The Early Years

A book, entitled “The College of Liberal Arts 1873-1973” written by Warren O. Ault, and published by Boston University in 1973, devotes one and one half pages to the Physics Department. In addition, there is about a page devoted to the first physics professor, Norton Adams Kent, who was hired by the University in 1906. This was two years after the first science professor, a chemist by the name of Lyman Churchill Newell, was hired. Newell distributed a credo which is in Ault’s book p.51:

“I will see the good in all pupils and lead them on to higher attainments. I will be patient and forbearing, confident in the belief that kindness and generosity will ultimately triumph. I will scorn error, deceit, and all forms of falsehood, persistently foregoing sarcasm and injustice. I will claim all nature as my heritage and spend a portion of my day quietly in God’s open air. I will hold daily communion with my own soul. I will accept my remuneration, however small, without any complaint or discouragement, never forgetting that a teacher is a leader in the higher life and not merely a wage earner. I will work each day in unshaken assurance that peace and power come in full measure to all who are ready for the truth.”

It seems that the University was reluctant to embrace the sciences within its liberal arts education because it might have changed the character of liberal arts education, and both Newell and Kent wrote articles in “Bostonia” VI pp. 2-8 and VII pp. 20-21, justifying the existence of the sciences within the liberal arts context. Part of the article written by Kent is reproduced on page 51 of Ault’s book, and quoted below. The second part of the book quotation regarding physics is from pages 219 and 220. The setting was one of a minor department on both the University and the national level. To quote:

“Norton Adams Kent, Professor of Physics, came to the College in September, 1906. Born in 1873, he graduated from Yale in 1895 and took his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1901. He was a researcher at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin for a time, and was teaching at Wabash College in Indiana when President Huntington and Dean Warren invited him to come to Boston. He had already published papers on Spectroscopy and Optics. Professor Kent also began with an article in Bostonia explaining why Physics was or should be a basic ingredient of liberal arts education. Physics inculcated, according to Professor Kent, “training in the reasoning faculty, keenness of observation, and power in the world of affairs, aiding in the development of poise in both mind and body, a poise so vitally important in the college graduate of today44.” Kent’s students were few, in his early years. When Dean Warren raised the question of his promotion to full professor, in 1908, President Huntington demurred; “He has so few students, Assistant Professor should be enough.

Few or many as his students might be, Professor Kent’s interest in the welfare of all students was exceptional and it took many forms. One of these was the Wadsworth Loan Fund which he solicited and to which he asked that gifts be made in his memory. He was not, perhaps, a skillful teacher of beginners. Many students expressed their preference for the guidance of an instructor, but this is not uncommon. In Spectroscopy research Kent did important work, which was recognized by his early election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For some years he was Chairman of the important Rumford Committee of the Academy. He too was retired in 1942, but was immediately asked to teach at M.I.T. There under wartime pressures he “worked harder than I have ever worked in my life,” as he remarked to me. He died in 1944 at the age of 71.”

44 Bostonia VII pp. 20-21

Norton Adams Kent, (1906-1942), Duncan E. MacDonald (1941-1957), and Lucien B. Taylor, 1957; “Physics”

The first Professor of Physics at the College of Liberal Arts was Norton A. Kent. He became well-known in scientific circles for his research in Spectroscopy, being awarded ten grants from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of which he was a Fellow. His students were few in number and he was assisted in teaching them by Royal M. Frye,’ 11, who was an instructor intermittently from 1912-1950, earning a Ph.D. under Kent in 1954. Lucien B. Taylor, ’18, became an instructor in Physics in 1920 and excellent teacher though he was, he was kept at that level until 1938 when he became Assistant Professor.

Another pupil of Kent’s was Duncan E. MacDonald, of the Class of 1940, who received Boston University’s Ph.D. a few years later. Not long after Kent’s retirement (1942) MacDonald became chairman of the Physics Department and in 1946 he established the United States Air Force Optical Research Program. One of the goals of this program was to produce an aerial camera with a 40 foot focal length and a 40 inch lens in clear focus throughout its surface. Many will recall seeing in clear detail, in the press, a picture of the whole coastal area from New York to Boston. The Physical Research Laboratory where this program was pursued became so large that in 1951 the University bought a building across Commonwealth Avenue opposite the Stone Building to house it. The College of Liberal Arts Physical Department was but a small part of all this enterprise, and when MacDonald left the University in 1957 taking the Air Force Program with him, (to establish the Itech Corporation), the Physics Department was for a year or two “practically nonexistent.” Under a new chairman, Robert S. Cohen, a Yale Ph.D., the Department was quickly revived. “No other university has been able to build such a strong department in such a short time,” wrote Dean Millard in 1960. It now (1970) has a full-time staff of 19. It offers a course for non-scientists called “The Physical Sciences. Introduction to the Nature of the Physical World and to Concepts and Methods of the Physical Sciences. The sciences are treated historically with an appreciation of their social, economic, religious and cultural influences.” This is a course in “General Education,” undertaken by the Physics Department at the request of the Faculty in 1947. It has an average enrollment of 200.

Fewer undergraduates major in Physics than in any other science (four in the Class of 1969; two in 1970). Members of the staff are principally engaged in research, supported by grants from the United States Government and from private foundations. Research in Physics is inordinately expensive; almost any amount of money can profitably be spent. Perforce, therefore, and by deliberate choice as well, about half of the staff of professors are theoretical physicists, whose expenses are light. So large a portion of theorists is unusual in any university department of science. On the theoretical side, Physics touches Philosophy and one notes that one member of the staff has a Doctor’s degree in both subjects. He is listed among the members of the staff in Philosophy, as is Professor Cohen.”

Thus, until 1970, at least, the Physics Department was seen by the University as a service department supporting the College of Liberal Arts, partly science and partly philosophy. Great pride was taken in the connection with philosophy, which by all rights belonged to liberal education.

There is some documentation, an annual report and planning documents by Dow Smith, the then chairman of the Physics Department, written to the deans, which dates back to 1954. It appears that the physicists formed a community around two centers, one being the Physics Department the other the Physics Research Laboratory, (PRL), with the demarcation between them being somewhat nebulous. Members of the PRL taught courses in the Physics Department without a “physics” appointment or salary, and the Physics Department, which at that time also taught Astronomy, made use of adjunct faculty as well. The PRL, also influenced the composition of the Physics Department since its mission was to develop a camera to monitor missile launches, and thus most of its physicists specialized in optics. The camera developed by PRL is still being used today. I surmise that the PRL was funded by the Air Force, since NASA did not yet exist at that time.

The accompanying faculty, financial and student statistics in the EXEL files reach back to 1951 because of a table included in one of the documents.

The Physics Department annual reports starting 1954 are somewhat sketchy. I have gathered as many facts as possible and those are listed in the tables of faculty and statistics, although no real faculty list exists for the 1956-1957 school year. There are, however a proposals by Chairman Dow Smith to Deans E.K. Graham (probably of CLA), and Dean Duncan E. Macdonald (Probably of GRS) dated July 9, 1956 and March 27, 1957, which contain the statistics.

The Annual Report by F. Dow Smith to Dean D.E. Macdonald, (who incidentally, was also a physicist and Physics Department Chairman as mentioned in the Ault book), for the academic year 1955-56 is relevant because it not only contains the departmental statistics but also contains a proposal for the future development of the department. It also compares the Physics Department at Boston University, with eight faculty members, to that of Harvard and the University of Illinois which have 65 and 45 faculty members respectively. While graduate student assistantships range from $2000 to $1500 per academic year in other institutions, that at Boston University was $1200. At Boston University the salary range was from $6800 for a Professor to $5000 for an Assistant Professor. There were twelve publications and about twenty conference participations by Physics Department members and another ten by members of the Physical Research Laboratories. The department had 200 students in Elementary courses, 50 Undergraduate Physics majors, 20 Masters candidates and 27 Ph. D. candidates. Smith then goes on to point out that “The ratio of students between Illinois and Boston is of the order of three to one, the ratio of faculty is between five and six to one.”

The report and planning document were apparently requested by Dean Macdonald and F. Dow Smith thanks him for the request. He also complains about previous reports on which no or little action was taken. The following are some excerpts from that report: “I believe that the University administration is not aware of how far we actually need to go. …..I have assumed in my planning , consistent with your own announcement to faculty, that we are aiming at a graduate program of the highest possible caliber. This does not mean that we should plan or even wish to compete on a full-scale basis with established departments like Harvard or MIT. Neither can we accept a caliber of instruction or research that is in any sense lower than that of much established groups. It does mean consolidation of our efforts towards specialization in relatively fewer fields of research within the broad field of physics.” This was one of the tenets, although not quite so emphatically expressed, which guided the growth of the department for some time.

Smith enumerates many deficiencies which need to be corrected. Among the deficiencies are teaching and research space, lack of administrative attention to such things as obtaining telephones for researchers on sponsored research grants, lack of chairmanly authority or budget control, and travel compensation for trips on University business. He also argues for a retirement plan for the members of the Physical Research Laboratories. One wonders why any physicist would come to a place like Boston University.

Ed Booth, 1958

Professor Edward C. Booth, who came to Boston University in 1956 recalls that he came to Boston University…

“because the teaching load was lighter than Georgetown where I had another offer and because I liked the NE area better than Washington.” The Boston University Physics Department “wanted a nuclear physics person to replace Fay Eisenberg who had just left.

My starting salary was $5000 plus another $500 to cover moving from Charlottesville, VA. Since my pay went up by a few percent a year, it was great to have the $500 as part of the salary.

This was 1956. The Physics Department was in the middle of the Chemistry Dept on 1st floor at the downtown end of the Stone Building. I had a lab in the basement. I was the only experimentalist. The graduate students were mostly people who had come for the Optics Lab (PRL) work. That Government supported lab occupied all of the building along Cummington street and probably employed 70-80 people. It was shown to me as ‘part of the Physics Department’ but it was all classified research in information theory, matrix optics (still used in handling beams in accelerators) cameras (Gary Powers of U2 fame had one) infrared detection and imaging. I am not sure about proximity fuses. That might have been at the Hopkins Lab, JPL. Our Optics Lab was also similar to Draper Lab and Lincoln Lab.

The year the Sputnik went up, our lab was between contract renewals. Although it was clear that with the Sputnik everything was going to be red hot, Boston University did not want to carry the budget for a few months, so all the faculty employed by the lab together with grad students, split off with the sale of the lab to Itek. Duncan MacDonald, Dean of the Graduate school became an officer along with F Dow Smith. The Case family acquired a lot of stock and got rich (I suppose). I never set foot in the place and actually thought it was a good thing to get rid of the ‘war work’.

That left, I think, four of us to do the teaching and research. All of the undergraduate courses were taught by Lucien Taylor. People like Bob Cohen and Armand Siegel and I taught the advanced courses. Actually Bob may have taught an undergrad introductory course. I can’t remember whether we taught 2 or 3 course. I think I did 2 plus Advanced Lab which had to be invented. I guess Ed O’Niell was the only regular professor who switched over from the Optics Lab to full time at BU. He was a reputable information theorist. Bob Nesbitt, many body theory, showed up pretty soon along with Wolf Franzen and Dean Edmonds and you (GOZ).

We taught in the evening because we could get graduate students who came in from Rt 128 tech companies. I ate dinner in places like the Busy Bee restaurant.”

(The Busy Bee is still in existence on Beacon Street. Its ambience has not changed. There was also a diner, the Tom Thumb, on Cummington Street which was run by a couple. It was housed in a typical Diner wagon imitating the rail road cars. Very popular because of its reasonably priced and freshly prepared food. When the couple decided to retire, they wanted their daughter to take over the business. The daughter and her husband ran the diner for about a year, with little enthusiasm which communicated to the clientele, and then quit. Now, a building housing the College of Engineering stands on the site where the diner was located.)

“For the first 10 years at BU I never taught a daytime course. Evening courses started at 4:30. We had colloquia at night, 8PM. It was really hard to stay awake, but there were so few of us that we had to go. Armand Siegel would write down ‘The Master Equation’ and I would topple out of my seat. I think we had a regular colloquium every other week.”

Ed Booth, 1958

At the end of a proposal for the expansion of the Department, dated March 27, 1957, F. Dow Smith has a note which states “The figures for 1957-58 differ slightly from those submitted in the February 18 Budget since they include the hiring of Prof. Robert S. Cohen”

F. Dow Smith went on to become the president of the American Optical Society and his picture, along with other American Optical Society presidents is in the archives of the American Institute of Physics and reproduced below.

Item ID: Kingslake Rudolf D1
Title: Rudolf Kingslake, David L. MacAdam, Stanley S. Ballard, Karl G. Kessler, W. Lewis
Hyde, Robert E. Hopkins, F. Dow Smith