mary E. Dodge.[Kuhn, p. 60. Beal, p. 404]
But Miles’ interests ranged far beyond medicine, and in 1859 he closed his practice to take a position as Assistant State Geologist. In that role he extensively catalogued the fauna of the state, and “did more to develop the general natural history of [Michigan] than any other man either before or since.”[Popular Science Monthly, Apr. 1899, p. 837]
In 1860, Dr. Miles joined the faculty of the Agricultural College as Professor of Zoology; he was retained through its reorganization the following year and taught animal physiology and geometry as well. He resided at the westernmost of the original four professors’ residences, later known as Faculty Row № 4. In 1864 “Superintendent of the Farm” was added to his chair, and in 1865 he received an additional title, one wholly new at American colleges: Professor of Practical Agriculture.
As Professor of Agriculture, Dr. Miles took a strong hand not only in farm operations, but also in planning the course of agricultural study, making “‘practical agriculture’ actually one in science applied to agriculture.” The farm, he believed, was not merely a place for students to labor, nor was it meant as a money-making operation for the school; rather, it was a place where the teachings of the classroom could find real-world examples, and where scrupulous experimentation would provide data to improve the knowledge of farmers everywhere. “Miles undertook experiments which, though they revealed few startling truths, demonstrated the fallacies in much of what passed for research.”[Kuhn, pp. 97–98]
He was much beloved by his students, being “thorough, scholarly, and enthusiastic,” “an easy and graceful talker, [and] a cheerful dispenser of this learning to others.”[Popular Science Monthly, Apr. 1899, pp. 837, 841] That enthusiasm even carried over into field work, for he had no aversion to getting his hands dirty, and students “were never happier than when detailed for a day’s work with Dr. Miles in laying out some difficult ditch or surveying some field.”[Beal, p. 405] More often than not, Miles would be clad in his brown overalls, working right alongside the students.
As Superintendent of the Farm—and a polymath—Dr. Miles designed and directed the construction of all of the major barns built during his tenure—a sheep barn (1865), the “piggery” (1870), and the “new” horse barn (1872)—also a windmill to pump a well, and probably most of the lesser farm buildings too. All of these saw heavy use over the next several decades (q.v. The Farm Complexes). Meanwhile, he strove to improve the college’s herds, traveling to the east to purchase purebred Short-Horn and Devon cattle, among others, while selling off its lesser specimens.[Beal, pp. 53, 55–56, 268]
Dr. Miles toiled diligently to provide improvements and benefits to the College—ultimately to his own detriment. He traveled frequently to the Capitol to shepherd appropriation bills through the state legislature, often employing “tricks” and “manoeuvres” to get the bills passed. What exactly these moves were is unclear, but they “didn’t tend to make it easier to get bills through in succeeding legislatures.”[Beal, p. 406] Moreover, he appears to have made some enemies along the way, among them Governor John Judson Bagley.
In 1875 Bagley had firm control of the Board of Agriculture (he had appointed three of its six members, and renewed the appointment of a fourth) and, through them, had his own man, William Henry Pickering Marston, appointed Secretary of the Board (a move Beal deemed “most unfortunate”).[Beal, p. 406] On Bagley’s behalf, Marston gathered information from the faculty regarding Dr. Miles, some of whom called him “arbitrary and underhanded.” (It is unclear from where this deprecation came; Professor Beal cites this quote as adapted from an obituary in Popular Science Monthly, but it does not appear in the original, and Beal seems to take exception to the characterization. Yet at the same time, Beal writes, “It was next to impossible for Dr. Miles to work intimately with others without having his own way, hence he remained only a few years in four different positions.”)[Beal, pp. 405–406. Popular Science Monthly, Apr. 1899, p. 839]
In the end, with his two-thirds majority of the Board backing him, Governor Bagley demanded the resignation of Professor Miles. It is one of the uglier moments in the history of the Agricultural College, if for no other reason than that it led to a rare instance of redaction within the Minutes of the Board.[Minutes, 18 Feb 1875, p. 271]
Portion of the Minutes, showing the heavy hand (and signature) of Secretary Marston. Although difficult to read in its entirely, it includes: “Gov. Bagley offered the following resolution[…] Resolved that the Pres’t of the College be instructed to secure the services of a competent Prof. of Agriculture in place of Dr. Miles.” Image Credit: M.S.U. Archives.
Beal says Dr. Miles was “defiant when asked to resign,” but the consensus among biographers is that he did in fact resign rather than force the Board to dismiss him. His defiance was fortified by an ace up his sleeve: he had a standing invitation to become Professor of Agriculture, at increased salary, at the Agricultural College of the Illinois Industrial University (now part of the University of Illinois at Urbana).[Beal, p. 406]
But perhaps there was something to Beal’s “impossible” comment, for Miles only lasted for six months at Illinois before resigning “due to differences with higher up faculty.”[UIUC website] He continued his studies, taking a D.V.S. degree from Columbia Veterinary College, New York, in March 1880. He then took a position as Experimenter at Houghton Farm near Mountainville, New York, a privately owned experiment station. In 1882, at the behest of President Paul A. Chadbourne of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, he joined the faculty at Amherst as Professor of Agriculture. Miles resigned this position shortly after Dr. Chadbourne’s death in 1886, and returned to Lansing where he remained the rest of his life.[Popular Science Monthly, Apr. 1899, pp. 839, 841]
During his career Dr. Miles wrote several books, many of which became important texts in the field:
- Stock-Breeding: A practical treatise on the applications of the laws of development and heredity to the improvement and breeding of domestic animals (1878), a “classic work”;
- Description of Houghton Farm: Experiments with Indian Corn, 1880–81 (1882);
- Silos and Ensilage: A practical treatise on the ensilage of fodder corn (1889);
- Land Draining: A handbook for farmers on the principles and practice of farm draining (1892).[Popular Science Monthly, Apr. 1899, p. 839]
He also wrote numerous articles for Popular Science Monthly, and other periodicals, on a wide range of topics.
Manly Miles died February 15, 1898, at Lansing, survived by his wife, Mary. One year later, Mrs. Miles began to sell off portions of the Manly Miles Farm—a 215-acre tract purchased sometime prior to 1874, consisting of two parcels running north from Grand River Avenue along the west side of Abbot Road.[Beers, p. 15] The southernmost fifty-five acres of the farm were purchased by investors and developed into the Oakwood subdivision; other portions were platted in later years. Part of the farm remains undeveloped today, and forms Harrison Meadows Park.
Political and (maybe) personal issues aside, there is no doubt that Manly Miles was an important figure in the early years of M.A.C., and one of the leading lights in the field of scientific agriculture in the 19th century. Dr. Chadbourne, in announcing his tenure at Amherst, called Miles “the ablest man in the United States for that position,” and a peer said Miles “represented the forefront of advanced agriculture in America,” and “did American farming a lasting service, and his deeds live after him.” His students’ esteem for him is clear: he appears in an 1877 M.A.C. yearbook, despite having departed the College two years earlier. One former student, Daniel Strange (’67) went so far as to say, “If indeed [Dr. Kedzie] was, as is so often claimed, the backbone of the College for many years, then was President Abbot the brain and the heart, and Dr. Miles was the active limbs.”[Beal, p. 62]
In 1959, Dr. Manly Miles was honored with a campus building that bears his name. True to his legacy, units housed in the Manly Miles Building continue to stand at the cutting edge of research, among them the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations.