Birge Hall, home of UW’s Department of Botany, was erected in 1910. It took its current name in 1950 in honor of Edward Birge, a prominent zoologist, educator, and two-time president of UW-Madison. Birge was one of the country’s first great experts on lakes. He contributed to Lake Mendota being nicknamed “the most studied lake in the world.”
Birge, an attendee and teacher at First Congregational Church for most of his fifty years at UW-Madison, has the distinction of being UW’s first twice-appointed president. His second stint from 1918-1925 was filled with religious drama. Birge became a lightning rod at the height of the national antievolution movement. He was a target of politician and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan. In 1921, at a rally of thousands of students at the Red Gym, Bryan charged that, under Birge’s watch, UW was leading to the downfall of Christian civilization by teaching evolution in its classrooms. A public war of newspaper op-eds between the two ensued, with Birge insisting that biological evolution and Christianity were not necessarily in tension. In one of his final op-eds, Birge articulated a view of the relationship of modern science to Christianity that generations of faculty, staff, and students have embraced since. Birge said:
I have taken part both in the religious and the scientific activities of the world in which I have lived, with no thought of conflict or even division between them. I have never found it necessary to justify religion to science or to excuse science to religion. I have accepted both as equally divine revelations, and both are equally wrought into the constitution of the world.
Continue to the top of the hill and head toward Bascom Hall. Stop to the left of the main doors at the large plaque.