Francis W. Gilmer, struggling with health problems, faced a daunting task as he set sail for England in May 1824. The youngest of 10 children, the 36-year-old Gilmer had known Thomas Jefferson his entire life and, over the years, had won Jefferson’s trust and admiration. Now, as the University of Virginia prepared to open its doors, Jefferson entrusted Gilmer with the important job of hiring a large portion of the first faculty. “We have all from the beginning considered the high qualifications of our professors as the only means by which we could give to our institution splendor and preeminence over all its sister seminaries,” Jefferson wrote. With the exception of the professors of law and ethics, Jefferson believed that the best-qualified professors were to be found overseas—an opinion that drew considerable criticism from many in the United States.
Gilmer arrived in England armed with a letter of introduction written by Jefferson: “We have determined to receive no one who is not of the first order of science in his line … But how to find out those who are of the first grade of science, of sober correct habits and morals, harmonizing tempers, talents for communication, is the difficulty. Our first step is to send a special agent to the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh to make the selection for us and the person appointed for this office is … Mr. Francis Walker Gilmer—the best educated subject we have raised since the Revolution.”
During the course of the next year, Gilmer recruited and hired five faculty members, who ranged in age from 24 to 28. He sailed back to the States in October 1825 with his mission accomplished, but at a steep price. Upon returning to Charlottesville, Gilmer was too ill to assume his duties as chair of law, which Jefferson had offered to him in 1823. Despite his accomplishments, Gilmer received little sympathy from Board of Visitors member Chapman Johnson, who wrote, “Make up your mind to get well or to go to heaven without another murmur or complaining word.”
Just a few months later, Gilmer “made up his mind,” dying in February 1826.