Author: Daniel Sunshine

a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University

Leander James McCormick (1819–1900)

Leander James McCormick was an inventor, businessman, and real estate tycoon who helped revolutionize agriculture with a mechanical reaper invented by his father, Robert McCormick Jr. Raised in Virginia, McCormick and his brother Cyrus Hall McCormick moved to Chicago, where they built a corporation selling their father’s “Old Reliable” reaper. The device spared farmers from harvesting grain by hand, dramatically improving their efficiency. The McCormick reaper heralded the rise of industrial agriculture. Although the brothers enjoyed tremendous business success, their personal relationship was fraught. Leander James McCormick and much of the rest of the McCormick family believed Cyrus McCormick claimed too much credit for their father’s invention. In his later years, Leander McCormick left the company, investing his wealth in Chicago real estate and becoming the primary donor behind the building of the Leander McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia.



Charles S. Venable (1827–1900)

Charles S. Venable was a mathematician who served as an aide-de-camp to Confederate general Robert E. Lee during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and as the chair of mathematics at the University of Virginia from 1865 until his retirement in 1896. Born at his family’s estate near Farmville, Venable pursued academics from an early age, teaching at Hampden-Sydney College (1846–1856), the University of Georgia (1856–1857), and the University of South Carolina (1857–1862) before joining Lee’s staff. His wartime experience and his close affiliation with Lee served him well in the postwar years, helping his advocacy for the University of Virginia and making him an important voice among those promoting the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. A few months after the surrender at Appomattox, Venable accepted a position in Charlottesville and twice served as chairman of the faculty (1870–1873, 1886–1888). During his tenure he helped secure critical public and private funding for the university and pushed for the expansion of the university’s course offerings in the sciences. Exploiting a mutual interest in astronomy, he helped secure a large financial gift from Leander J. McCormick that in 1885 went toward a domed observatory and refractor telescope, the second largest of its kind in the world. Venable taught the University of Virginia’s first woman student, in 1893, but voted against coeducation the next year. He died in 1900.