Courses in botany were taught as early as 1880, but it was not until 1902 that The University of North Carolina hired Dr. William Chambers Coker as its first professor of botany. He served continuously until his retirement in 1945. William Coker also had a remarkable talent in landscape architecture, which he constantly improved by study and practice. Soon after he arrived in Chapel Hill he obtained permission of the university authorities to develop about six acres of boggy wasteland on what was then the eastern edge of the campus, the present Coker Arboretum.
Coker’s major interest in teaching was the course in general botany, and as an undergraduate instructor he ranked high. The excellence of the laboratories was due mainly to his insistence that the students have plenty of fresh and interesting plant material with which to work, and field trips were used to supplement lectures and the laboratory.
Coker’s advanced classes rarely had more than three or four students, each of whom had a table in the research laboratory along with the professor. Such small classes were conducted informally, the students doing the lecturing by giving reports of research papers related to the work being done in the laboratory. Coker was never too hurried to look at something of interest a student had found, and he had a rare ability to stimulate the student to want to find out more for himself and to believe in the importance of what he was doing.
In 1922, William Coker’s cousin, Robert Ervin Coker accepted a position as professor of zoology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Generations of the university’s biology and premedical students took his general survey of vertebrate zoology. He pioneered the courses in hydrobiology in the 1920s and, later, introductory courses in oceanography. From 1935 until 1944 he served as chairman of his department, and during the same period he was chairman of the Division of Natural Sciences. He was on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee from 1945 to 1947 and also served on the Advisory Board of the School of Medicine (1930–47) and on the University Research Council (1936–47). In 1939 he was awarded a Kenan Professorship.
During the twenties and thirties, Coker spent summers at Biological stations at Mountain Lake, Va.; Beaufort, N.C.; and Woods Hole, Mass. Between 1927 and 1935 he directed and taught summer sessions at the Allegheny School of Natural Science at Quaker Bridge, N.Y.
In 1947, at the time of his retirement from teaching, he accepted Dr. Frank Porter Graham’s offer to organize an Institute of Fisheries Research. In 1946 he was chairman of the Survey of Marine Fisheries; he served as director of the institute in 1947 and 1948 and as chairman of the executive committee from 1948 until 1953. The institute building was named in his honor, and in 1950 he received the O. Max Gardner Award for service in the organization of the fisheries survey and the institute.
Robert Ervin Coker’s work in oceanography and marine fisheries is what would later be the catalyst for UNC’s Marine Sciences department.
In 1982, the Departments of Botany and Zoology merged, and became what is known today as the Biology Department. Our administrative offices, and some faculty/labs are still proudly housed in Coker Hall.[Excerpts from text are taken from historical documentation via NCPedia]