Reeling from the shock of President Van Hise’s sudden death, the regents turned to the man who had guided the university during and after President Adams’ illness, Dean Edward A. Birge of the College of Letters and Science.
On December 4, 1918, Birge was named acting president. Twelve days later the regents named him president officially, and he accepted on the condition that a search be conducted for someone who would hold the office for a longer term. A halfhearted search evidently did take place, but on December 3, 1919, the regents asked Birge to withdraw his condition, and he did so.
Edward Birge was born at Troy, New York on September 7, 1851. He attended Williams College, receiving a BA in 1873 and an MA in 1876. He also studied at Harvard where he received his doctorate in 1878. In the fall of 1875 Birge became an instructor in natural history and curator of the cabinet at Wisconsin, and he became a full professor in 1879.
He served as dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1891 to 1918. Although faced with a greatly increased enrollment after World War I and a need for new resources, Birge was hesitant to make changes or push for more money from the legislature.
Birge retired from the presidency effective September 1, 1925, after 50 years of service to the university. He continued his research, particularly on Lake Mendota, and is considered the country’s first great limnologist. He died in Madison on June 9, 1950.