Henry Vethake (1791-1866)

Henry Vethake (1791-1866)

Henry Vethake was born in British Guiana, in what was then the county of Essequibo, on May 26, 1791 to a family of Westphalian educators. His father, Fredrich Albert von Vethake, taught for a time at Vassar College. Henry arrived in Boston in 1797 and later moved to New York City where he received some of his early education. He graduated from Columbia College in 1808 and in 1813 taught mathematics and geography for a time at his alma mater. He went that same year to a similar position at Queen's College, New Jersey, now Rutgers University. He moved on to Princeton in 1817 for four years, teaching mathematics and chemistry, until he took up the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He also taught chemistry for a time.

He lectured in the political economy at the College and in 1826 the trustees added the descriptor of "Political Economy" to the title of his chair. Vethake's instruction in political economy was possibly the first of its kind in the nation. However, he was also very aware of Dickinson's economic hardships during this decade; when Princeton sought his return with the offer of a professorship and time to visit his ancestral home at Petershagen in Germany to settle family affairs, Vethake accepted and thus left Carlisle. This departure came at a time of administrative chaos for Dickinson. When, in the autumn of 1830, the trustees of the College sought to explain the institution's troubles with an eighty-three page Narrative, Vethake was swift to issue his Reply which placed the blame for the decline squarely on the intrusive and destructive micro management of the Board. Without faculty involvement and responsibility in the running of short and medium term affairs at Dickinson, he considered there to be little hope for the survival of the College. His opinion foretold the closing of the institution in spring 1832.

From Princeton, Vethake taught at the University of the City of New York between 1832 and 1835, served as the President of Washington College in Virginia (now Washington and Lee) for a year and a half, before settling in Philadelphia to teach mathematics and philosophy and serve in administration at the University of Pennsylvania from 1836 to 1859. He crossed the city to the Polytechnic College in 1859 and remained there until his death. He continued his attentions to political economy during these years, publishing several influential books on the subject. His economic philosophy was indicative of the European orthodox ideas of the time, decrying the disruption of the natural system by trades unions and, like Ricardo and Malthus, advising employers that leisure time to workers usually degenerated the morals and the productivity of the work-force.

He married a woman named Elizabeth in 1836, after arriving in Philadelphia. Henry Vethake died at his home in that city on December 16, 1866.

Author of Post: 
Dickinson College Archives
Date of Post: 
College Relationship: 
Faculty - Years of Service: