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Charles Kendall Adams was born on January 24, 1835, in Derby, Vermont.
He was an American educator and historian. He had only an elementary school education until he was 21 years old. He worked his way through the University of Michigan, where he studied with Andrew Dickson White. He taught history at the University of Michigan until his appointment in 1885 as president of Cornell University. As a result of major conflicts over honourary degrees and control of faculty appointments, Adams was forced to resign as Cornell president in 1892. He subsequently became president of the University of Wisconsin, a position he held until his death in 1902. In 1887, he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society. In 1890, he became president of the American Historical Association.
In 1863, he married Abigail Disbrow. He died on July 26, 1902, in Redlands, California.