The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837, and the history of the University's schools and colleges. This project is part of a larger effort to prepare resources for the University's bicentennial in 2017. Find out more.

The Bentley Historical Library serves as the official archives for the University.


Robert Mark Wenley
The Michigan Alumnus 506

Robert Mark Wenley
By Roy Wood Sellars, ’03, Professor of Philosophy

A great loss has befallen the University, and the Department of Phlosophy has a second time within the short space of two years been robbed by death of a distinguished teacher. Last Friday, March 29, marked the passing of the man who had been its head for over thirty years.

The death of Professor
 Wenley was sudden and 
quite unexpected. He had 
been taken sick the night be
fore at about ten o'clock and 
died at twelve-thirty in the
 afternoon. The cause of his
 death was heart failure. He 
was sixty-seven years old. 
 These are the bare, external
 facts of the case. 

Expressions of sorrow and
 regret were spontaneous. 
 They were recognitions of the
 man's standing and service. 
I quote a few typical lines. 
 From President Little: "He 
will stand in Michigan's an
nals for all time as one of
 her greatest teachers and 
scholars. The University 
has added a lasting figure to
 its history but at the cost to 
many of us of a good and 
true friend whose passing
 leaves us in the most pro
found sorrow and with a 
sense of enduring loss." From 
Dean Hugh Cabot: "Profes
sor Wenley was, I believe, 
 one of the very great figures 
on this Campus. In his death, 
 the University has suffered a staggering blow." From 
Dean J. R. Effinger: "His definite personality and his
 broad interests have made him a conspicuous figure in 
the life of the University for more than a quarter of a
 century, and he will be greatly missed." From Shirley
 Smith, Secretary of the University: "No one can take
 the place of Professor Wenley. We have lost a truly
 great personality." Just as emphatic tributes came from 
his former pupils; I take the following from Professor 
Edson Sunderland: "His students, of which I was one, 
 were thrilled by his wonderful power of analysis, the 
dramatic and impressive manner in which he was able 
to present the great movements in philosophy, and the
 remarkably beautiful literary form of his lectures. "
Statements similar to these will, I know, be made 
throughout the length and breadth of this land and 
also in other countries. 

Professor Wenley was a living force among the 
alumni. Field Secretary Tapping has sent me the fol
lowing letter: "At the very hour that Professor Wenley 
died I received a telegram 
for him sent in my care from 
the University of Michigan
 Club of Los Angeles, clos
ing arrangements for his ap
pearance at the annual ban
quet of that club. As you
 know, Professor Wenley was 
about to leave for the West
 and was to speak to the clubs
 of Kansas City, Denver, San
 Francisco, and Los Angeles. 
 It will be a terrible shock to 
all of these clubs." It is
 pleasant to know that the
 University of Michigan Club 
of Detroit purchased a por
trait of him by Percy Ives
 as a token of honor, respect, 
 and affection. 

As I write this formal
 announcement of his 
death, pictures of the past
 arise in my mind—just as 
they surely will in the minds 
of the greater number of 
those who read it—pictures
 of Professor Wenley lectur
ing in Room 205 of Mason
 Hall, the old North Wing. 
 He is on the platform in his 
prime, walking up and down 
and speaking as he walks, a 
vigorous, impressive man, full of wit and telling illustrations. I was a sophomore at the time, which I am 
recalling, impressionable, as he was impressive. It was
 a new world of thought that he was opening up. This 
is not the only picture that comes to me. I remember 
him at banquets as an after-dinner speaker, at his home, 
 at athletic rallies. The dead inevitably live for us again 
in our memories. I recall these things just as others
 will recall them.

Generations of Michigan students came under Pro
fessor Wenley's influence. Gradually he became al-
most an institution. To take Course One under his 
guidance was the established thing. As the years 
passed, the sons and daughters of his former students took their places, in turn, in the seats before him. To many, philosophy meant Professor Wenley. To say 
this is a tribute to the man and his work at the Uni

As everyone knows, Professor Wenley was
 a Scot. He was born sixty-seven years ago at
 Edinburgh; to be precise, July 19, 1861, the son of 
James Adams Wenley of the Bank of Scotland. He
 studied at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities and in
 the latter came under the influence of the Cairds, John and Edward, who were then effectively spreading the
 gospel of Hegel. Both of these men were great teach
ers and lecturers. Edward Caird
 afterwards became the Master of
 Baliol. We have in these men a 
lasting in influence in Professor
 Wenley's life. He remained essentially an objective idealist 
throughout his philosophic career. 
He broke with his teachers on de
tails, allowing more weight to science, yet remained to the end an 

After securing his A. M. at 
Glasgow in 1884 with the first 
class in philosophy, he traveled 
and studied in France, Germany, 
 and Italy. Lotze had just died in 
Berlin, and there were no outstand
ing figures in either France or Italy. Returning to
 Scotland, he was Assistant Professor of Logic at Glas
gow from 1886 until 1894, and from 1888 until 1895
in charge of courses at Queen Margaret College, which 
bears somewhat the relation to Glasgow University that
 Radcliffe does to Harvard. It was in 1896 that he was 
called to the University of Michigan. 

It was in the days of President Angell. John Dewey 
had gone to Chicago, taking with him Tufts and Mead. 
It seems that Professor Orr, a theologian of merit in 
the Free Church in Scotland, was lecturing in this
 country and was asked by President Angell to recom
mend some man for the position here. He named Pro
fessor Wenley. Craig was in Europe and was asked to
 discuss the situation with him. Michigan was known 
to Wenley because of the work of Tappan, Morris and 
Dewey. Finally he consented to come, and so his life work was cast here.

It was not a bed of roses. He worked hard, much
 harder, I think, than is usual today. There were many 
hours of teaching with no assistance. He himself 
marked the bluebooks for all his courses. And he went 
out of his way to develop new subjects appealing, on
 the one hand, to those interested in science, and, on the
 other hand, to those working in the classics.

The range of his knowledge was always remarkable. 
He took pride in the detail of his memory. He was a 
fine Greek and Latin scholar and he also knew his
 physics. Jebb and Sonnenschein had been his teach
ers in the classics and Lord Kelvin in physics. He was
 always proud of this intellectual heritage. 

The University was much smaller in those days, and
 one man could exert more personal influence than 
seems possible at present on our crowded Campus. 
 From the first, Professor Wenley was an outstanding 
teacher. He also mixed with the students. Thus, he
 was one of the founders of the Quadrangle Club. This
 he used to attend regularly and enter into the lists with 
the more daring students. Most were just a little 
afraid of him—or shall we say in awe of him? 

But teaching and personal contacts were not enough. 
He wished to make contributions to his subject. He 
had begun to publish early. Thus his first book, 
 Socrates and Christ, has the date 
of 1889. It was followed in 1894 
by Aspects of Pessimism. Then 
came rapidly from the press his
 study of the University Extension 
Movement in Scotland and Con
temporary Theology and Theism. 
 His first years on this side of the
 water were marked by the publi
cation of his little book on Kant, 
 a book which the students of
 Course One of long ago will remember. All through the years 
he kept on writing and publishing. 
 A little while before his death, in
 an interview in the Daily, he said
 that the total of his printed con
tributions was well over 500. I have never been afraid 
of intellectual labor but I have sincere admiration for 
the man who taught, lectured throughout the state and 
nation, and wrote all these books and articles. He
 spent himself freely. Perhaps it is no wonder that he
 died at the comparatively early age of sixty-seven. It 
is difficult to pass judgment but I hazard the suggestion 
that his Life and Work of G. S. Morris will be found
 most remarkable for its insight into the history and at
mosphere of America. He became an authority on the 
idealist movement in the United States.

In connection with his contacts with students
 I mentioned the Quadrangle Club. But I am sure
 that he would like to have me mention his connection
 with the Senior Research Club, an organization within 
the Faculty for the encouragement of research. He
 was a charter member and one of its early presidents. 
 Research did not then have the standing it now has. 
 Its furtherance was near his heart.

It is pleasant to note that Professor Wenley received
 recognition for his achievements during his lifetime. 
 The list of honorary degrees is an impressive one and
 includes an LL.D. from Glasgow. 

These are a few of the things that it is natural and 
fitting to say about Professor Wenley and his work at 
Michigan. His death is a great loss but we, fortunate
ly, have the inspiration of his love of scholarship. This
 he leaves behind. "In reality then," he (Socrates) con
tinued, "those who pursue philosophy rightly study to
 die; and to them of all men, death is least formidable."