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“A Century of Science” by Professor Alfred P. Lothrop ’06

The beginnings of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute and the teaching of the Natural Sciences are closely interwoven. Before buildings were put up on the land or students assembled to he taught, Father Shipherd wrote to the Trustees: “I recommend that you elect Dr. James Dascomb lecturer and professor of chemistry, botany, physical education or anatomy and natural philosophy. He is highly recommended as a Christian, a physician and lecturer. I think that the physician of the colony should be a lecturer in the seminary because we can’t afford a full salary to such a lecturer or full employment to a physician. I propose we offer him $250 salary.” Dr. Dascomb was a graduate of the medical department of Dartmouth College and was twenty-six years of age at the time of his appointment.

His first classes were taught in 1834 in Oberlin Hall, which was located on West College Street almost opposite the Historic Elm and which contained all there was of the Collegiate Institute until 1835. The next year he was given a lecture room in the carpenter shop, remodeled on account of the great influx of students in 1835. The board partition of the shop was not gas-proof, however, and Dr. Dascomb was soon encouraged to plan a separate building for his department. The Old Chemical Laboratory was therefore built, according to plans obtained by Dr. Dascomb when a student at Dartmouth and Yale. It was a one-story brick building situated a little south of the present site of Sturges Hall, and contained a laboratory and lecture room with raised seats and an arched ceiling.

Dr. Dascomb was “a cautious conservative man for whom novelties had no attraction and whom no enthusiasm ever took off his feet—a man who wanted only truth and for whom nothing else had any value.” “No attempt was made to give the student an opportunity for personal investigation or experiments,” wrote one of his pupils of the Class of 1859. “Chemicals were dangerous substances, might explode or cause disaster of some kind if they were handled carelessly and had better be left alone. From behind a mysterious barrier the venerable doctor compounded his chemicals, set off his explosives and ground out his own electricity from a big glass wheel; and after all was done, the whole matter remained almost as unknown and profoundly mysterious as before. Dr. Dascomb was very serious in his recitations and we all stood in awe of him. He never indulged in trivialities and life generally took on a serious aspect as soon as we crossed the threshold of the old laboratory.” In addition to his other duties Dr. Dascomb served as college librarian from 1853 to 1873.

In the catalogue of 1835 the subjects of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, Olmstead’s natural philosophy and astronomy are listed as being offered in the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy, but “the scientific apparatus of the Institute is as yet partially supplied. The chemistry department is furnished and the philosophical in part. This department and others it is hoped will soon be well supplied.” Rev. George Whipple (Oberlin Seminary) was elected to the chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1838. Obtaining equipment for the work was a slow procedure, as the catalogue of 1839 still testifies: “an adequate apparatus for lectures with experiments in natural philosophy is expected for the ensuing year and also a considerable addition for the library.” In 1840 a telescope about three inches in diameter, costing “in its day at least forty guineas,” was obtained in England.

On the resignation of Professor Whipple in 1847 to become corresponding secretary of the American Missionary Association, James H. Fairchild (Oberlin Seminary), later President, became Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. “In this department,” he said, “I continued for eleven years and then left it with as much reluctance as I had felt on taking it.”

It was during this period that the first scientific course was established at Oberlin. It included the following subjects: anatomy, physiology and hygiene, conchology, zoölogy, botany, mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, mineralogy, geology, application of science to agriculture and the arts, navigation and astronomy, surveying and engineering, together with logic, theology, rhetoric, law, etc. From time to time scientific courses leading to distinctive degrees are outlined in various catalogues but only the Bachelor of Arts degree has been bestowed since 1900.

About this time George N. Allen (A.M. Oberlin) was appointed Professor of Sacred Music and Geology. Later he became Professor of Sacred Music and Natural History and in 1864 Professor of Geology and Natural History, continuing to teach these subjects until 1871 when he was succeeded by Rev. John Perry (Andover Seminary) as Professor of Geology and Natural History and Lecturer on Religion and Science.

Following Professor Perry’s death in 1873, Albert Allen Wright (Oberlin Seminary and Ph.B. Columbia), a nephew and pupil of Professor Allen, began his long career as Oberlin teacher, citizen, churchman, committeeman, chairman of the faculty and acting executive head of the College, which continued until his death thirty-one years later. He was appointed Professor of Geology and Natural History in 1874 and Professor of Geology and Zoölogy in 1897 and was also Professor of Botany from 1878 to 1891. “Probably no other man was so prominent a factor as he in making the important transition from the older to the newer college, with its definite recognition of natural science and the newer scientific methods, with its severe intellectual standards along modern lines and with its demand for larger and more specialized equipment on the part of the teacher. Professor Wright himself was in charge of the first laboratory study by students in chemistry, zoölogy, botany and geology and was, thus, practically the pioneer in all scientific work, in the more modern sense, that the college has done. It was a most necessary and a most significant work. That the transition was made so thoroughly and yet so quietly was largely due to Professor Wright.”

Soon after his appointment laboratory work in mineralogy and blow pipe analysis was inaugurated, the students were given practice in collecting and identifying plants, and field excursions and reports in geology were begun. In 1881 a gift of $1,000 was received for the purchase of microscopes, which made possible laboratory work in animal and vegetable histology, microscopic lithology and the study of the microscopic forms of life. In 1886 the study of geology included the handling and special study of twenty-five minerals, fifty lithographical specimens and fifty characteristic fossils.

Beginning in the middle seventies the Department occupied rooms on the second floor of Cabinet Hall, so-called because the third floor was used for the “Cabinet of Natural History,” in which were “collections which amply illustrate the branches of Mineralogy, Lithological Geology, Palaeontology, Archaeology, Radiate Life, American and Foreign Shells and Insects and many branches of Vertebrate Life.”

It was in the laboratory on the first floor of this building that the first experimental work in chemistry was done by students under the direction of William D. Kedzie (S.M. Michigan Agricultural College), who succeeded Professor Dascomb on his retirement in 1878. He introduced daily class practice in chemical laboratory work and offered the first course in qualitative analysis. It was in 1878, also, that the first extra fees were charged for laboratory courses in science. Before the laboratory in Cabinet Hall was equipped, Kedzie suggested to his students that they begin experimenting for themselves wherever they could find room for their chemicals and apparatus. The result was that they became very unpopular with matrons and their fellow students, as few dormitories and boarding houses were spared the fumes escaping from the numerous private laboratories! “He instantly put a new spirit and value into the science of chemistry so that it came to mean an entirely different thing culturally.” In the middle of his second year illness compelled Professor Kedzie to give up his work and he died in 1880 at the age of twenty-eight years.

Kedzie’s successor was Frank Fanning Jewett (A.M. Yale) who had spent time in graduate work at Göettingen and who occupied the chair of Chemistry and Mineralogy in Oberlin for thirty-two years until his retirement in 1912. He had taught for three and a half years in the perfectly equipped laboratories of the Imperial University of Japan in Tokyo; and the rooms in Cabinet Hall, heated by stoves burning soft coal and cooled by the breezes admitted through shrunken window frames and sashes, were a somewhat painful contrast. It was sometimes necessary to place long boards over the cracks in the flooring and under the feet of the students as they worked to protect them from the drafts which came up through the cellarless foundations. At first the only water available was rain water from the roof which was caught in four large tanks. A tinlined copper wash boiler furnished the distilled water. In addition to chemistry and mineralogy Professor Jewett also taught physiology, rhetoric and English composition and for years was given no assistance of any kind. Aside from balances the equipment in 1880 was fairly adequate and laboratory fees were regulated to cover current expenses. In 1885 the whole of Cabinet Hall was made available for chemistry through the transfer of Professor Wright’s department to the new Spear Library.

It was in his laboratory in the north wing of Cabinet Hall that Professor Jewett stood, that day of February 23rd, 1886, when Charles Martin Hall enthusiastically showed him the first globules of aluminum made by the electrolytic process in this country, exclaiming, “Professor, I’ve got it!” Jewett always characterized his greatest discovery as “the discovery of a man,” and that man was Charles M. Hall.

When Professor Fairchild became Professor of Theology in 1859, the chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy passed to Charles H. Churchill (Oberlin Seminary and A.M.); and he taught both subjects until 1890 when he relinquished mathematics and became Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “Endowed with a genius quite marked and versatile, he was able to do many things unusually well both in and outside his special calling. In particular musical gifts and training were employed for the general good in drilling choirs and preparing concerts. Coming across a set of unused pipes, he put them together and added a key board, thus becoming the fashioner of the first organ Oberlin had ever seen.” His early classes were conducted in Colonial Hall, a frame building built in 1836 and located where the Soldiers’ Monument now stands. The Department of Natural Philosophy was transferred to French Hall in 1868 and in 1887 to Peters Hall, the fire place of which was designed by Professor Churchill. The instruction in physics for academy students was continued in French Hall and it was there during 1891-93 that Robert A. Millikan taught as Tutor in Physics.

Elisha Gray (Honorary A.M. Oberlin) was given the rather honorary title of Professor of Dynamic Electricity in 1880. He was a student in the preparatory department from 1857 to 1860 and in the College from 1860 to 1862. Almost simultaneously with Alexander Graham Bell he discovered the principle of the conversion of sound waves into electrical energy and was noted for his inventions in telephony and telegraphy. Through the kindness of his widow his exhibits at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 were divided equally between the Smithsonian Institute and Oberlin College.

To assist in the instruction in mathematics, Henry Churchill King (Oberlin Seminary) was appointed Associate Professor of Mathematics in 1884 and continued teaching mathematics and physics until he became Professor of Theology in 1890. Edward I. Bosworth also taught mathematics for one year, 1884-5. In 1887 physics was designated as applied mathematics and some laboratory work was first introduced.

Frederick Anderegg (A.M. Oberlin and Harvard) was appointed Tutor in Mathematics in 1886 and became head of the Department when mathematics was separated from physics in 1890. William D. Cairns (Ph.D. Göettingen) came to Oberlin in 1899 as Instructor in Mathematics and Surveying and succeeded Professor Anderegg when he retired in 1920 after thirty-four years of service. The Mathematics Department has had, thus, but three heads in the seventy-four years since 1859.

Professor A. A. Wright was given the first floor in the new Spear Library in 1886 for his courses in botany, zoölogy, geology and archaeology and for the cabinet of natural history. Advanced courses in botany, vertebrate anatomy and histology were introduced in 1891, and Rev. George Frederick Wright (Oberlin Seminary) began giving a one-term course the next year in glacial or quartenary geology which he continued until his retirement in 1907. Dr. Fred E. Leonard (A.M. Oberlin and M.D. Columbia), who became director of the Men’s Gymnasium in 1886, lectured in physiology and hygiene from 1892 to 1903 as Professor of Physiology. Embryology was offered in 1893 and ornithology was taught by Professor Lynds Jones (S.M. Oberlin, Ph.D. Chicago) beginning in 1895.

Professor Wright withdrew from the chair of Botany in 1891 and for two years was followed by his student, Worallo Whitney (A.M. Oberlin). Francis D. Kelsey (Sc.D. College of Montana) was Professor of Botany from 1892 to 1897 and Herbert L. Jones (A.M. Harvard) for one year. Frederick O. Grover (A.M. Harvard), the present head of the Department, was appointed in 1898 after the death of Professor Jones. The work was carried on in Spear Library until its removal in 1904 to the Lincoln House, which stood on the site of the Administration Building. The present Botanical Building on North Professor Street is in reality two old wooden buildings moved to their present location and bolted together, one the Lincoln House and the other the Hall House, and is by many years the oldest College building on the Campus. Recently a two-story brick, fireproof wing, equipped with steel, dustproof and insect-proof cases, was erected to house the herbarium which is the largest college herbarium in the United States. It is very representative of the entire United States, Canada and Europe and totals approximately 150,000 specimens. ’Oberlin was the first to offer in a College of Arts and Sciences a course devoted entirely to trees and was one of the first to offer a course in organic evolution and genetics.

The catalogue of 1878 gives the content of Oberlin’s work in psychology as “Nature of the soul, consciousness, sense perception, memory and imagination with lectures. Essays by the class.” Instruction in modern scientific psychology really began with a lecture course by Professor Henry C. King in 1894. Experimental psychology with direct experimentation by students was introduced by Simon F. MacLennan (Ph.D. Chicago) who was appointed Associate Professor of Psychology and Pedagogy in 1897. Psychology was established as a separate department by Professor Raymond H. Stetson (A.M. Oberlin, Ph.D. Harvard) in 1908 and the experimental laboratories are situated in Peters Hall.

Severance Chemical Laboratory, “dedicated to the advancement of chemistry and original research” by its donor, Louis H. Severance, was occupied in 1901. “The migration from Cabinet Hall to the new laboratory was quite informal,” wrote Professor Jewett in 1922. “The young people loaded their trays, held them aloft when they could, and like the Israelites of old, we marched across from Egypt into the promised land of Canaan. As a department we had been in the captivity of Cabinet Hall for twentyone years. So it came to pass that Oberlin tradition repeated itself. The first building put up for the use of a single science, and that science chemistry, was the Old Laboratory in 1838. And now, in the modern era, the first building to be devoted to a single science, and that science chemistry, is the Severance Chemical Laboratory.” Mr. Severance also endowed the chair of chemistry and Professor Jewett was the first to hold the L. H. Severance Professorship. This professorship passed to Alan W.C. Menzies (Ph.D. Chicago) when Professor Jewett retired. Two years later Dr. Menzies was offered a position in Princeton and Harry N. Holmes (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins) came to Oberlin in 1914 as Professor of Chemistry. Except for the short tenures of Professors Kedzie and Menzies of two years each, the Department of Chemistry has had but three heads during the one hundred years of Oberlin’s history.

After the death of Professor Wright in 1905, the work of his department was conducted by Professor Lynds Jones and during that period the College library was transferred to the new Carnegie Library. Spear was accordingly remodeled into Spear Laboratory for the use of the Zoölogy Department. Maynard M. Metcalf (A.B. Oberlin, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins) assumed the headship of the Department of Zoölogy in 1908 and Robert A. Budington (A.M. Williams) was appointed Associate Professor. A laboratory course in comparative physiology was started by Charles G. Rogers (Ph.D. California) in 1913 and he was elected Professor of Comparative Physiology in the Department of Zoölogy in 1915. Professor Metcalf resigned in 1914 to engage in private research and Professor Budington succeeded him as head of the Department. When Spear Laboratory was demolished in 1927, the Department of Zoölogy was removed to the old Second Church building which lost its steeple and was renamed “The Albert A. Wright Zoölogical Laboratory.” This building also houses the zoölogical museum. Oberlin maintains a room at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and two scholarships are available for Oberlin students doing summer work there.

The Geology Department was organized as a separate unit by Professor Edwin B. Branson (Ph.D. Chicago) in 1905 and an old residence that stood on the site of the Allen Art Building was remodeled for the use of the Department and opened in the spring of 1907. Field work in geology was begun in 1908 and a field course has been offered in the summer almost continuously since that time. Professor Branson left Oberlin in 1910 to assume the headship of the geology department at the University of Missouri and George D. Hubbard (Ph.D. Cornell) succeeded him. Courses in geography, started in 1911, now make up about half of the work. The Geography Building on West Lorain Street was formerly East Lodge and the Geology Department and museum occupy a remodeled residence at 121 North Professor Street. After Professor Jewett’s retirement in 1912, the course and collection in mineralogy were transferred to geology.

Professor Churchill retired in 1897 after forty-one years of service and Charles E. St. John (Ph.D. Harvard) became Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Under his guidance the Department was developed along modern lines in which laboratory work by the individual student was especially emphasized. In 1908 Dr. St. John resigned to take up research work in astronomy at the Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory. Samuel A. Williams (Ph.D. Columbia) was appointed Professor of Physics and the work in astronomy was conducted from then until 1919 by Professor Edward J. Moore (A.M. Oberlin, Ph.D. Chicago). He left Oberlin to become head of the department of physics at the University of Buffalo. Professor Williams became head of the department of physics at Amherst College in 1924 and Lloyd W. Taylor (Ph.D. Chicago) has been in charge of the Department since that time. Much fine equipment has been added during recent years but the quarters in Peters Hall are quite inadequate and a new Physics Building is probably Oberlin’s most imperative need today.

When astronomy was transferred to the Department of Mathematics in 1919, the instruction was given over to F. Easton Carr (A.M. Oberlin, Ph.D. Chicago) who became Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy in 1926. An observatory has always been listed as one of the important needs of the College and lack of space has hindered the development of the laboratory side of astronomy. Recently the College has acquired a clock-driven, six-inch aperture telescope having a magnifying power ranging from 50 to 270 depending upon atmospheric conditions. It is fitted with a small spectroscope, solar projecting screen and camera and is mounted in a new copper-covered dome on the round tower of Peters Hall “which is visible at a considerable distance and in fact is almost as conspicuous a feature of the landscape as the chimney of the heating plant. It serves in this way to tell the passing world, as it should have done many years ago, that the College has a place in its curriculum for the ‘queen and mother of all the sciences’.”

Ecology was established as a separate department in 1922 although a major in ecology had been offered in the Zoölogy Department since 1914. This work was really inaugurated by Professor Lynds Jones when he began teaching ornithology in 1893. The first special course in ecology was a six weeks’ field trip to Pelee Island in Lake Erie in the summer of 1909. More extensive transcontinental trips began with a summer vacation spent on the Pacific coast in the State of Washington in 1914. The Department was discontinued on the retirement of Professor Jones in 1930.

In 1927 the Trustees established the Charles Martin Hall Research Instructorship in Chemistry, which is held by an individual who has recently completed his graduate studies and serves as research assistant as well as instructor. Hall Research Instructors have also been appointed from time to time in the Physics, Geology and Psychology Departments. The research spirit is strong in the Natural Sciences and honors and graduate students as well as members of the staffs of the various departments are actively engaged in original investigations. “The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.” Oberlin has endeavored through all its long history to develop well trained minds.

Lothrop, Alfred P., “A Century of Science,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, 29 (April 1933), 203-07.

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