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
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
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.
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).