With the arrival of Dr. E. A. Bryan as President and Director in 1893, the Department of Agriculture was established, and agricultural research began in Washington.
William J. Spillman came to the college in July, 1894, bringing the total number of faculty to six. He was a plant scientist, mathematician, and the first wheat breeder. His job was to improve the economic health of farmers. He also was the football coach for two years. Even though he had to learn how to coach football from a book, his teams were undefeated.
The Third Annual Catalog 1894 lists William J. Spillman, Professor of Agriculture and Head of the Department of Agriculture on par with the Department of Horticulture. Agriculture courses included (1) Rural Economy, (2) Livestock and Poultry, and (30) Farm Crops. Soils courses were included within Farm Crops under headings such as soils and soil analysis, chemistry of plant life, crop rotations, and manures and fertilizers.
Spillman used genetics, mathematics, and research trials to produce varieties of wheat that enabled growers to continue to farm. He also encouraged farmers to produce alternate crops and livestock. Spillman left WSC in June of 1902 with the breeding program well established, and the breeding priorities he defined are still being addressed today. In 1904 he was placed in charge of the USDA’s new Office of Farm Management. By 1910, he had seen the need to demonstrate the farm management practices used on the best paying farms, so he established a network of county extension agents in several states. He had 203 such agents when the Smith-Lever Act was passed, creating a nationwide extension system in 1914. He was also interested in and involved in environmental and conservation issues. Nearly a century ago, Spillman advocated an alternative agriculture, not unlike the sustainable agriculture that America’s farmers are still improving.
Agronomy (Soils and Crops) was listed for the first time in the 1898 catalog. In 1903 E. E. Elliott and George Severance joined the department. Severence taught the bulk of soils courses, then called farm management courses.
In 1904 the agriculture and horticulture departments were merged, although in 1908 horticulture again received separate status as a department.
Severance was named head of the newly organized Farm Management Department in 1918. By 1911, four courses in soils were offered and a fifth course, agricultural chemistry, was taught in the Chemistry Department. In 1912, there was the first indication that students could take higher-level soils courses applicable toward an advanced degree, a Master of Science in Agriculture.
In 1912 Edward Franklin Gaines became an instructor in agronomy to teach plant breeding. One of Gaines’ graduate students in the 1930s was Orville Vogel, who named his world renowned semi-dwarf variety “Gaines” wheat in honor of his major professor at WSU. In 1918 Farm Crops and Soils split into separate departments. This change occurred at the same time the Department of Agriculture became a college. In 1925 a new course-numbering system was adopted by the University: numbers 0-99 = undergraduate credit; 100-199 = undergraduate or graduate credit; and 200 = graduate credit only. Most of the courses taught in soils qualified for graduate credit. The course number system has changed several times since then (1949, 1950s).
Prior to 1929, degrees higher than Master of Science had not been granted at WSU. One of the first Ph.D. degrees was in agriculture, awarded to Frederick J. Stevenson, who studied plant breeding in the Department of Agronomy. The first Ph.D. in Soils was granted to Carl A. Larson in 1931 and the second to Lloyd D. Doneen in 1933. The first Ph.D. in Crop Science (Agronomy) was awarded to William K. Smith in 1931 and the first M.S. in Crop Science (Agronomy) was awarded to Scott C. McMichael in 1932. The first Ph.D. in Soil Science was awarded to Charles D. Moodie in 1947, and the M.S. in Soils to Raymond J. Miller in 1959.