Harry Jacob Patterson was born on December 17, 1866 in Yellow Springs, Pennsylvania, the son of William Calvin and Adaline (Mattern) Patterson. When he was three years old, his family moved to State College, Pennsylvania. There his father began 40 years of work as the superintendent of farms and buildings for Pennsylvania State College.
Patterson entered Pennsylvania State College at the age of sixteen. There he studied chemistry, especially its relation to agriculture, and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1886. He remained at the College to pursue post-graduate work in Chemistry and to work at the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Experiment Station as assistant chemist. He received his Master of Science in chemistry in 1888. That year Patterson left his family and Pennsylvania for Maryland; there he began 50 years of service for the University of Maryland.
For Patterson's first ten years in Maryland, he served as the chemist and vice-director of the new Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station. Recalling his arrival many years after the event, he said, "College Park was nothing more than a farm when I came here, a very muddy one at that." Patterson's arrival at the new station brought himto the forefront in the effort to control San Jose scale in fruit trees, which was then damaging the state's orchards. His early years at the station also saw his marriage to a young Washington woman, Elizabeth Hayward Hutchinson, on October 25, 1895. They had two children: a daughter, Blanche Seely (Mrs. Francis T. Mack) and a son, William Calvin.
During these years of practical work and leadership, Patterson continued his academic training and writing. In the Agricultural Experiment Station's Bulletin and in other journals, he wrote on the work of the station and on his interests in the chemistry of food, fertilizer, and agriculture. He participated in chemical and scientific organizations. He was a member of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists, the American Chemical Society, the Society of Chemical Industry (London), and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1912 he received his doctorate in chemistry from the Maryland Agricultural College.
Other events of 1912 greatly changed the college and Patterson's career. On November 29, fire destroyed much of the campus, including the dormitory barracks, The president of the college, Richard W. Silvester, resigned. After a brief interregnum, Patterson was elected to the college presidency. He served as president from May 1913 to January 1917, and though he served as president with reluctance, his administration was successful in both restoring the college and preparing it for its future as a university.
Patterson rebuilt the campus. He had a vision of the college as a larger institution that would provide a wider range of educational opportunities to the citizens of the state of Maryland. As a part of this vision, he doubled the size of the liberal arts teaching staff and increased enrollment from 134 to 220 students. He foresaw a time when 1,000 students would be enrolled in the college. However, the greatest changes under Patterson's tenure as president altered the social and organizational character of the college.
In the wake of the fire and subsequent breakdown of the military system at the college, Patterson encouraged the development of a collegial atmosphere. To this end, he permitted Greek letter fraternities on campus to provide for a more student-directed social life. The students also gained control of the newspaper and yearbook, and military discipline was replaced by student government.
Patterson and his wife took a direct interest in the social and personal lives of the students. They often hosted social gatherings for the students and faculty. Patterson also organized the YMCA on campus and was active in the Religious work Council, which later became the Episcopal club.
Under Patterson's tenure as president, the first women students were admitted to the college: Charlotte Vaux and Elizabeth Hook. Dr. and Mrs. Patterson turned the president's house over to the women students as a dormitory. Patterson also worked to expand the curriculum of the college to include such subjects related to agriculture as home economics.
Patterson's outstanding contribution to the college as its president was in creating an organizational structure appropriate for the transformation of the college into a modern university. Patterson prepared the ground for the new charter in two ways. First, he worked to raise awareness throughout the state of the value of research work in agriculture for the improvement for the state's economy and its tax base. Second, he persuaded those who held stock in the college to give their stock to the state, and thus made the college a wholly public institution.
The result of his efforts was a new charter in 1916 that created the Maryland State College of Agriculture. The new charter was modeled on that of the University of Minnesota. The college was divided into five divisions: Agronomy and Animal Husbandry, Horticulture, Applied Sciences, Rural Economics and Sociology, and Engineering. The charter strengthened the president's powers and readied the college for growth beyond its scope as an agricultural college to that of an institution that would serve all the citizens of the state.
Patterson retired from the presidency in January 1917 to return to his work at the Agricultural Experiment Station. Under his tenure as president, the college gained popular support, the campus was rebuilt, and the college was moving socially and organizationally toward the status of a modern university. Patterson continued to serve the college as the director of the station and, from 1925 to 1927, as Dean of the College of Agriculture. After 50 years of service to the University of Maryland, Patterson retired in 1937. Until his death on September 11, 1948, he continued his research and involvement with the university as Professor Emeritus.