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Chapter 3 - The O. H. Smith Years (1925 - 1952)

When Orrin Harold ("O.H.") Smith was offered the physics department chair in the spring of 1925, he was already a physics teacher of some reputation in the Midwest. A graduate of Knox College and the recipient of a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois, Smith had been head of the physics department at Cornell College in Iowa since 1914. He had recently returned from a year's leave in China where he had been visiting professor of physics at Southeastern University in Nanking, serving as an adviser on the teaching of physics under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Several factors influenced Smith's decision to come to DePauw: the laboratory was better equipped; there was a staff assistant (Simpson); the annual department budget at DePauw was substantially larger than at Cornell. The move was a tremendous blow to Cornell's physics program and a boon for DePauw; over the next 27 years, Professor Smith's department would produce physics majors of the highest caliber, with a majority of them becoming leaders in universities, industry, and government laboratories. 

Upon arriving in the fall of 1925, Smith made some immediate changes in the physics curriculum, adding a Survey Course in General Physics for liberal arts students, a senior Reading Course, and a two-semester course in Electricity and Magnetism. In his first years at DePauw, Smith would typically handle two or three lecture courses per semester and supervise any reading or laboratory projects. The introductory physics lab remained Simpson's main responsibility, although she continued to offer the Radio Principles course in alternate semesters.

Among the first physics students recruited by Smith at DePauw were Wendell Furry and Charles Whitmer of the class of 1928. Both went on to careers typical of O.H. Smith students. Furry, after earning a Ph.D at the University of Illinois, did postdoctoral study as a National Research Council Fellow at the California Institute of Technology. While there, he gained international attention for his work on quantum electrodynamics done in collaboration with J. Robert Oppenheimer. He later became a professor of physics at Harvard. Whitmer received his Ph.D at Ohio State, worked for a time at the MIT Radiation Lab (whose director was Lee DuBridge, a Smith student from the Cornell days), and then went to Rutgers where he was professor of physics and department head for many years. In 1960, Whitmer became a Deputy in the Division of Pre-College Education of the National Science Foundation and in 1972 was honored by his alma mater with an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

In 1927, Simpson was promoted to assistant professor and, sometime in the summer of that year, married Professor Ralph Hufferd of the chemistry department. Professor Hufferd was an excellent organic chemist and an inspiring, forceful teacher, but his personality did not endear him to his colleagues. According to his department head, William Blanchard, Hufferd had "a habit of belittling other people, of criticizing other members of the faculty and the administration...even in the presence of students." Many of Hufferd's caustic barbs were directed at O.H. Smith, who Hufferd felt was less than competent. Not coincidentally, Smith noticed a distinct change in his working relationship with Simpson soon after she married Hufferd; her attitude toward Smith grew rude, if not openly hostile. 

Matters came to a head in the early 1930s. Mrs. Hufferd resigned in the spring of 1930 (later claiming she had been forced out of the position by Smith) and was replaced in the fall by Glenn Giddings. Giddings had been a student of O.H. Smith at Cornell College and had just completed his doctoral work in physics at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly after Giddings' arrival, he and Smith noticed that all the direction sheets for the equipment in the general laboratory were missing; they had apparently been taken by Mrs. Hufferd in a last act of revenge.

At about the same time, the two physics professors became aware of a sullen manner among some of the students in the introductory course. As Smith wrote later, the students "were sometimes quite unfriendly in class" and "seemed to feel a lack of confidence in what I taught and how I taught it." These students, as it turned out, were chemistry majors and pre-med students taking courses from Professor Hufferd. According to the reports of students loyal to Smith, they were being urged by Hufferd to take their physics elsewhere, especially if they planned on doing advanced work in the subject. In 1933 Smith took his complaints directly to President G. Bromley Oxnam; it was the last straw in a series of incidents involving Professor Hufferd which led to his dismissal in the spring of that year.

With the exception of the Hufferd affair, the physics department ran smoothly during the 30's. Giddings was thrilled to be teaching alongside his mentor and former teacher, and the two men developed a close friend- ship. The undergraduate curriculum remained largely unchanged throughout the period, with teaching duties divided up according to course work. Smith taught the General Physics course, Optics Laboratory, Electricity and Magnetism, Introduction to Modern Physics, and Electrical Measurements. The remaining courses-- Survey Course in General Physics, Optics and Thermodynamics, Teachers' Course, and Senior Reading Course-- were the responsibility of Giddings. Both were involved with Advanced Laboratory projects.

Headcount enrollments in physics during this period generally hovered between six and eight per cent of the total university enrollment. In the suggested program of study for the major, physics and calculus were usually put off until the sophomore year, with the freshman year devoted to group requirements and other electives. Mathematics through differential equations was recommended for physics majors; mechanics (still taught in the mathematics department) was also recommended as an elective.

In 1934, the department began to offer a Master's Degree program in physics, although relatively little formal course work was involved. In 1936, the first students to receive the M.A. degree in physics from DePauw were Lefler McKee (B.A., DePauw, 1933) and Harold Thompson (B.A., DePauw, 1934). McKee's thesis title was "A description of an experimental X-ray tube and some of its uses"; Thompson wrote on "A study of alternating current experiments for undergraduate students" However, the graduate degree option was never very popular and was officially terminated in 1985; only seven master's degrees were awarded after 1936, the last in 1972.

Glenn Giddings became a full professor in 1938. The following year, he accepted a part-time administrative post as assistant to the dean of men. This meant that his teaching load was reduced somewhat, and the department began to look for someone to assist in the laboratories. In the fall of 1940, Jonathan Stewart Lee (M.S., Syracuse University, 1940) was added to the staff. Lee was a ham radio operator and well versed in the area of electronics; he soon found himself in charge of the university's public address system and, in August of 1941, was appointed technical director of the radio studio (the DePauw outlet of WIRE in Indianapolis). For the next four years, these extra duties became the focus of a running battle over salary between Lee and the administration.

Departmental activities were seriously disrupted during the war years. In 1942, Giddings went on leave "for the duration" in order to do war- related work at the MIT Radiation Lab, which was then feverishly developing a microwave radar system. The first units of the Naval Flight Preparatory School (Navy V-5 program) arrived in January 1943. The V-5 men, who took classes separate from the civilian students, were required to have some training in physics. Accordingly, O.H. Smith spent part of his time teaching in the V-5 program and additional personnel--Clinton Green, Melvin Hedge, and Floyd Jeffries-- were hired to help with the laboratory instruction.

Department resources were further strained by the first influx of Navy V-12 students in July 1943. New physics courses were instituted specifically for the V-12 program, including a non-credit Sub-College Physics course intended for Navy men with insufficient preparation for the standard college course. The V-12 students also had the option of taking an abbreviated version of General Physics, listed as Elementary Physics in the catalog. Two upper-level courses, Thermodynamics and Electricity and Magnetism were adapted to provide an emphasis on engineering applications of the subject matter.

To help with the teaching of the V-12 courses, Earland Ritchie was hired in August 1943 at the rank of professor. Ritchie had been granted leave from Taylor University, where he was professor of physics and dean of instruction. Six additional staff members (including Marjorie Ross, the daughter of O.H. Smith) were added to handle the laboratory sections. Even so, lab space was in short supply, and there were occasions when as many as 70 students had to be crowded into two lab rooms. In the summer of 1944, some 32 physics lab sections were scheduled, which must be a record of sorts.

By the end of 1945, the world was at peace and the DePauw campus was slowly returning to pre-war operations. The physics department went through a number of staff changes, including the dismissal of the V-12 assistants as the Navy program wound down. In July 1945, Jonathan Lee, frustrated by his contract hassles with the university, accepted a job offer from Western Electric in Chicago. Earland Ritchie, whose position was also tied to the V-12 program, stayed on through the 1945-46 academic year, then left to become head of the physics department at Centre College in Kentucky. The most disturbing news for O.H. Smith came in February 1946, when he learned that Giddings would not be returning to DePauw after all. Giddings had decided to take up full-time employment as manager of research planning at the General Electric research lab in Schenectady, N.Y.

Two new staff members were added in 1946. Jesse Staten, a 1936 DePauw graduate, was hired at the rank of instructor to assist with the general laboratories. A second appointment was made to Austin Sprague, a molecular spectroscopist with a Ph.D. from Ohio State. During the war Sprague had been with the US. Bureau of Ordnance; previously, he had taught briefly at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and at Elon College in North Carolina. Together, Smith and Sprague handled all the lecture courses and the independent study projects, with a division of labor similar to that of the Smith/ Giddings era.

Staten stayed on for only one semester. In the fall of 1948, Charles Ammerman, Jr., another DePauw graduate, was added to the department staff. Ammerman, who had a master's degree from Washington University, at first taught only the introductory labs. But by the spring of 1950 he assumed the lecture duties for the Survey Course; at this point, one might argue that physics was now a legitimate three-man department at DePauw.

In December 1949 O.H. Smith received a very special Christmas present-- he had been chosen to receive the 1949 Oersted Medal in physics, an award given annually by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) in recognition of "notable contributions to the teaching of physics." Smith was happy but surprised; in all his years at DePauw, he had not published a single article in a professional journal. Apparently, his grateful students (a list of whom reads like a "Who's Who" of physics in the ë40s) had made their voices heard as they sang their praises of Professor Smith over the years.

The Oersted Medal was presented to Smith in a ceremony held at Columbia University in February 1950. Over 20 of his former students-- including Giddings, Furry, Whitmer, and DuBridge (then president of Cal Tech)- were at the awards banquet. In addition to the medal and a certificate, O.H. was given a bound volume of congratulatory letters written by more than 50 former students from Cornell and DePauw. From the tone and content of these letters it is clear that O.H. Smith was a man (teacher, adviser, friend) who was deeply loved by his students.

Nine years later, Lee DuBridge played a part in the second major teaching award received by Smith in the '50s. DuBridge had been tabbed for the annual Golden Key award as a citizen "who has contributed significantly to the national welfare." A second Golden Key was to be awarded to the teacher who had most influenced his career; DuBridge immediately picked his physics professor at Cornell, O.H. Smith. On February 4, 1959 DuBridge and Smith were each presented with a Golden Key in a ceremony at the national meeting of the American Association of School Administrators in Atlantic City.

Smith retired with the rank of professor emeritus of physics in June 1952. But his teaching career was not nearly over. Every summer, his phone rang several times with requests for his services from colleges all over the United States. He accepted appointments at five of these colleges during the '50s, finally returning to DePauw to teach part-time from 1958 to 1966. When he made plans in the spring of 1966 to move to Washington State to live with his daughter Marjorie and her husband, a reception and dinner were organized in his honor. O.H. Smith said his farewell to DePauw at the April 1966 banquet, surrounded by scores of friends and colleagues. Seven years later news of his death saddened the entire physics community, which had lost one of its most inspirational teachers.

 

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