Bruce, William Herschel (1856–1943)

By: David Minor

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 26, 2019

William Herschel Bruce, college president and mathematician, son of Hilery S. and Catherine (Pruitt) Bruce, was born in Troup County, Georgia, on April 8, 1856. He spent most of his childhood in Alabama, where the family moved in 1861. After graduating from high school, Bruce, at the age of nineteen, began his teaching career in a rural school in Alabama. For the next eight years he taught school and attended Alabama A&M College (now Auburn University), where he graduated in 1883 with a B.A. in mathematics. That year he moved to Milltown, Georgia, where he continued to teach and began work on a Ph.D. at Mercer University in nearby Macon. The following year he accepted the position of head of the faculty of Blanco High School in Texas, where, in addition to his teaching and administrative duties, he practiced law. He continued to work on his Ph.D. and became Mercer University's first doctoral graduate in 1890.

During Bruce's nine years in Blanco, his reputation as a teacher and administrator attracted requests from eight school districts inviting him to be their superintendent. In 1893, over the objections of students and residents of Blanco, he accepted the position of superintendent in Marble Falls. He was so popular in Blanco that a number of the high school faculty and many students followed Bruce to his new post. He succeeded in gaining accreditation for the Marble Falls schools, as he had at Blanco. Three years later he did the same for Athens. In 1899 Athens residents financed a private school, which they named Bruce Academy in his honor. The previous year, Governor Charles Allen Culberson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction James McCoy Carlisle, as trustees, elected Bruce as second president of The John Tarleton College (now Tarleton State University) in Stephenville. The college temporarily suspended classes because trustee Thomas Benton King filed a lawsuit (later settled out of court) to protest his election. Bruce assumed the office in fall 1899 and resigned in late 1900 because the college trustees refused to grant him a long-term contract.

Bruce returned to Athens for the 1900–01 school year, then accepted an invitation from North Texas State Normal College (now the University of North Texas) to become head of the mathematics department. From 1901 to 1905 he worked in this capacity and, beginning in 1902 or 1903, served as President Joel S. Kendall's primary assistant. Following Kendall's death in 1905, Bruce, in October 1906, became president of the small, sixteen-year-old school. For the next seventeen years he devoted his energy to establishing North Texas State as the leading teacher-training institution in Texas. By raising admission standards to meet the requirements established by major colleges, increasing the number of faculty members who held graduate degrees, and enlarging course offerings, he had, by 1916, changed North Texas State from a three-year preparatory school to a four-year college. By 1923 the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Teachers Colleges had admitted North Texas State as a member. Student enrollment increased during Bruce's presidency from 1,028 to 4,700, while the number of faculty members grew from fourteen to 118. The size of the campus also grew, from ten to twenty-five acres; and eight new buildings, including the school's first dormitory, were added. As a result of these achievements, Bruce was able to persuade Governor Pat Neff and the state legislature to change the name of the institution to North Texas State Teachers College.

In 1905 Bruce served as president of the Texas State Teachers Association, and from 1912 to 1923 he was president of the Council of Texas Normal College Presidents. He also served as chairman of the Texas State Board of Examiners from 1905 to 1910. As a result of his first publication, Some Noteworthy Properties of a Triangle and Its Circles (1904), he was included in Men of Science in 1906. He also coauthored the textbooks Elements of Plane Geometry and Elements of Solid Geometry in 1910. In 1916 he published Principles and Processes of Education for summer-school use. In 1932 The Nine Circles of the Triangle received considerable notice from fellow mathematicians. Bruce also published two collections of poetry, The Charms of Solitude and Emergent Man, in the mid-1920s.

He and Lillie Ora Hart were married in 1879 and had three sons and one daughter. Bruce and his wife were leaders in community affairs and in the Denton Baptist Church until Mrs. Bruce was paralyzed by a stroke in 1923. As a result, on May 28 of that year, Bruce retired from the presidency of North Texas State and was made president emeritus. For the next fourteen years he divided his residence between Denton and Opelika, Alabama, where his wife lived in a clinic run by their son and daughter. After his wife's death in 1937, Bruce returned to Denton. He died on December 30, 1943, while visiting his children in Opelika, where he was interred.

C. A. Bridges, History of Denton, Texas, from Its Beginning to 1960 (Waco: Texian Press, 1978). Eric M. Larson, Early History of The John Tarleton College, 1896-1898 (Takoma Park, Maryland: n.p., 2019). James Lloyd Rogers, The Story of North Texas (Denton: North Texas State University, 1965). C. M. Mizell, Dr. W. H. Bruce: His Contribution to Public Education (M.A. thesis, Southern Methodist University, 1926).

  • Education
  • University Presidents and School Administrators
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Poets
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Minor, “Bruce, William Herschel,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022,

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October 26, 2019