Arts & CultureScene Guide

Building Legacies: Who was Thomas Condon?



On Sept. 8, the University of Oregon Board of Trustees unanimously voted to take away the name of Dunn Hall after a list of demands by the Black Student Task Force prompted UO President Michael Schill to recommend the renaming of both Dunn and Deady halls.

The controversy surrounding the name of Dunn Hall involves Frederick Dunn, chairman of the university’s Latin department from 1898 to 1935, who was reportedly the leader of the Eugene branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Matthew Deady was Oregon’s first federal judge and first president of the UO Board of Regents, but was pro-slavery for a portion of his career.

Dunn Hall has been temporarily renamed Cedar Hall, and the decision for renaming Deady has been postponed.

The Emerald is beginning a weekly series examining the origins of UO building names, starting with Condon Hall.

Constructed in 1925, Condon Hall was named after Thomas Condon, who was the first state geologist of Oregon and the first science professor at the UO in 1876, according to the UO Libraries website. As the only science professor on campus, Condon had to teach not only geology and paleontology but also biology, chemistry and physics.

“You can trace every science faculty line on campus back to Thomas Condon,” said Edward Davis, assistant professor at the UO Department of Earth Sciences and manager of the Condon Fossil Collection at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Condon’s teaching style was ahead of his time. While most professors in his era had their students memorize a textbook, Condon refused to use one. Instead, he opted for hands-on learning, group work and class demonstrations. At one point, the university forced him to assign a textbook, but he told his students not to buy it.

Condon also had progressive views on gender equality. According to Davis, photographs of Condon and his classes show a balance between men and women.

“It was clear [Condon] saw it as an important thing that men and women were both educated,” Davis said. “What he wanted to do was teach people.”

Condon came to Oregon in 1852 but took a decade or so to get truly established in the geology world.

Born in Ireland, the Condon family moved to New York when Thomas was a toddler. He was trained to be a missionary as a young adult and was chosen to bring religion to the pioneers in the Oregon territory. Condon served as priest for three different churches in the Willamette Valley and worked as an elementary school teacher on the side.

However, Condon would soon discover his true calling in Oregon as a geologist.

As a young boy, Condon had a fascination with fossils and rocks, but his first true experience with geology came when the U.S. Army discovered fossils in its patrol area in the 1860s. According to Davis, the army contacted Condon about the fossils, and he took a stagecoach to the site in Eastern Oregon now known as the John Day Fossil Beds.

The army assigned a group of soldiers to guard him while he investigated, but as Davis said, “He was so enthusiastic about the fossils that by the time the day was over, no one was standing guard. Everyone was wandering around crawling on their hands and knees looking for fossils because he got them all excited about the fossils.”

Despite being religious, Condon was also a devout evolutionist.

“In his mind, religion and science were all part of the same thing, so he wanted to have the opportunity to educate people about everything,” Davis said.

Condon soon realized the fossils he found at the John Day Fossil Beds were significant in the argument for evolution, so he sent many of his samples for research that supported the principle of evolution.

“I think that Thomas Condon is somebody we can be proud of today without having to excuse any of his behavior,” Davis said. “He was very forward thinking in his education, forward thinking in his scientific mindset as well.”


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Franklin Lewis

Franklin Lewis

Franklin is a senior News writer for the Daily Emerald. Born and raised in San Francisco, he writes about university culture past, present and future. He also hosts the Spotlight on Science podcast for the Emerald Podcast Network.

Email: [email protected]
Follow on twitter: @flewis_1