Mildred Allen

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Katherine Sopka
Interview date
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Interview of Mildred Allen by Katherine Sopka on 1979 June 18,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4480

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Abstract

Mildred Allen was born in Massachusetts in 1894, the elder of two daughters of an MIT professor of civil engineering who had met her mother while working in New Mexico. She graduated from Vassar College in 1916 with training in mathematics and physics. Her Ph.D. in physics (1922) was granted by Clark University where she studied with A. G. Webster, but her thesis research was one at MIT. She taught at Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley and Oberlin Colleges during the 1920s and early 30s, as well as studying further at the University of Chicago and Yale. She did research at the Bartol Foundation, 1927-30, and at Harvard University, 1931-33. She then taught at Mt. Holyoke from 1933 until her retirement in 1959. Since then she has done additional research, most recently (paper published 1971) on the behavior of torsion pendulums especially during solar eclipses.

Transcript

Sopka:

This is Katherine Sopka. It’s the 18 of June, 1979, and I am visiting with Mildred Allen, at her home in South Hadley, Mass. Miss Allen, could we start by having you tell me something of your family background, and your early childhood? I understand that you were born in Sharon, Mass. but that you went to school in West Roxbury. How did that come about?

Allen:

Well, we moved from Sharon to West Roxbury when I was a year and three months old. As far as brothers and sisters are concerned, I have one sister a year and two weeks and one day younger. She’s living in Needham and is married. I went to her husband’s 80th birthday celebration a few weeks ago. My father taught civil engineering at MIT from ‘87 till ’16. Before that, he had graduated from MIT in 1872. He walked from his home in Roxbury, near the Dudley St. Station, into BackBay during the whole four years of his college course, which, in the Boston weather, was a little strenuous.

Sopka:

MIT was in Boston at that time.

Allen:

Yes, on Boylston Street where the Prudential Center is now. He said he could walk faster than the horse drawn cars and besides he didn’t have the money for them. As a matter of fact, after he was married, in ‘88, he did pay back a loan that he had gotten from a cousin. When he went and paid the loan, he had a nice call. Just as he was leaving, the cousin said, “Well, now, Frank, take this back, and use it to help other students.” That money circulated for a good many years.

Sopka:

That was a nice gesture certainly.

Allen:

Yes. He graduated in ‘72, and then in the late seventies, there was more or less of a Depression. So to get a job he went as far west as Ohio and then eventually to New Mexico, where he helped as a civil engineer to put the Santa Fe Railroad through. Later, he did some law work out there and when he came back to Boston, he did manage to be entered in the Boston bar. The year I graduated from college, I spent the summer typing his book on Business Law for Engineers. It’s now defunct. But his railroad tables for civil engineering are still going a little bit. They were “born” in the nineties, I get a little money from them. So he was out in New Mexico until ‘86. In the meantime, my mother was an Indiana woman, but during her high school days lived in Chicago. Even during a Chicago blizzard, when there was no school, she got to the high school anyhow. But then her older brother’s health broke down in college with tuberculosis, and she went out to New Mexico to keep house for him. So Boston met Indiana in Las Vegas, New Mexico. They were engaged for four years, and were married in ’88. In the meantime, he’d come home, because his father had died. MIT took him on as a professor where he taught from ‘87 until 1916. And that is his silver retirement cup, around the corner there. He used to laugh about the fact that it took him 29 years to get it. He said, “A lot of people pick up such things in 29 seconds.” He retired the year I was graduated from college. Then during the war, he did talk on conservation some. He lived to be 96 -- he missed 97 by a month. He retired at age 65 saying he ought to get used to it. Well, he did, he only survived 32 years (after that). (Chuckle) Now, about my mother’s father. He had done some teaching but had a book store in Chicago which was burned out at the time of the big Chicago fire. I think he was burned out a second time. He went out to New Mexico to be somewhere near his son, and he really founded the New Mexico State University, which is at Las Cruces. Also, when he was at the tender age of 76 or something of the sort, he was put in as head of public education of the then Territory of New Mexico, which meant changing trains at 2 AM, etc etc.

Sopka:

What was his name?

Allen:

Hiram Hadley. Of course, I am disturbed because the NEA -- the National Education Association has turned into a big union practically now. My grandfather always went to it. We’d always hear in the spring “Well, the NEA is going to meet at such and such a place, I don’t think I’ll be able to go.” He always got there. But it was not a union at that time. I really am quite disturbed about that.

Sopka:

Well, I guess that the AAUP is also getting to be a union.

Allen:

I know. I do keep up my membership in that, but I’m not very keen about it.

Sopka:

Times have changed.

Allen:

Yes, they have.

Sopka:

I wanted to ask you, were your parents married when they were out West?

Allen:

No, they were not married -- until ‘88. My father had come home in ’86. They were married in a thunderstorm on the 21st of June in Indianapolis, in my mother’s aunt and uncle’s house, where she’d been living. Her mother had died when she was 17.

Sopka:

Then they came back East?

Allen:

Yes. It was “back” East for my father but certainly not for my mother. They went to Sharon because my mother was not supposed to be very strong, and the climate there was supposed to be pretty good.

Sopka:

Oh? Better than Boston?

Allen:

Oh, better than Boston, yes, I did keep my legal residence in Boston until ‘48, when my father died, but I really have been here at Mount Holyoke College completely since ‘33. I came first in ‘18, stayed two years, came back in ‘23, stayed three years. Then I came back in ‘33 and stayed until I was retired because of age in ‘59. But I’m secretary of the Mount Holyoke Chapter of Sigma Xi, so I know most of the science people, and that’s quite a little job.

Sopka:

Is that just for Mt. Holyoke or for the whole region?

Allen:

Just for Mt. Holyoke. We have initiated 42 people this year, I have to get the various members of the faculty to remember to do some of the things they tend to forget. I tease them (like fun) but they seem to take it all right.

Sopka:

As a child, you had moved into Boston by the time you went to school?

Allen:

Yes. We’d moved to West Roxbury I was only a year and three months old. My sister was only about three months. The family drove over there in one of those old station cabs on a hot summer day. Mama couldn’t stand it to have the windows closed. Margaret couldn’t stand it to have them open. They had a nice drive, from Sharon to West Roxbury.

Sopka:

In those days it was a long drive, too.

Allen:

Yes, Exactly. Well, I didn’t go to school till I was 9 ½. I always tell people, that’s why I didn’t get any further.

Sopka:

Your parents taught you at home?

Allen:

My mother’s sister taught us at home, so we could read, write and do arithmetic. Also we had outside instruction in music. So from the time I was 6 ½, my sister 5 ½, for three years, we had music.

Sopka:

What instruments?

Allen:

Well, the first year, it was kindergarten stuff on the table, and then piano. My sister eventually changed over to violin, and graduated in violin from New England Conservatory. She’s musical, I would say I’m musically literate but I’m not musical.

Sopka:

When did you find that you were attracted to science?

Allen:

Well, I always liked mathematics, and when I got out of high school, my father thought that physics would be better for me than mathematics. But I had four years of math in college and 2 ½ of physics. When I went to Clark University, I had never before been out with a man socially. And it was only the graduate part of Clark, that, at that time, had women. The undergraduate didn’t.

Sopka:

How did you happen to go to Vassar?

Allen:

Well, the family looked around and thought it was the place to go, because, I guess, it was good in mathematics. I majored in math in college, and physics in graduate work.

Sopka:

Oh. I see. But you did take physics at Vassar?

Allen:

Oh yes, under Professor Saunders, and: Edna Carter and Frances Wick. I knew Professor Saunders pretty nearly fifty years, as he moved to South Hadley upon retirement from Harvard. During the war in the forties he taught one or two courses at Mount Holyoke. And when he died… (his wife said,) “Do you know anything about keeping books? Could you balance my checkbook for me?” I said, “Well, when I was chairman of the department, the first year, I was off by one cent from agreement with the Comptroller.” So for a good many years, I kept her checkbook balanced, until she got so old that she decided that she’d better have the bank pay most of her bills. Of course, that was his second wife. I’d known her almost as long as they’ve been married. Well, what else should I say about these things?

Sopka:

How about a little more on your undergraduate life at Vassar? What was it like in those days? 1912-16?

Allen:

Well, we did not have to be in bed by 10 o’clock, but we did have to be quiet after that hours. But my mother’s brother having broken down in college, I didn’t want to. So I think I never worked after 10:30 my four years at college. Of course, I occasionally worked on Sunday, which I didn’t approve of especially, but mostly I didn’t. Of course everybody else did. I think I was really pretty shy, so that I didn’t perhaps get into as many things as I should have.

Sopka:

About how big were the classes then?

Allen:

Well, the whole college was a thousand students, so the classes were not unduly big, except for psychology -- where Miss Washburn would get up and give a perfect lecture to 300 people. All we had to do was read two or three books, I think. Maybe we had an examination. I forget.

Sopka:

Whom did you have in mathematics?

Allen:

Professor White, Henry Seelye White. His middle daughter was a classmate of mine. Now his three daughters have died.

Sopka:

Did you feel that you were well prepared to go on to do graduate work?

Allen:

Yes. I had no trouble there.

Sopka:

How did you choose to go to Clark University?

Allen:

Again, I think Father put his finger on it, some way or other.

Sopka:

You knew A. G. Webster?

Allen:

Oh, I worked chiefly under him. Certainly.

Sopka:

He was an interesting character. I’ve read a lot about him.

Allen:

He was an interesting character, and it shouldn’t have happened that, he committed suicide.

Sopka:

Did it happen the year that you got your degree?

Allen:

No, I got my degree in ‘22. I think it was the next year. But it shouldn’t have happened. At that time, Clark had a president who had never met the word “tact.” That didn’t help out. After G. Stanley Hall left, the new president was no asset, to my mind.

Sopka:

How did it happen that you did part of your work in MIT?

Allen:

You see, I went to Clark in ‘16, then in ‘18, the war was getting rather serious, so I came here to Mt. Holyoke and taught two years. It was desirable to do something. Then when it came to going back, my father wanted me to go to MIT. So I did the thesis at MIT, under C. L. Norton.

Sopka:

That was an experimental thesis[1] on the Emissivity of Water?

Allen:

Yes. Quite right. It was quite a different life, commuting to MIT. At Clark we used to go out, ten or more of us, on a Sunday afternoon, and walk ten miles, stop somewhere in the country, and dance the Virginia reel. But when I was home, I stayed home properly. I did get some exercise, because I walked from the Back Bay RR station out to the new MIT, which isn’t too far, but --

Sopka:

Were you living in Back Bay?

Allen:

I was living in West Roxbury.

Sopka:

Oh, but then you went into Back Bay by train and walked to the new MIT in Cambridge?

Allen:

Yes.

Sopka:

That was a good hike.

Allen:

But on the other hand, it wasn’t the same kind of free and easy life, somehow or other.

Sopka:

You mentioned that you had studied with E. B. Wilson, also, at MIT.

Allen:

Oh yes. Yes.

Sopka:

He gave a famous course, I understand in the physics department. Did you take that? It included quantum theory.

Allen:

I guess it had some. Of course, A. C. Webster hadn’t recognized the electron. And I think he never recognized the quantum theory. So -- I had quite a jump, to get into things.

Sopka:

I see. Your work with A. C. Webster was strictly classical.

Allen:

Classical, but awfully good mathematical physics.

Sopka:

He wrote a book on mathematical physics.

Allen:

Three books, one on mechanics, one on electricity and magnetism, and one on partial differential equations in physics.

Sopka:

Were you the only woman in physics at Clark?

Allen:

Oh yes.

Sopka:

You said that only the graduate school had women at all.

Allen:

Yes.

Sopka:

Were you made to feel welcome?

Allen:

I never felt unhappy about anywhere I worked. At all. I don’t know whether it means, I’m very submissive, or what not, but, I think I’ve never been unhappy about the way people have treated me. However, I hardly think I’m a women’s libber. I mean, I’m willing to be a little quiescent.

Sopka:

Going back a bit, can you tell me more about your school years, and your religious affiliation. You didn’t say anything about.

Allen:

Well, until we were 13, 14, we went to the Congregational Church, and after that we went in to Roxbury to the Quaker meeting. My mother was a Quaker. As a matter of fact, I’m a member of Cambridge meeting, but I rarely ever go. And I don’t go to the meeting here very much because it’s an unprogrammed meeting. I’m used to programmed meetings. Well, I went to public school through high school, which of course was all co-ed, and I think it was a pretty good education.

Sopka:

Did you have Latin and languages?

Allen:

You bet I had Latin. I had to have four years of Latin to get into college. I had to have one year of Latin in college. I had to have a reading knowledge of French and German to get out of college. I’d had extraordinarily good French in high school, so I didn’t take any French in college. I still write my “Save the Children Federation” in French when I feel like it. And I did take two years of French after I retired here. As for German, I took baby German my sophomore year in college and I did pretty well in it. Then if one read six or seven books of German in the summer, one could go into regular freshman German, which presupposed three or four years of high school German. I said “Oh yes, all right” and did it. I had a semester of Goethe. I read German with a fair amount of ease. I read German for science, I never read German for pleasure. I read French for pleasure. There hasn’t been as much French science as I’d like to read, but -- and then, I’ve taken up a smattering of Italian, but not very much, and I did read something or other in Danish, the summer I spent ten days in Copenhagen, and I think I probably could get away with a little Spanish. But I am disturbed because the ordinary student now can get through college with one language such as taking Spanish in high school, and continuing it in college, one language.

Sopka:

Yes. It’s a shame.

Allen:

I think, if they have neither Latin nor German, that they do not know how language is put together. I mean, English has no structure at all.

Sopka:

Presumably you also had good mathematics in high school.

Allen:

In my sophomore year, we were to have geometry, with a man teacher. This is how he introduced us to geometry. “Well, now, if your grandfather and your grandmother couldn’t do geometry, you won’t be able to do it, and if you can’t write what you mean and say what you mean, you won’t be able to do geometry.” Luckily, we had a very good text that asked us questions, and it did no harm. I think a really good teacher is valuable. I think a really poor teacher is more valuable than a mediocre one, because then you have to do your own work.

Sopka:

That’s an interesting observation. Perhaps it’s a consolation to some poorer teachers.

Allen:

I did have physics in high school. My father had me take a second year, which involved a good deal of problem work -- I don’t know if that was good or not.

Sopka:

Do you recall any high school teachers that were particularly helpful or influential to you?

Allen:

Well, I was crazy about, my French teacher and we had an extremely good English teacher. I discovered about the time I was graduating, when my sister Margaret had had only three years of English, that only three years were required for graduation, so I asked the English teacher about it. “Yes, she said, that’s right, but for mercy’s sake, don’t tell anybody.” Originally Margaret was taking four subjects, I was taking five. She was to take an extra year, but there was no particular point in it. So when we graduated together, she had three years of English. But we never told anybody. Then she went to the New England Conservatory, in violin, and would have graduated in ‘16 except that she had typhoid in 1914, so it took her an extra year. It was said “There was no typhoid in Boston.” But my aunt and my sister both came down with it, and we ran through nine trained nurses. It was quite a summer. My feeling is that our maid was a typhoid carrier. But my mother wouldn’t allow her to be tested because she’d been so nice.

Sopka:

I’m glad your sister survived all right despite this.

Allen:

Well, it was nip and tuck for a while. And as my aunt felt strongly about men doctors -- they had separate doctors one man, one woman. We never had more than four trained nurses at one time.

Sopka:

How long did this siege last?

Allen:

Nine weeks or something like that. And when they finally decided it was typhoid, I was thankful. My mother wasn’t, but I was thankful that they knew what they were doing. My aunt was supposed to have had typhoid at the time of the Chicago fire. And why a person should have it twice, I don’t know. So, well, will that do for my school years?

Sopka:

Yes, I think that’s fine.

Allen:

I did not get into many outside activities in college. The academic took most of my time -- of course, on mathematics in college, I’d either spend 25 minutes, or six hours. I mean, if it went right, all right.

Sopka:

How far did you get in mathematics as an undergraduate at Vassar?

Allen:

Through introductory differential equations. We didn’t have calculus until second semester sophomore year. Now they have it in high school. And then, my father wanted me to have analytic mechanics in my junior year. That meant I had to have integral calculus, so while the typhoid siege was going on, I went in once a week and was tutored in integral calculus by one of the professors at MIT. -- which was good recreation. I didn’t bother taking the examination. I didn’t get any credit for it, but I was able to take the mechanics course comfortably. Then the second semester, there were just two of us in the course. We were evenly matched. We had a pretty good time. Of course, we had music. I had music, I suppose, until the end of grammar school, and then I did a little more with it in high school, but I was carrying five courses instead of four, you see, and I didn’t have as much time for it as Margaret did.

Sopka:

I see you have a nice piano. Do you still play?

Allen:

Some, when there are not too many other things to do. My third class mail and my Sigma Xi activity keep me busy and I guess I’m a little lazy. As for sports, I did not do much. I think I’m more interested now then I was then. Ordinarily my dog and I walk around the half mile block once or twice a day. I did like tennis, and I played a little golf until I bought this house, and then I thought weeds and golf did not go together. And of course I read and read and read all the time. Well, my French teacher in high school, I don’t know -- of course… Well, as far as the choice of Vassar and physics, in part I think it was more or less my family’s choice. At that time, students didn’t do so much choosing.

Sopka:

So your father was quite influential in steering you into the world of science.

Allen:

Yes. Very influential. I’ve sometimes wondered why they didn’t consider Earlham. My mother had a year or two at Earlham College in Indiana. And I think it’s a very interesting college. I am quite pleased with what it’s doing. The president of Earlham at one time had been our Quaker minister in Roxbury. Also the chairman of the board of trustees for years and years and years was my mother’s favorite cousin.

Sopka:

Oh, so you had ties to Earlham.

Allen:

Yes. Of course, I have ties to Vassar. I have ties to Mt. Holyoke. I have ties to MIT. I have ties to Harvard. I have ties to Wellesley. I have ties to the New Mexico State University. I have ties to Oberlin. And one person wrote me, “Inasmuch as you’re not doing anything for any of the colleges, will you please support this college.” I can’t think which one it was.

Sopka:

I can imagine how much mail you get from all these colleges.

Allen:

Yes. There was also William Francis Gray Swann. I had a year with him at Yale, and I chased him down to the Bartol and stayed for three years. He had many other students -- I think, being a lone female, one doesn’t get quite as much interaction as other students. I mean, they get together and “chew the rag.” And of course, the quality of the education I got was certainly good. Among the women in physics that I knew, there was Evelyn Clift, who was a Mt. Holyoke graduate, and Dorothy Weeks. They were assistants at MIT.

Sopka:

When you were at Mt. Holyoke, you must have known Elizabeth Laird?

Allen:

Oh yes. She retired in ‘40. I taught twelve years under her. I also taught a year and a half at Wellesley College before returning to Mount Holyoke in 1923.

Sopka:

At Wellesley was it Miss McDowell? Who hired you?

Allen:

Yes, and, of course, Lucy Wilson was there.

Sopka:

What kinds of courses did you teach?

Allen:

Well, at Wellesley, in addition to analytic mechanics, it was physics for those who had had high school physics or maybe it was just baby physics. I had one girl, the year I was there, a senior, that I flunked on her first bluebook. It didn’t set very well with me, so I got hold of her. She was a botany major. She said she’d never been used to doing such precise work before. I was scared blue, because I was afraid I’d deprive her of her degree, you see. When I got sick, she was the only one that walked the mile downtown to find out how I was. Later -- she certainly got through reasonably well. As for my thesis research, I haven’t done much of that type of thing since.

Sopka:

When you were at Clark, were you taking courses?

Allen:

Oh yes. We had a short (?) two hour lecture every day. But one day, one of the men wanted to go somewhere, so we started an hour early. That was all right. Professor Webster started an hour early and kept on so we had a three hour lecture. We had about a two hour lecture five times a week, three times perhaps on mechanics and twice on something else, and then of course we took a math course. The math section was not large. I would say the professor was over about where the piano is, and the students sat here -- we were a Chinese, a Japanese, two colored men, an American engaged man, and myself. And I didn’t know until the second year, when professor shook hands with me, that he even knew I was in the class. I may have taken a course in education. I’m not sure. Of course, I had to pass the French and German examination for the Master’s degree. And I did take the Master’s. I still think a scientist should take a Master’s because frequently people in science don’t have to write up too much, and they should have a little experience in putting a paper into shape. Of course if they’re going on for a PhD, most places don’t recommend it. There was only one time, I think, that I had difficulties. On the morning of the commencement in 1917 the head librarian sent word that they couldn’t accept my thesis, because it was not quite ready for filing, and therefore I wouldn’t get my Master’s degree, which was a little awkward.

Sopka:

That was your Master’s?

Allen:

Yes. I knew that one of the men was in the same state that I was, neither of us had our theses quite completed. He wasn’t bothered. I was bothered. Then A. G. Webster got on the job, and it was all right. Anyhow the head librarian was not fond of women. I think that’s the only time I felt funny about reactions to women.

Sopka:

Was Webster a congenial person?

Allen:

Oh, very much so. He was a grand person.

Sopka:

I understand that he did a lot of public speaking, but I wondered whether on a student teacher relationship, you found him -- congenial.

Allen:

Oh yes. He was a fine lecturer and he was quite a person. We used to think, and I still do think, he was more of a linguist than he was a physicist, perhaps. By that I mean mathematics was one language to him. He knew modern Greek. He knew this, that and the other languages. He was a fascinating man.

Sopka:

I’m sure you know that he practically single handedly founded the American Physical Society.

Allen:

And Franklin at MIT, whom I also knew. I think I never worked under him. But of course, being a professor’s daughter, I knew a good many of the MIT professors. What else could I say about my graduate studies?

Sopka:

I think you’ve covered that pretty well but I notice you said you went to the University of Chicago for some study.

Allen:

Just for six weeks, one summer, and I had a course with W.F.G. Swann and one with A.H. Compton there, I started one with Gale, I think. He just re-hashed what he’d done, and gave us references that I tried to look up in the University of Chicago Library where they had a classics man in charge of the library -- who thought any physics written before 1900 wasn’t worth reading. So I went downtown to a big library there, and got hold of the desired references, but finally dropped the courses. Yale -- there were two or three other women, there. And I worked under, Leigh Page, who was an absolutely perfect lecturer. Absolutely perfect. Consequently, you didn’t know anything when you got through. Swann would come in and the class would bring up something over here, so he chased it -- then something came up over there, so he chased it -- perfectly awful lecture but when you worked it up, you knew something. Leigh Page’s son has taught at Swarthmore. Oh, Swarthmore is another college that I have had a good deal to do with. You see, Bartol moved out onto the Swarthmore campus. And my only first cousin lived across the street from the front gate of Swarthmore College, so I’ve known Swarthmore since 1902. The Bartol Foundation of the Franklin Institute you know has now moved to the University of Delaware.

Sopka:

Oh, I didn’t realize that.

Allen:

Yes, Swarthmore decided that they needed the room, so they got rid of it. The Bartol is better off because now they’re sort of part of the graduate department of physics which, I think, is very good. I think everybody at Bartol gives one course one semester each year, or something of that sort.

Sopka:

In your graduate work and then later at Chicago and Yale, were you supporting this financially on your own or through your family or fellowships?

Allen:

My family mostly, but I had fellowships my first two years at Clark. And Clark didn’t ask me to pay tuition. From Vassar I received $500 the first year, $400 the next year. I had all the clothes I needed in college so I lived on that amount, for two years.

Sopka:

Well, you could have, at that time.

Allen:

You could easily, you see.

Sopka:

When you were at Clark, did you live in a rooming house, or were there dormitories?

Allen:

Well, the first year I lived in a single house. I think I was the only one besides the landlady living in the house. I was supposed to get out of my room on Tuesday because my landlady had a woman come in who used it for a sewing room. The next year, I think there were, at least two, maybe three of us, living in a house with a woman who was an assistant to C. Stanley Hall, President of the University. And then there was a public dining room, where the colored men would sit themselves down at the end of the table. I never knew until I went to Clark whether I have any feelings (about race) I haven’t any. But they were very careful. At the Bartol, I think the last two months they paid me something, but only because my father thought it should be done.

Sopka:

Were you the only woman at the Bartol?

Allen:

There was a secretary to Professor Swann, and there was another woman around. They were neither one of them physicists. I was very useful to them because I could help them out when they were taking things down with a physics vocabulary and they didn’t know what a word was.

Sopka:

What kind of research did you do at Bartol?

Allen:

I was shooting electrons through gold foil, hoping that I would find that they lost velocity, perhaps by knocking out certain electrons in the gold, but I never got significant results.

Sopka:

Were you there at the time when Kenneth Bainbridge -- and Curry Street were at Bartol, in those early years?

Allen:

Yes. We always had tea in the afternoons. We always played ping pong after tea. One afternoon, I played ping pong with Bainbridge. The next day he was in the hospital with appendicitis -- those things hit very fast. He married the dean of Swarthmore, who has since died. Street I didn’t know quite as well, but I did know him.

Sopka:

I’ve interviewed both of them for my Harvard history project, and they both had mentioned having been at Bartol.

Allen:

Oh yes. Of course Professor Kemble’s first wife was a classmate of mine. So I’ve known Ted Kemble years and years and years. It’s true that when I was at Harvard, there was a dinner party for the physics department in the Faculty Club, and I was warned that I must not go in the front door, I must go in the side door. Monica Healea was there at Harvard when I was there. You’ve got all the publication and research results on my publication list.

Sopka:

Yes, I noticed also, in looking into PHYSICAL REVIEW, that you had given papers at a number of Physical Society meetings, at least the abstracts were published. And I wonder if you have any comment about the American Physical Society, and especially in regard to having woman participants?

Allen:

I never had any thoughts about it one way or the other. Of course, being backed up with Professor Swann I think they would have had some fun, doing anything about my taking part.

Sopka:

Oh, I’m sure that officially the Physical Society has always had women. Marcia Keith from Mt. Holyoke was one of the founding members, but I understand that on some occasions, the women were treated with extreme courtesy and were seated at a separate table.

Allen:

Well I don’t know that.

Sopka:

I see. Well, I’m glad, you didn’t experience any of those segregating activities.

Allen:

The last report I gave was at Clark University not more than three or four years ago. You see, I’m working with an Austrian trained physicist, Erwin J. Saxl and he’s the one that has the torsion pendulum set up. We get variations in the period, whereas according to classical theory, there should be no variation. But there are periodic changes in period, and so far no journal will publish it, because it is thought that we do not know what we’re talking about. But Dr. Saxl has been getting these variations for over 20 years. I guess I’ve been working with him nearly 20 now. Probably 18, something like that.

Sopka:

I see. Where is he located?

Allen:

In the town of Harvard. Except that he has a heart condition and a few dozen other things the matter with him, so he has to spend from October to June in Florida. And he’s just had an operation on his vocal chords and I don’t know whether he’ll get north this summer. He has worked under Einstein. But he’s a better experimentalist than he is a theoretical person, I think.

Sopka:

Has he been in this country a long time?

Allen:

Oh yes, a long long time, probably 40 years at least. When he writes a paper, he wants to put in everything he ever thought about the subject. I generally can write about 20 words for the 100 he puts in. Also I think I organize it a little bit better for him and so forth. But he’s near the NASA headquarters in Florida and he’s made connection with a computer down there. It’s much better for him to be in charge of the heavy computing. Using those big computers is a headache. For instance, if you should write a comma and a space and you only write a comma or vice versa, then you get yelled at. So I thought it was better for him to do that. Now -- what should I say about my Professorship at Mt. Holyoke?

Sopka:

Well, what kinds of courses did you teach and how were your students?

Allen:

I taught the beginning course at times. Usually, when Mr. Clancy was chairman, we’d divide it into three sections for physicists. He’d take the fast section. I would give the young instructor, medium ones, and I’d take the slow ones myself. Of course some of mine wound up as good as any at the end of the course. I did think I should get hold of them early as freshman. And I taught the second year course, the elements of electricity, and a little on optics. I taught the advanced optics course, but Advanced (theoretical) mechanics is what I loved to teach. I also taught the advanced heat course, I guess that’s probably the most advanced but I did once teach the radio course. I didn’t know enough to, but I got away with it.

Sopka:

When you came to Mt. Holyoke, were you second to Elizabeth Laird?

Allen:

No, I wasn’t, I was beginning faculty when I came in ‘18, and in ‘23-‘26, I was assistant professor, but Mabel Chase was ahead of me, and so was Margaret Shields, who later taught a little while at Wellesley, and then went to Princeton as a librarian. I think she was an extremely good physicist, but her mind worked exactly in the opposite way to the way any other mind worked, and therefore, she was not a good teacher. But as a librarian at Princeton, I think she did well. She just died within the year, I think. So that I was not way up in the hierarchy at all.

Sopka:

You stayed at Mt. Holyoke longer than a number of people, though, haven’t you?

Allen:

Yes. I suppose so -- I taught here 31 years. When Miss Laird retired, Rogers D. Rusk was very anxious to be chairman, so he got in with the president, and was chairman for six years. The president got a little tired of having a headache every time he had an interview with him, so he wanted to put Professor Saunders in. Professor Saunders said he wouldn’t accept, but he would back me up, so I was put in, and Professor Saunders taught me some of the ropes.

Sopka:

Oh, I see. He was chairman at Harvard for a number of years.

Allen:

Oh, of course. Of course.

Sopka:

15 years I think.

Allen:

Probably. I was chairman for six years, and when Mr. Clancy was away for a year I was acting chairman for another year. But unlike the way things are now, we didn’t have any allowance made for being chairman. When I was chairman, I did all my own typing. Nowadays they have a secretary three days a week.

Sopka:

I missed asking you about your experience at Oberlin. Before you came back to Mt. Holyoke. How did you get to go there?

Allen:

Well, there was an opening for 1930-31, and I think one of the really big men was offered it. When he didn’t take it, they did take me. The man with whose research I helped was C. E. Howe. I taught, I guess mostly laboratory. Oh, I also taught a course in quantum mechanics.

Sopka:

Where did you learn quantum mechanics? You had not been trained in modern theoretical physics.

Allen:

I learned quantum mechanics at the Bartol, I guess.

Sopka:

That would have been the right time to get it.

Allen:

Yes. So I gave a course in quantum mechanics, and then I was typing out my own notes, so they said, “If, you’re writing them out we should like to get them hectographed.” So the class had my notes in their hands as I lectured -- they were mostly PhD’s. That was rather fun.

Sopka:

I noticed in the PHYSICAL REVIEW that you gave a talk at one of the APS meetings[2] on the Schrodinger wave equation and the Compton effect, didn’t you?

Allen:

Something or other. I don’t recall that it was the Compton effect.

Sopka:

Well, I was impressed to note that you had gotten into quantum mechanics.

Allen:

Yes, I apparently knew some little about it. I think that I probably got it at the Bartol.

Sopka:

You also spent some time at one of the University of Michigan (summer sessions) they were quite interesting gatherings.

Allen:

I was there only about ten days. I had to come home because my father was having a birthday. I was never so hot in my life as in Ann Arbor. I lay on the floor rather than in the bed because I slept better at night. I think probably Sommerfeld was there. I’m not sure. When I was at Chicago -- Gale gave his course on spectroscopy, I guess. He read it off from his notes completely. It bored me and I dropped it. So during that summer, I read Sommerfeld’s Atombau.

Sopka:

Oh, yes? That was the standard bible in those days.

Allen:

Yes. When a person just reads off things that they’ve written as Gale did, the course isn’t very exciting. Well, as for what I’m doing now I’m not doing too much at the moment, because Dr. Saxl is having the computing on our problem done down in Florida, and he’s gotten hold of a man connected with one of the institutions near him that knows more about matters connected with our problem than I do, who thinks he’s going to rewrite the paper to make it more publishable. My version is more concise than Dr. Saxl’s but I think it probably could be cut down more. So I haven’t done so much. I should be reading that to me on general relativity back there but I haven’t been. I generally do go down once to Harvard to see Dr. Saxl during the summer. But last summer, I think it was he had fallen out of bed and cracked three vertebrae in the back of his neck, so he didn’t come up until late in June. Then he has to go back before it gets cold.

Sopka:

I see. How did you happen to get to work with him?

Allen:

Well, it was very funny. I went to a Physical Society meeting in Amherst, where he gave a paper on some aspect of tension as he makes instruments for measuring tension that are used in industry. I’d been doing tension work, you see, on crystals, and so, I don’t know why or wherefore but I had courage enough to speak to him afterwards. He said, if I was doing work on tension, why didn’t I send him some copies of my results? So I did. His wife is a Mt. Holyoke graduate, which helped out, I guess, and so it just worked out. Well, he suggested that we work together and I put off getting around to this problem. I worked more on my own problems for a couple of years, and then I finally gave in, and it just sort of happened. I mean, I could have gotten out of it at any time. But it seemed worthwhile to keep on with this interest.

Sopka:

Well, that’s very good. One of the areas that we missed was to have you tell me something about, your work at Harvard with Professor Bridgman.

Allen:

That was a matter of single crystals, and how the resistance of single crystals changes with their orientation, when they’re put under tension. You see, you’d take a single crystal and put tension on it. That would change its electrical resistance, and the change would be different, depending on what the orientation of the crystal was. That was rather interesting.

Sopka:

Was this a problem that you brought to him?

Allen:

No, it was his problem.

Sopka:

How did you happen to come to Harvard?

Allen:

I wanted to do something. I mean to say, here I was, 1931, and I had finished with Oberlin, and there apparently was no job anywhere yet that was interested in me, and I didn’t see myself sitting at home doing nothing, and of course, Professor Saunders was at Harvard.

Sopka:

Yes. Oh. So you had a contact.

Allen:

And then of course Kemble.

Sopka:

Yes. Had you known Kemble before that time?

Allen:

Oh my yes. I’d known him ever since he got married, sometime, I think.

Sopka:

I see. So, you had friends at Harvard. But you didn’t know Bridgman before you came to Harvard?

Allen:

No. No.

Sopka:

Yet he agreed to take you under his wing. He didn’t have many students at any time.

Allen:

Oh, didn’t he?

Sopka:

No. He had very few PhD students. I’m impressed that he agreed to let you in his laboratory.

Allen:

Well, I found him very hard to know. I mean, I felt that I really knew Swann and Webster.

Sopka:

I notice that you’ve done a lot of travelling all through your life. Could you tell us something about that?

Allen:

Well, in 1911, the whole family went across and took a general tour through England, France, Switzerland, northern Italy, down the Rhine, Cologne and back to England. Then in 1925, we took a small car across, landed in France, and went through all the red tape of getting that registered and so forth and so on. We drove through Brittany for most of the summer.

Sopka:

Your whole family or just yourself?

Allen:

The whole family. My aunt was with us part of the time. I did most of the driving.

Sopka:

What kind of car did you have?

Allen:

I think it was a baby Chev. I’m not sure -- my father hadn’t driven it more than 20 miles, when we went across, and there was oil on the brakes, and we very nearly got in trouble. But I scraped against a curb or something and was able to stop it on a hill. Then, the last part of the summer, the last two or three weeks, I left and went across to Southampton to the British Association meeting, -- I’ve been to four of them I guess, and they’re nice -- and then, I met my family on the boat coming back. In 1927, we did Italy, and landed up in Switzerland, where we spent a great deal of time. I think we came back to Paris. I’m personally very fond of Paris, and I haven’t yet quite got excited about London. And then in ‘34, I’d been back to Mt. Holyoke for a year -- I was tired, so I took a boat that went straight to Copenhagen, ten days on the trip going over, and I had ten days in Copenhagen and ten days coming back. I thought I might go over into Norway or Sweden, but I decided to stay put in Copenhagen and get rested. Then 1938 was the next time I went over. That’s probably when I went to the British Association meeting in Cambridge. (Of course, I also went to the British Association meeting in ‘24 in Toronto,) They are great experiences. I had a friend in London that I visited, that was very good.

Sopka:

So except for going to the Association meetings, your travels at that period were mainly recreational.

Allen:

Recreation, completely.

Sopka:

You didn’t do any studying or visit laboratories at that time.

Allen:

No. In ‘59, when I retired, I thought I’d better get out of the way. I went abroad for three months, and I went to the British Association in York. I visited my Save the Children Federation Child, in northern France, and I wanted to see southern France, so I went down there. I had a couple of days in Geneva, and came back, sailing from Holland. Then in ‘70, I went over for six weeks with my young cousin, and we autoed through the eastern part of Central England.

Sopka:

Then you began chasing the eclipses. How did that happen?

Allen:

There was an eclipse in Maine, while K.T. Compton was still president of MIT. And then, I got up at 3 AM I think in Minneapolis for an eclipse, and there was a cruise to an eclipse in Nova Scotia in 1972, and a cruise to the eclipse in Africa in 1973. There was another one not far from here, probably in the twenties, that we went down to Connecticut to see. So I’ve seen five.

Sopka:

But you’ve been not just chasing the eclipses, your experiments were tied in with them.

Allen:

Yes.

Sopka:

I looked up your paper[3], in which you discussed what you observed at Harvard during the 1970 solar eclipse where the eclipse was not completely total. What kind of camera did you use to take the excellent photograph that you showed me?

Allen:

Cannon.

Sopka:

I wonder if you have any general comments? First, do you have any students that you met at Mt. Holyoke, who’ve gone on in science?

Allen:

I had two. The one that substituted for us last year, has a PhD from Illinois in theoretical physics.

Sopka:

What was her name, do you remember?

Allen:

Yes, I remember: Jane van Winkle Morgan. She taught for I think about five years at Vassar, but she wasn’t publishing much, inasmuch as she was commuting 40 or 50 miles a day, and had three children to take care of and teaching full time, -- somehow or other she wasn’t publishing -- When she came up for tenure, they didn’t want to give it to her tenure. She has been a lecturer here. She sometimes comes back and takes classes for a week. Her husband is in IBM. She had the privilege of using IBM computers for four years or so and got a paper or two out. But IBM will not let one use their privileges for more than a limited amount of time, and they didn’t feel like taking her in as a permanent employee. So at present I don’t know what she’s doing.

Sopka:

She sounds like an example of one of the difficulties that this generation of woman physicists are contending with.

Allen:

Her daughter wants to go to Hampshire College, but she doesn’t want to go yet a while. As near as I can make out, for a year the daughter has done nothing. Well, probably not quite nothing, but still.

Sopka:

Yes. She hasn’t been on a track.

Allen:

No. Then the other one, Jean McPherson Bennett, has her PhD in optics from the University of Pennsylvania that’s in the middle of Pennsylvania, Penn State. She and her husband are at China Lake, CA. I think she has been a director, or something of the sort, for the American Optical Society. She and her husband take long long trips to the wilds of Alaska. They have their own plane. She doesn’t fly the plane. Her husband does. Interestingly enough, I knew her mother, a little. I knew her grandmother better.

Sopka:

Were they Mt. Holyoke people like her?

Allen:

Her mother was Mt. Holyoke, and I don’t remember her as an undergraduate. Her grandmother lived within a few hundred feet of us in West Roxbury.

Sopka:

Did you also have Vera Kistiakowsky?

Allen:

Just as an undergraduate student.

Sopka:

I see. Is there only undergraduate training or does Mt. Holyoke give work beyond the bachelor’s?

Allen:

At Mt. Holyoke we used to give a Masters in physics. We haven’t for a long time. The chemistry department, the psychology department and the biology department give Masters. Actually, because of the five college combination, the college does occasionally have a PhD candidate who gets the degree from the university but does the research here.

Sopka:

That sounds as if it’s an advantage, having the consortium of colleges.

Allen:

Yes, but in a way, it isn’t good for graduate students not be to exposed to more people in their field.

Sopka:

Well, I guess we’re at the last question. What do you think has given you the greatest satisfaction? And what do you think have been the biggest problems or chores that have beset you over the years?

Allen:

Oh, I think it’s been fun. I’ve always enjoyed the teaching very much -- seeing people grow and teaching them. That’s more important to me than putting myself on the map. I did very little research while I was teaching. I’d rather go into a lecture slightly unprepared and be alive to know what the students are asking me, than give a perfect lecture. On the other hand, I always had plenty to do as a teacher and I did as much as I could. As I said, I did all my own typing, but I did enjoy the teaching end of it.

Sopka:

I think you enjoyed your whole life, because you seem to also have enjoyed your research and travel.

Allen:

Yes, I have. I would like to be doing a little bit more now than I am. But I suppose, one naturally gets a little bit lazy, at 85.

Sopka:

Well, I think you’re entitled to. But then you don’t want to overdo it.

Allen:

Well, some people don’t know how to be lazy. I think some of them need to learn how.

Sopka:

Well, I thank you very much for meeting with me today.

[1]Phys. Rev. 21 (1923) 368A; Pric. Nat. Acad. Sci. 10 (1924) 88.

[2]Phys. Rev. 33 (1929) 293A.

[3]"1970 Solar Eclipse as 'Seen' by a Torsion Pendulum" Phys. Rev. 3 (1971) 823-825.