William Smith Clark was one of the most colorful figures in the history of the Massachusetts Agricultural College.
Clark was born in 1826 in Ashfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from Amherst College in 1848, and went on to teach the natural sciences at Williston Seminary until 1850. Clark then went abroad to Germany for two years to study chemistry and botany at Goettingen, earning his Ph.D in 1852. From 1852 to 1867 he was a member of Amherst College's faculty as a professor of chemistry, botany, and zoology.
As a leading citizen of Amherst, Clark was a strong advocate for the establishment of the new college there. He was appointed to serve as one of the founding members of the college's faculty and, following the resignation of Paul Chadbourne, Clark was named President in 1867, the year the college welcomed its first class of 56 students.
During his presidency, Clark pressured the state government to increase funding for the new college and provide scholarships to enable poor students, including women, to attend. The college faced economic hardship early in its existence: enrollment dropped in the 1870s, and the college fell into debt.
In 1876, Clark traveled to Japan at the request of the Japanese to establish an agricultural college at Sapporo. He is still remembered in Japan for his famous parting words: "Boys, be ambitious!" In Amherst, Clark strongly supported agricultural experimentation, conducting research himself on the circulation of sap in the sugar maple.
In 1879, Clark requested another leave of absence to establish a "floating college," a ship which would carry students and faculty around the world. His request was denied, and he resigned.