Lucy Wilson - Session I

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Interviewed by
Katherine Sopka
Wilson's home, Wellesley, Massachusetts
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Lucy Wilson by Katherine Sopka on 1978 October 4,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,

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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.



This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I’m visiting today — the 4th of October, 1978 — with Miss Lucy Wilson, at her home in Wellesley, Mass. Miss Wilson, could we begin by having you tell me something of your family background and your early childhood?


My father held a position in the business department of American Telephone and Telegraph in Chicago, as did his father and later, a younger brother. This grandfather of mine had been an officer in the Union Army of the Civil War and had known many respected people in Quincy, Illinois and in Springfield, Illinois. A sister of my father’s was one of the early women graduates of Oberlin College and taught History for many years in a high school on the West Side of Chicago. I don’t remember having heard any relative mention my father’s education. My mother attended Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York where a sister of her father was headmistress. She used to have me recite German poems with her while we were making beds! It was fun and I continued to study German throughout high school and during my first year in College. Because my grandmother (my mother’s mother) had cataracts I learned to spell out words from the newspaper in order to read to her.

Actually there was a great deal of reading aloud in the family as my brother and I were growing up. My brother came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology two years after I entered Wellesley and ultimately was a member of the M.I.T. Corporation. His whole business life work was with the Aluminum Company of America. He served it as President and then as Chairman of the Board. What happened was that when my father died, my mother brought my brother, who was a few months old and me to her family in Bloomington, Illinois, which is a town in the south central part of Illinois. The family there consisted of my grandfather, who was a general medical practitioner and very much respected and loved, and my grandmother and my mother’s older sister, and my mother, and then the two of us children. I had just the one brother. He just died this fall. He was not quite two years younger than I. We were an Episcopalian family. I think the population of Bloomington was about 20,000, maybe a little under, at that time, and it was a center of a very fertile farm community, so that I used to go with my grandfather in his buggy out to the country, when he went for consultations.

I can remember now, the feel of swinging my legs while I sat on the porch and waited for him to come back out of the house. We were devoted to him, and it was more like having my grandfather and my grandmother (be) my parents, although they always left the responsibility of decisions to my mother, saying, “Wait for your mother, and do whatever she says.” It was a mixed population in Bloomington. We had some representatives of all the different nations that had sent immigrants to the country. We had German and Polish but — most of the people we knew were of English extraction, of course. I went to public schools, elementary school, and high school, both coeducational. We had some very good teachers. I think the thing that decided me on Wellesley was that I had a teacher in mathematics in high school who was a Wellesley graduate, Miss Ethel Cobb, class of 1899. She rather influenced my choice, and I had read something about women’s colleges. For some reason, we had always thought of going East to college, although very few people in the community did. The Illinois Wesleyan was nearby, and Illinois Normal. There were just an occasional one or two students that came East to college. But we always expected to come East, and I don’t quite know why unless it was because my grandfather came from this part of the country. Well, my grandmother really did too, although they met in southern Illinois. My grandfather was a graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School. He did his internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

He was also a representative in the Illinois state legislature, as his father had been in Massachusetts, but he came from a line of doctors. I never was musical, and I’ve always realized, I’ve missed a lot. But I tried to do sports and I never was very good at that. We had a tennis court on a vacant lot nearby, and I played basketball at school and so on. There was never the least bit of bigotry about nationalities, or religious affiliations, and I was so surprised, really surprised, when I came to college, to find occasionally, (there wasn’t much of it then but occasionally) that someone felt strongly about some other affiliation. For instance, we liked to dance at school dances with one of the Jewish boys. But there were not many Jewish people in the community. But I never heard anybody in the family make a disparaging remark about a race or an individual. I don’t know whether they didn’t feel it or were just careful, but I never remember hearing it. The high school was really very good. The schools were good and I loved school. I had my first course in physics in the high school, so that I went into a second year course in college, my sophomore year, and as I say, I knew I was interested in math, and this mathematics teacher may have been one of the reasons. I was very fond of her. But I enjoyed the study. I don’t think there was anything I specially disliked. I remember, I enjoyed Latin. I had four years of Latin, and I enjoyed German. I had three years of German in high school. In the days when I was in Wellesley, we were allowed to have a great many related subjects, and I was majoring in math and physics. I chose math in the first place and then I got into physics, and was especially interested there. I regret that in that AFTER-IMAGES[1] article, I didn’t mention the name of Miss Sarah Frances Whiting, who retired the year I graduated and was a very fine teacher. We all enjoyed her. Some of the things I told about really related to her, but I know I didn’t mention her name, and I should have done so.

Then I also was very fond of psychology and philosophy, which were then one department, and I took a good many courses in those fields. I had almost as much chemistry as I did physics, and enjoyed that very much. I think in that AFTER-IMAGES, I mentioned some teachers in other departments that I really liked very much. Miss Whiting was very amusing. She used to go around the laboratory, which was in the top of the old College Hall that burned, with a little dim whistle on her lips. She’d just be making a little tuning noise all the time. She was a very friendly person, as well as a very good teacher, and we all liked her. I was also very fond of Miss Grace Davis, who was a Wellesley alumna, and who was teaching until after I was a member of the department and we moved into Pendleton Hall. She had a marvelous feeling for the world of nature, and I came to be a very real friend of hers. Of course, by then, Miss Whiting was gone. Miss Whiting used to always invite some of the students to Sunday dinner. She lived in the Observatory House, because she taught the courses in observational astronomy and did the experimental part of it. It was one of the strange situations that existed at that time, that some people in the same department were alienated from one another. In my student days, Miss Hayes taught the theoretical and mathematical side of astronomy, and Miss Whiting taught the observational side.

There were quite a good many people taking science, not so many taking physics, but a few more in chemistry, and quite a lot in the biological sciences. We were all required to take some science. We had a curriculum that required certain subjects. The subject that was particularly hazardous to a good many students was math. Everybody was required to take freshman math. I just loved it, and I used to do it very easily. Consequently, it was a surprise to me that quite an appreciable number flunked out because they couldn’t pass the math final exam. They’d try it again and again at every exam period and they still couldn’t pass it. I suppose it’s always been true, that one of the most popular departments was English including English literature. Later English composition and English literature split. Miss Hart was head of the writing end of it, and Miss Bates was the literature head of it. A lot of people had majors in English, English literature particularly. Now, do you want to ask me anything else about that part, before I go on?


Yes. Your math course, the freshman math course.


Well, this was trig and algebra. Then, geometry, plane and solid geometry the second year and calculus the third year. I was very fond of the little blue-eyed member of the department who taught me freshman year and junior year, Miss Chandler. She was what I would think of as a real “little old maid,” but she was a very good teacher, and her eyes would sparkle, as she’d conduct a class. So I enjoyed it very much. Miss Hathaway taught the sophomore year. Now, you say, how did I get the job at Mt. Holyoke. A member of the faculty of the Bible department at Wellesley, lived in the same dormitory as I did. She had been at Mt. Holyoke, and she had a very good friend in the professor of physics at Mt. Holyoke, and I think it was through her that Miss Laird at Mt. Holyoke asked if I was interested in coming as an assistant. I was glad to do it, but I can tell you right now, they knew how to work assistants then. Later I got quite devoted to Miss Laird.

Miss Laird was a Canadian, who was the same age as Winston Churchill, within a day or two. She had very high ideals and was a very good disciplinarian of assistants as well as of students. But she made me like it all the better. It was from Mt. Holyoke that I went on to get my PhD. in physics, even though I had been enough interested in psychology and philosophy at Wellesley, so I might well have gone on in that field. But after I really worked in physics, I was ready to choose it. I was at Mt. Holyoke three years, and I worked so hard that I wasn’t very well. So, my mother and aunt wanted me to do nothing, for a year, and we went to Southern California for that winter. Then, I think I had a choice at that stage between Wellesley and Mt. Holyoke. Anyway, I went back to Mt. Holyoke as an instructor, and taught one or two courses while I was doing some of the lab teaching. When you’re an assistant, you set up experiments for lectures, and you teach in the laboratory. I always enjoyed laboratory teaching because it was person to person, and I felt I really knew whether the student had understood everything about it. With the informal relations in the lab, there was no barrier on the student’s part about asking you anything. So I always enjoyed this teaching, as well as the classroom teaching later.

I was also very fond of Miss Chase, who was the second in charge of the department at Mt. Holyoke, Mabel Chase. Oh, she was the prettiest thing. She was really a lovely person. Not as well organized as Miss Laird, but she was very understanding and she was a good teacher. They both of them were very good teachers. We had a queer situation at Mt. Holyoke, in that the free day was Wednesday and we had classes all day Saturday. Saturday afternoon was largely labs. I remember one girl in a class I had was absent one week, I said something about it to her, and she said she was sick. Then I heard her, as she turned her head aside, say, “Yes — sick at heart.” We had Wednesday free, and at that time Mt. Holyoke had domestic work, so all the students had to do about a half day, or three hours, of domestic work each week. One of my duties as assistant was to oversee the domestic work girls. We had two or three for the department, and they helped take care of apparatus and set up experiments and all that sort of thing. But I realized as time went on, it was a very bad system to break the week twice, because you just got started, then you had a day when you didn’t have any classes, and of course the temptation to cut on Saturday was irresistible. So it ended before long. Why did I go to Johns Hopkins? Well, an Englishwoman, Ellen O’Connor, an Irishwoman really, who was teaching at Mt. Holyoke for a short time while I was there, was very enthusiastic about Johns Hopkins. And I realized some of the extraordinarily interesting work that had been done there. So I went down to Baltimore, and had an interview with Professor Joseph Ames. I was very pleased when they said I could come. They’d had one woman in physics graduate work earlier, the daughter of Dr. Howell in the medical school. There was absolutely no discrimination of any kind.

So I really had good friends among the men students there. But we worked hard. I had three years there, for my PhD. I never bothered to get a Master’s degree, because it would just have been en route, and I knew I was coming back. I got my degree in 1917, which was the year we got into the war, and many of the men from the university were going into the service. It was a somewhat irregular kind of year. Dr. Ames went abroad, in the employ of the government but I don’t remember exactly what he did. He got one of his PhD graduates then at the University of Virginia (Carroll Mason) Sparrow, to read our examinations at the end. The other work were carried on by Professor Wood, under whom I did my spectrographic thesis, and the other men in the department, Bliss and Pfund. Dr. Bliss was mostly in undergraduate work as was Dr. Anderson of the astronomy department. Pfund was a very fine experimenter, and he was really very keen about everything. He was an excellent teacher, too. But Ames was a superb teacher. He taught the most important graduate course each year, and was really marvelous. I didn’t see much of anything of other graduate students and faculty, except those in the math and astronomy departments. They were in the same building. I was there at the time the university moved from the city, downtown location out to Homewood. Thus I was two years in the city where the mathematics department shared a lot of the same classrooms that physics did. I had a room in a rooming house, in a residential section downtown, and my meals in a boarding house next door, for the first part of the time. Then when we moved out to Homewood, I had the same near the new campus.

The university gave us the names of places with arrangements available, so we didn’t have any problem in trying to find living quarters. Wood was my advisor on my thesis, and really I just took the subject he wanted me to take. It was one in spectroscopy.[2] Well, laboratory techniques were of course suggested by Wood, but I’d already had experience in laboratory work,… I was there three years, and the last part of my middle year, I missed a few weeks, because my aunt, my mother’s sister who was almost like another mother to me, died, leaving my mother alone. It was near the end of the year and they just sent me the examinations for the courses, and I took them that way. Well, after Johns Hopkins I came to Wellesley and since, things developed evenly right along here, I never was concerned really, except when once in a while, Mt. Holyoke popped up and said, “Would you like to come back?” I really never thought of going out to get any jobs, other than Wellesley, because, as I say, the promotions came along perfectly regularly. I had done a major in psychology as well as physics and the year I got through at Hopkins, they wanted someone who would teach the extra sections where we went over the subject matter of the lectures, and helped the students by answering their questions. And so I worked more in psychology the first year than I did in physics.

Then the physics situation developed so that they wanted a full time person in physics, and I went over to physics. Miss (Louise) McDowell was a Wellesley graduate, and had come to the physics department in the fall of the year after I graduated. She was a very efficient chairman of the department. As I say, everything went very smoothly. I knew all the people in these other departments in which I had taken several courses. I was very fond of some of the members in philosophy and psychology, Miss Calkins and Miss Gamble, particularly Miss Gamble. She was a very dear friend of mine all the rest of her life. Then I would meet other people. Of course, living in Waban, and driving back and forth, (I didn’t live in the dormitory) made it difficult to meet and to do things socially with people very much. But I had a great many friends among the group that were near my own age, even if they were not people I had known as an undergraduate. And we had certain groups that used to meet at times. As for the kind of courses I taught, I used to teach the beginning course most of the time and I loved it. I loved introducing these new ideas, and so I always wanted to. Then, I taught optics, because I’d worked in spectroscopy, and I taught meteorology after Miss Davis retired. Then, toward the end, I taught a course in conjunction with Helen Jones of the chemistry department, which was a combination of physics and chemistry, so that people could go on to a second year of either of the subjects if they did a little extra work. I did a terrible thing once.

This was after I was dean. I was sending to a girl who was working to go into second year of physics, a lot of mimeographed materials, problems and so forth, to keep her going, and by mistake I included some mimeographed stuff I had for the Dean’s office. But she was a very discreet person and returned it to me immediately. That was very amusing. And the student did well in the course in electricity the following year. I enjoyed that course very much. I still see quite a bit of Miss Helen Jones. She’s a Mt. Holyoke graduate and had taught at Vassar before she came to Wellesley. She’s been at Wellesley for many years. Oh, of course, I taught about automobiles. I can’t remember what year we started but it was just after the war (World War I). It was really Miss McDowell’s idea, that we have a course in automobile mechanics. So I went in to the YMCA, which was sponsoring a course in mechanics, and learned a great deal. I had a wonderful time with the automobile course. Some of the faculty, as we’d say, in the liberal arts, didn’t really approve of the course. It was too near the vocational. So it gave only one hour credit, but it met for three hours. Part of the time there would be lecture and discussion, and part of the time, it would be working on the chassis I got. It was always lots of fun.

People were all interested. I think they really got interested as women drivers. In those days, you had to do quite a lot yourself, to run a car. So, the students were crazy about taking it. We required a year of physics for entrance to it, and there were certain people who were very disgusted because they weren’t allowed to take it since they hadn’t had physics. But I made a great point of accepting the fact that they knew certain principles and not going over them, in getting the applications in the automobile. We had a certain amount of the theory of the operations of the various parts of it, plus, the lab work, where they actually worked on cars. We had an old chassis that we called King Tut… and we had what was then quite a new Ford engine, so we could manage to study actual mechanisms. Very few of the girls had cars. Of course I had one, and we could see things on other cars, around. Now, about my going to the University of Manchester. I had always admired Professor William Bragg, Sir William Bragg, and I heard through various fellow physicists — about his son who became Sir Lawrence Bragg and who was in charge of the work in Manchester. Dr. Ames helped me get that chance to go to Manchester. (I got very friendly with Professor Bragg and his wife, and later they came over here. Miss McDowell invited him to give a lecture after I came back.

The Braggs stayed at the house which is now the president’s home which was then a guest house, and they played golf on the college golf course. They were here for three or four days. We had a delightful time with them.) There I worked at Manchester University with some of the men who were in the laboratory seeing how they did certain things. I learned certain processes, that I could make use of in the laboratory at Wellesley afterwards. I started out being one of the first class deans. Miss Pendleton was a great friend of President Nielson of Smith College and she found out from him that he thought the system of class deans was a good system, so that when Miss Coolidge came to be dean, in the fall of ‘31, we started the system of class deans. She had the class that graduated in ‘32. Miss Knapp, who was the dean of freshmen, and sophomores at that time, kept the lower classes, and I had the class that was just beginning its junior year, the class of ‘33. So I had ‘33 as a class dean, and it wasn’t until later that I was Dean of Students and managed the work of the other class deans as well as my own class. Every class dean always did a certain amount of teaching, but as deans we had lunch together (at Tower Court), and with certain other administrative officials such as the president, at least one day a week, where we discussed general problems of administration. These were always lots of fun and interest.

We enjoyed our community, and we were very proud, when we had some question to bring up that we thought was of interest to everybody. But I kept my connection with the physics department although I didn’t do as much of the committee work as before. When I was a class dean, before I was Dean of Students, there was committee work to do in the department. Now, about women in physics, I don’t know, you see, it’s 24 years since I retired, so I can’t say much about it today. I used to go to American Physical Society Meetings and American Optical Society ones. I never, in all my experience, — mostly of course at Wellesley — felt any discrimination. You see, Wellesley was so largely women on the faculty, from the very beginning, that there never was this discrimination between the sexes. If anything it was against the men, rather than for them. So I don’t really know. We used to get assistants for the department by writing to chairmen of departments elsewhere. When I started in, the person in charge of the department was called a head of department. Then they shifted over, to the more liberal attitude of calling them chairmen.

There were certain rules established about who was eligible to be chairman and they were voted for by the other members of the department. I would say that still the personal element of knowing people is probably the important one, and certainly a great deal of business, in employing and applying for positions, took place at the times of meetings of the American Physical Society, or American Association of Physics Teachers. So that who is ever chairman, and in a position to seek new employees will try to make connections with as many people as possible at meetings. Janet Guernsey may have told you, something about more definite systems, but I don’t really know about the definite systems that are now in vogue. But she being so active in the (American Association of) Physics Teachers, undoubtedly knows a great deal more about it. Certainly in my time, it was apt to be pretty much a person to person affair. I will say, I didn’t get any research work done after I became dean. So that cut me out of one side of physics. But I’d always loved the teaching. So, my natural disposition was to just not bother about the research end of it. That meant I lost out, of course, on certain very fine experiences, but you can’t have everything. I knew very well all the people at Mt. Holyoke. I still hear from one of the people there, Mildred Allen, every Christmas.

We were apt to exchange views. The same thing was true with Vassar and Smith. I personally knew the Mt. Holyoke ones best, of course. We would often get the assistants, from another one of the women’s colleges, though some we had came from the Midwest and state institutions. That was Miss McDowell’s chief business, but the other members of the department generally always had a chance to go over credentials, and often to meet a prospective candidate. As to what gave me great satisfaction: I think, in teaching and in counseling as a Dean, it was a feeling of trying to help the person, the personal contact, that was so interesting, and so satisfying. There’s nothing to equal seeing the light dawn on a student. Have you ever taught?




Well, you know something of what I mean, I always felt close to the students who were not so quick, and I spent a great deal of time with the ones who got into trouble, one way or another. That business of trying to get across an idea, and give a solution to a problem, was very very satisfying. I always loved to teach. That was a great, great satisfaction. And we had lots of discussions, in groups, about teaching and about the curriculum and so on, and of course, as every institution does: we had to keep changing the regulations about curricula and its administration. I enjoyed my associations. You see, after, when I was Dean of Students, Miss Whiting, Ella Keats Whiting, who was in the English department, was Dean of Instruction, and she took charge of all the committee work directly concerned with the faculty, and I took charge of those that were directly concerned with the students. It was a system which divided responsibility. Since I’ve retired, they’ve changed things around again, so that no one person has too many different responsibilities. I think it’s been very useful. I think Mrs. Newell has been very wise about that. You see, in choosing class deans, consideration had to be given to qualifications of the person concerned to do the job, in addition, whether she could be spared from some teaching. And I think the cases that were least successful were the ones where we took people who were not doing the most interesting teaching. (laughs)

[1]"Our New Life" pp. 3-5 in WELLESLEY AFTER-IMAGES ed. and publ. by Wellesley College Club of Los Angeles 1974 (copy accessible in Wellesley College Archives)

[2]"The Structure of the Mercury Line, 2536" subsequently published in the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL 46 (1917) 340-354