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Philotus Dean

Principal of Pittsburgh Central Highschool

Philotus Dean, born in 1822, was the fourth of seven sons born to Amos and Nancy Dean of South Glastonbury, Connecticut. The family was well established (Mrs. Dean’s lineage tracing back to the Mayflower) and comfortably well off. Amos Dean was the proprietor of a cotton and woolen factory. He took the education of his sons seriously and Philotus was sent to a reputable boarding school at a young age. Sometime after his tenure at the boarding school, he became a pupil of the famous scholar, abolitionist and linguist, Elihu Burritt. Like Burritt, Dean had a natural aptitude for languages and became proficient in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German.

At the age of 17, Dean entered Yale University, graduating at age 21 in 1843. Early on, Dean showed a propensity for overwork and he spent the year after his graduation regaining his health. In November of 1844, Dean was accepted to the Theological Department of Oberlin College where he completed a three year course load in the space of two years. By 1846 the Lorain County Congregational Association granted him a license to preach but, finding no available missionary work, he became a school teacher at Selma in Clark County, Ohio. From 1846 through 1850 Dean served as both a minister and teacher in Clark County, receiving food and lodging from a rotating set of families as well as a very small salary for his work.

In 1850, Pittsburgh philanthropist and abolitionist, Charles Avery, asked Dean to serve as the president of Avery College in Allegheny City. Avery College was founded to provide a classical education to African American youth. Dean accepted the position, promising Avery that he would stay long enough to graduate one class from the fledging institution, which he did, remaining one year beyond that promise. During his time as head of Avery College, a thirty year old Dean married Grace Perkins Southmayd of Middletown, Connecticut.

In 1855, Dean left Avery College to teach Natural Science at the newly founded Pittsburgh Central High School. Dean further forwarded the cause of public education by writing a series of Arithmetics, books of math specifically written for public school students. Between 1859 and 1874 Dean would write six arithmetics spanning the needs of primary school students through those of high school. In 1864, concurrent with his work at Central High School and his commitment to writing the arithmetic series, Dean was appointed director of the Allegheny Observatory. This position that offered no pay but provided Dean and his family free lodging in a home adjacent to the Observatory in exchange for maintaining and operating the telescope and other scientific instruments. Dean maintained this position for five years, concurrent with his obligations to Pittsburgh Central High School. When he resigned in 1868, his successor was Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley.

In 1858 Dean became the third principal of Pittsburgh Central High School. In this capacity, Dean’s devotion to study, his (at that time new and radical) belief in public education and his tendency to overexert himself combined to make him the major force behind Pittsburgh having a public high school, both as an institution and in terms of having an actual school building. The high school was originally housed in a building on Smithfield Street. Of that Smithfield Street location, Professor B.C. Jillson said, “The rooms were small and dirty, badly lighted and ventilated with no apparatus for illustration and none of the conveniences considered necessary to a good school.” In 1868 the school was relocated from Smithfield Street to the Bank of Commerce Building at Wood Street and Sixth Avenue, a space that was cleaner and more pleasant but which was never large enough for the student body. Securing support and funding for a proper school building proved to be the major battle of Dean’s career and one that many of his associates felt hurried him to his grave. Dean was known to have turned down offers of employment at Yale and other institutions that would have allowed him the life of a well-paid scholar. A 1913 article in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times quoted Dean’s widow’s 1905 response to being asked, “why did Philotus Dean wear out his life in the apparently thankless task of keeping an unpopular school alive and the additional and harder task of finding for it a permanent home?...” “…What the high school needed in its infancy,” Mrs. Dean replied, “was just such a man as Mr. Dean, rich in rare mental ability and with a genius for his work. A man of average ability would then and there have been a failure.” [“Honor Memory of Philotus Dean,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, October 26, 1913.] Dean’s years of toil finally paid off when a site for the new school was secured on Fulton Street. He was given the honor of laying the cornerstone of the new High School Building on September 30, 1869. He died of exhaustion and typhoid fever on August 29, 1871, a week before the completed building was to be officially opened.

Dean’s death brought many honors for a man who lived a purposefully modest life. Portraits of him were commissioned and put on display at both Allegheny Observatory and in the new Pittsburgh Central High School building. Alumni from Pittsburgh Central High School formed a committee to design and procure a monument for Dean’s resting place in Union Dale Cemetery. The Italian marble monument was fifteen feet, eight inches high with a broad sandstone base upon which were bas reliefs of books, telescope and globes, a view of the Fulton Street High School building and other devices referring to Dean’s life as a scholar and educator. The monument was dedicated on November 2, 1873.


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