Founded in the city of Big Rapids, Michigan, by Woodbridge N. Ferris, Ferris State University, then known as the Big Rapids Industrial School, but soon to be called the Ferris Industrial School, first opened its doors for admission in September 1884. Occupying the second floor of one of the downtown store buildings, the school first enrolled 15 students in that first class. The time, Mr. Ferris focused the school on serving as a source of industrial, commercial, English, and teaching training. His primary objective was to provide individuals who had failed to gain adequate elementary or secondary education with suitable skills to improve their stations in life. Hence, the first course offerings were in the area of business and secretarial skills, that is, accounting, penmanship, shorthand, grammar, etc. When requests for a new course were sufficient to justify it, the course was added to the curriculum. It was just such a demand that led the founding of the College of Pharmacy.
In 1893, young Marius Preysz of Barryton, Michigan, asked for training in the subject of pharmacy in order to prepare himself for the state board examination. According to the regulations of the Michigan State Board of Pharmacy at that time, candidates for examination as registered pharmacists were required to have at least three years actual experience in compounding drugs in a retail drug store under the supervision of a registered pharmacist. Applicants could, however, submit evidence of work in the Department of Pharmacy of an accredited school in lieu of a portion of the required practical experience. Up to two years of credit were allowed, nine months of school work being considered equivalent to one year of practical experience. Although Mr. Ferris was not trained in pharmacy, the fact that he had been a student for one year in the Medical Department of the University of Michigan aided him greatly in his task of preparing Mr. Preysz. Mr. Ferris purchased a handbook covering the subjects required by the state board and proceeded to give Mr. Preysz the necessary instruction. It was the successful execution of this venture, along with similar success achieved in tutoring others who followed in the footsteps of Mr. Preysz, which encouraged Mr. Ferris to establish the Department of Pharmacy as a separate entity in the Ferris Industrial School.
A one-year preparatory course in pharmacy consisting of three quarters of four months duration each was offered in the 1894 catalogue of the Ferris Industrial School. This program was apparently under the direction of Mr. Will D. Henderson, a former student at the school who later became a well-known author and professor of physics at the University of Michigan. The course was, in most respects, identical with the first year of work outlined by the School of Pharmacy of the University of Michigan, and, by arrangement with the faculty of that school, students who had completed one year of work in the Department of Pharmacy at the Ferris Industrial School were permitted to enter the second year at the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy.
It was at this time that enrollment, having exceeded the capacity of the rented quarters in downtown Big Rapids, necessitated the construction of a new building to accommodate the rapidly increasing enrollment. The building, completed and occupied in 1894, was familiarly known as Old Main and was located at the site of the present campus until destroyed by fire in 1950, along with the three-story pharmacy addition constructed in 1901.
When Mr. Henderson resigned in 1900 to pursue further study, he was succeeded by Mr. J.A. Hynes as head of the Department of Pharmacy. Two significant events that must be noted occurred at this time. The name of the school was changed from the Ferris Industrial School to Ferris Institute and the First-year College Department was organized. It was this latter event that provided the necessary foundation for the establishment of a two-year course of study in pharmacy. Mr. Hynes successfully inaugurated this program, graduating the first two-year class in 1903. It is apparent that not all students, or even most of them, availed themselves of the benefits of the program. Many students with previous drugstore experience attended only long enough to ensure success in the state board examination. The school itself continued for several years to offer a short course in pharmacy for those individuals who specifically sought preparation for the state board examination.
Few major changes were to be made in pharmaceutical education over the next 20 years, and the Ferris Institute Department of Pharmacy continued to grow rapidly under the leadership of William A. Peterson (1903-06), Charles L. Pickell (1906-11), Ernest J. Parr (1911-19), and M.A. Jones (1919-24). The quality of the program and the success of its graduates attracted students throughout the state, and by 1916, over 150 students were being enrolled annually in both the long and the short courses of pharmacy and more than 1,000 students in the entire institution. This phenomenal growth can, at least in part, be attributed to the widespread publicity the school enjoyed as a result of Mr. Ferris political activities. An unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of Michigan in 1904, Mr. Ferris won election to that office in 1912 and reelection in 1914. Following a losing bid for a third term as governor of Michigan in 1920, he was elected in 1922 to the United State Senate, an office he held until his death in 1928.
The reappointment of Mr. Parr as dean of Pharmacy in 1924 heralded a decade of significant changes in pharmacy education at Ferris. Legislative action in 1925 made two years of study in an accredited school or college of pharmacy a mandatory requirement for licensure after January 1, 1929, in the state of Michigan. At the same time, a national trend toward increasing the academic requirements for pharmaceutical education influenced the thinking of educators throughout the country. In keeping with the times, Dean Parr initiated a three-year pharmacy program which consisted primarily of a year of advanced courses appended to the two-year curriculum. The degree of Pharmaceutical Graduate (Ph.G.) was to be awarded to graduates of this extended program. Although first offered in 1927, there appear to have been no students electing this program until 1930, when three young men completed the third year and were granted the Ph.G. degree. Subsequent graduates of this program were awarded the degree of Pharmaceutical Chemist (Ph.C.).
With the passing of both Senator Ferris in 1928 and his successor, Gerrit Masselink, in 1929, the school faced one of the greatest crises of its history. It became obvious that reorganization was necessary in order to guarantee the survival of the institution. In 1931, the school passed from a privately owned corporation to a non-profit educational institution, operated by a board of trustees who served without pay.