Building a Firm Foundation

The legacy that is the John A. Widtsoe Building will come to an end in the summer of 2015. Built in 1969 and named for the 1920s L.D.S. apostle, the Widtsoe Building has served students for nearly 50 years.

By Ashley Holmes

John Andreas Widtsoe was born in 1872, and though he came from humble circumstances, he accomplished much for himself and for Brigham Young University in his lifetime. His father’s early death necessitated that Widtsoe spend his time working to support his family rather than attend school. It was not until he was 17 years old that he received any formal education, but he learned quickly and headed off to Harvard University just two years later.

Widtsoe graduated from Harvard with honors and then went on to receive master’s and doctorate degrees from universities in Europe, also with honors. He spent his life in constant pursuit of greater knowledge and growth. After receiving his various degrees, Widtsoe spent five years as director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station before making his way to Brigham Young Academy.

As the first professor at BYA with a Ph.D., Widtsoe was anxious to transition the academy into a full-blown university. He believed that “there ought to be a Church university in which opportunities are offered for advanced work [so] that those who prefer to do their college work under the immediate and direct [i]nfluence of the Gospel spirit might be able to do so.”1

After founding the School of Agriculture and laying the foundation for the life sciences program, Widtsoe left BYA to become president of the Utah Agricultural College. Though he was only at BYA for two years, Widtsoe continued his interest in the destiny of the school. He said to BYA President George Brimhall, “I shall be glad at any time to assist in planning for the future success of the department.”2

Widtsoe continued to be an unofficial advisor to school presidents even after Brimhall’s departure. He encouraged President Franklin Harris to emphasize the importance of research, and he also suggested that Harris expand the faculty, especially pursuing faculty members with doctorate degrees. By the end of Harris’s administration, faculty had more than doubled, and 19 percent held doctorate degrees.

President Harris could now work toward university accreditation. In 1923, the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools granted accreditation to BYU, and after further improvements the Association of American Universities granted accreditation in 1928. Finally, 23 years after Widtsoe began his quest at Brigham Young Academy, he saw it become a university.

Some still feared for the future of the school, but Widtsoe said, “The rumblings may always continue, but sooner or later the institution will be so firmly established that even an earthquake cannot undo it.”3 The Widtsoe building will be demolished summer of 2015, but the university itself is firmly established, and Widtsoe’s contributions will forever live on with the university.

Building a Form Foundation
Photos of Widtsoe (left, center) and Martin (right) courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special
Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.


1. Widtsoe to Brimhall, 22 Oct. 1907, in Brimhall Presidential Papers, box 13 folder 4 letter #569, (Provo: BYU Archives).
2. Widtsoe to Brimhall, 21 Dec. 1907, in Brimhall Presidential Papers, box 13 folder 4 letter #565, (Provo: BYU Archives).
3. Widtsoe to Harris, 6 May 1930, in Harris Presidential Papers, box 27 folder 3, (Provo: BYU Archives).