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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lucy Wilson

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Interview with Dr. Lucy Wilson
By Katherine Sopka
At Miss Wilson’s home, Wellesley, Mass.
December 6, 1978

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Lucy Wilson; December 6, 1978

ABSTRACT: In this interview Lucy Wilson, 90 years old at the time, hard of hearing but very lucid, provided a lengthy commentary on various aspects of her personal and professional life, working through a set of suggested topics prepared in advance by Katherine Sopka. Hence there is little, if any, dialogue involved. (A copy of the list of topics is appended to this Abstract.) Especially noteworthy among the topics covered are:
— her family background growing up in Indiana in the extended family setting of her maternal grandparents’ home to which her widowed mother returned when Lucy was two years old;
— her social and educational experience in high school and at Wellesley College where her studies focused equally among physics, philosophy and psychology;
— her teaching experience in physics at Mount Holyoke College prior to graduate study at the Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Ph.D. in physics in 1917 for work done under R.W. Wood;
— comments on Hopkins faculty members especially Wood and Joseph S. Ames;
— her long (1917 - 1954) career at Wellesley College as a professor of physics (including teaching a course in automobile mechanics!) and later as Dean of students;
— her study at Manchester University in 1924 with William Bragg;
— general comments on the status of women physicists in England and the United States and on specific women physicists whom she knew well.


Session I | Session II


This is Katherine Sopka. I’m meeting again today, December 6th, 1978, with Miss Lucy Wilson at her home in Wellesley, Mass. Miss Wilson has kindly agreed to share with me more of her recollections, and to answer further questions about her experiences as a physicist in the first half of the 20th Century. You were learning physics at a very exciting time with the coming of x-rays, radioactivity and quantum theory. Did you hear much discussion of these topics at Wellesley and/or at the Johns Hopkins University (or at the Physical Society meetings that you attended)?


We had a little discussion of X-rays when I was an undergraduate, and some of radioactivity then, and more later, in the departments of both Mt. Holyoke and Wellesley. At the Physical Society meetings, there were always different papers about it. Now, at Johns Hopkins, we had a colloquium once a week, and it often was on something along those lines. Of course, it was brought into the class especially the one which Dr. Ames taught. We heard a great deal about it there, and I want to comment on those lectures, later.


Based on your experience at Manchester in 1924, do you have any comments on women in physics in England at that time as compared with their situation in the United States then? In particular, were the numbers appreciably different? Were their opportunities for training and employment better, worse or about the same?


I think the general opinion was that women had a much better chance over here. That was the real reason why I suggested to Miss Laird that she might like to get Dorothy Heyworth to come over here, and why Dorothy was glad to come. She’s become an American citizen. I think Dorothy was sure that she would have better opportunities here. And she was the only woman physicist that I met in the months I was in Manchester. I can’t say anything more than that. I don’t think there was any other woman working in the laboratory, but there was no discrimination against her in any way that I could see. She was respected by her fellow students, as well as by Bragg. She lived in the dormitory for women undergraduates and graduate students, and I went there for dinner with her a time or two. Miss Frances Lowater, an English woman, had come to Wellesley as an instructor from Bryn Mawr where she had been a “demonstrator.” She was a good teacher and remained until her retirement when she returned to England. If I try to compare England with the United States — I can say I knew only of women’s colleges in the United States and I really knew nothing about discrimination against women. It was all the other way.

There were very few men on the faculty at Wellesley in 1917, so few that they had a little club of their own! I never had my feelers out for discrimination. Of course, the number of women majoring in physics over here was small. But I think it was larger than it was in England. I should say it must have been. But I don’t really know. My mother was with me in England and we became acquainted with Bragg and his wife as we lived in the same suburb. Later, they came over here, at the invitation of the Wellesley physics department, and he gave a speech on X-ray diffraction. They stayed several days at the guest house at the college; my mother and I did all we could to entertain them, too. We had a very nice social relation, with the Braggs, as well as the professional one. Miss Heyworth can tell you quite a good deal about the department. Professor Bragg was an awfully nice person. This Bragg is not Sir William Bragg. Sir William Bragg was at the Cavendish, and this is one of his sons. He had two sons, one of whom I think was killed during the First World War.

The other one had recently come to be a professor of physics at Manchester when I was there. I think he was a little bit younger than I. He was a little bit uneasy about the responsibilities. But he was just as nice and helpful as he could be, and I was anxious to find out about work in the diffraction of X-rays, such as he was doing, and learn some of the techniques, so that we could carry on some of it in the Wellesley laboratory. Then, as to Ames and Wood, I came to know them very well. Dr. Ames is one of the best teachers I had in my whole lifetime. He was a wonderful teacher, and he was quite a disciplinarian. He always taught the main course for the graduate students who were working for degrees, and we usually had one or two people who were working for degrees in mathematics also in that class. He wouldn’t allow his students to take notes, and he taught by the Socratic Method. When he asked questions and nobody could answer them, he would get furious. He stuttered. He would just take his piece of chalk and throw it at the blackboard, and leave the room. And we’d all sit there aghast. If it was early in the period, he might come back. But if it were late in the period, he wouldn’t. But he always took pains to leave a few scraps of formulae on the board, and we would assiduously copy them after every class, whether he’d been put out with us or not.

We stood completely in awe of him, but we all loved him. We were very devoted to him. What happened was that, after the class, which we had every morning at 10 o’clock, (I guess it was) we’d go to the library in small groups, of two or three, and build up our notes for that day. We managed pretty well but that was really quite a business. He was a marvelous administrator as well as a theoretical physicist. Wood was completely different. He was a maverick, and of course very imaginative, and ingenious. I think, Joe (we called him “Joe” behind his back), had me work under Wood because Wood would manage to see that his students got through with their experimental work. Pfund, (I think Arthur was his first name but I can’t remember) was a younger experimentalist, who was very clever, and he took some people, but he worked more with the undergraduates. Wood gave some lectures. He was a great show-off. We had a course in optics with him, but he came when he felt like it. He taught himself to write with his left hand on the blackboard, so that he could face the people who were there.

When they had the Arts Ball every winter as they did in Baltimore, he always went, and he managed to get a costume from laboratory equipment of one kind or another. He would fuss over it at the greatest rate. He was perfectly kindly, in a way, but he kept crazy hours, and would come to the lab over the weekend, and then on Monday, somebody would find something missing in the equipment, but it was usually patched up. He was very entertaining, although we didn’t rely on him, in the way we did on Joe. We had, in the old building, (I was there at the time the university moved from old Baltimore out to Homewood in the suburbs), the mathematics department, and the astronomy department, so that we knew the people in those departments. Thus we knew Anderson of the astronomy department and MacKenzie, a younger man. We also knew the mathematics people very well. In fact, I think they all used the same secretary, and the secretary’s room was a great place of gathering for everybody. So it was really very pleasant.

As I say, there’d be one other woman, usually, in Dr. Ames’ class where we covered the field of physics in the three years. And that woman usually was somebody who was working for a degree in mathematics. One time, we had a visitor from Goucher College. But it was all very very friendly. There was no sex discrimination whatever that I could see. I never felt any. The other thing, I thought of, was the comments I wanted to make about the people I suggested that you see. I think the most interesting person in the group that I suggested is Miss Armstrong, who is out at Santa Fe. I’m afraid she’s developing some confusion of mind. I don’t know, but that is what I hear. She never wanted to write a letter, but when she started to, she wrote a wonderful letter. She hasn’t written to me for a long time now, and I know her very well indeed. I visited her out there a number of times. The people at the Los Alamos Lab gave her a marvelous dinner party on her 80th birthday, which is just about a year ago, and they gathered in friends from Santa Fe and the region around about. Miss Armstrong and Miss Heyworth talk over the long distance telephone, at intervals and I get the news from Dorothy. Dorothy Heyworth is a top notch teacher.

She has done theoretical research. She’s not so interested in the experimental side of the subject. She works out what she thinks, what she considers the best way to present a subject — and that’s it. She proved to be a good administrator, when she was chairman of the department. I don’t think she has any regrets over having come to this country. I’d be interested to see what she’ll tell you. Now, Mildren Allen can tell you a great deal, especially about Miss Laird. I got into a group of faculty in the dormitory where I lived at Mt. Holyoke who were devoted teachers, devoted to their subjects, devoted to their students, and nobody cared anything about how much time and strength she put into the work. She put it in. The consequence is that I really have belonged to the society of dedicated teachers. Some were doing research, some weren’t, but I think the whole atmosphere of the teaching field now is quite different from what it was when I experienced it. Miss Laird was quite a disciplinarian, and so was Miss McDowell. Miss Laird was a very good physicist and a very good teacher, and I learned a great deal in all kinds of ways from her. But I wore myself out, and I had to take a year off. Oh, I didn’t have to, but my mother thought I should, so we had a winter in California, before I went back to Mt. Holyoke for one year as an instructor, and then went down to Johns Hopkins.

But the whole new attitude toward teaching now means that I’m still disgusted with the fact that teachers strike. I just don’t understand it, really, because it seems to me entirely wrong. But that’s that. I can’t do anything about it. Miss McDowell certainly was good to me. She saw to it that I got all the advances at the time when I should get them, and was forward looking about courses. At Mt. Holyoke, there was a very lovable person who was about Miss Laird’s age, Mabel Chase, an Oberlin graduate, and I think she’d have done better in some field other than physics. She’d made a mistake in her choice. But she was a very loyal and hard worker, and did all that she could. She didn’t make any mistakes, and was a very attractive person. She’d been at Wellesley one year, before I entered and had gone from Wellesley to Mt. Holyoke.

Session I | Session II