In the 1870s, the President of Washington University’s Board of Directors, William Greenleaf Eliot, began to approach Shaw with the idea of having the University take over the Garden after Shaw’s death. Shaw was not convinced. He wanted to keep the Garden separate from the University, but he did see the benefits of forming a connection between the two institutions. In 1885, Shaw funded the creation of the Henry Shaw School of Botany within Washington University. The professor of this school would also be an employee of the Botanical Garden, and the school would be able to use the scientific research facilities of the Garden.
This professorship, named after the recently deceased Dr. George Engelmann, required a noted scholar who also had a talent for administration. The first professor would have the task to build up the department from scratch, buy scientific equipment, and recruit students. Because there were no undergraduate students in botany at Washington University at the time, he would have to start by training undergraduate students in order to prepare the first group of graduate students in botany.
After consulting with botanists around the country, the most promising candidate was a young scientist then at the University of Wisconsin at Madison named William Trelease. Trelease was offered the job, and he accepted even though the new position did not pay significantly more than his former position. He was primarily convinced to come because of the great potential for growth he saw in this new program, and by the probability that he would become the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden upon Shaw’s death.