Vernon Howell: The Undefeated Dean

A profile of the pharmacy school’s first dean and the leader of UNC’s only undefeated football team

Story by Kelly Collins | Published September 10, 2022

black and white photo of Vernon Howell c. 1898
In 1897, after more than 15 years of lobbying by pharmacists across the state, the University of North Carolina established a School of Pharmacy. Edward “Vernon” Howell was recruited to lead the new school.

Vernon arrived at Chapel Hill at the age of 29, three years out of college and full of enthusiasm. After graduating from Wake Forest College and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, he co-owned a successful pharmacy in Rocky Mount before accepting the position of professor, a move that undoubtedly meant financial sacrifice. As dean and professor, he received a salary of $25 per month, or the equivalent of about $10,000 a year today.

While teaching on faculty, Vernon was also enrolled in the graduate school. At the time, any person connected with the University was allowed to participate in athletics. A gifted athlete, Vernon had been voted “best all-around athlete” at Wake Forest, where he played three sports. Shortly before coming to Chapel Hill, he tried out for UNC’s football team.

1898 UNC Football Team

The 1898 UNC football team. Vernon Howell in middle row, far right.

In 1898, Vernon played on the only unbeaten football team in UNC history and earned his place among Carolina football legends. Playing with a broken finger and nose in the most important game of the season, the professor of pharmacy made a 40-yard run through the entire Virginia team for a touchdown to win the game 6-2.

For the pharmacy school’s first 12 years, Dean Howell and one assistant conducted all studies in pharmacy and materia medica. During his lifetime, he held many leadership roles in state and national pharmaceutical and other learned societies.

“Edward Vernon Howell was a personality. Although careless in dress and speech, he was distinguished in person and endowed with the real power of intellect,” said W. W. Pierson, Jr., his close friend and colleague. “His mind was surprisingly independent, whether engaged in scholarly problems, or practical affairs and human nature, or with poetry and phantasy, or with history and politics. He was, I believe, the most versatile man in his interests I have ever known.”

Dean Howell's car known as Old Wheeze

Dean Howell’s car known as “Old Wheeze”

Beyond the classroom, Dean Howell constantly entertained friends, students, and members of the football team at his home near campus. He was one of the first people in the community to own an automobile, which he named “Old Wheeze” because it chugged and moaned along the dusty streets. An avid hunter and fisherman, he frequently ventured into the great outdoors taking his beloved students on camping trips and other outings.

Louis Graves of the Chapel Hill Weekly wrote: “I doubt if there has ever dwelled in Chapel Hill any man who had a deeper affection for the University and the village than was cherished by Vernon Howell. There were no ifs and buts about his loyalty—it was thorough-going and absolute.”

“The School of Pharmacy owes its inception and development to the pioneering spirit, devoted effort, and well-planned control of a man who always thought last in terms of personal gain and monetary misfortune.”