Chapter 3: Two Wars and a Depression

1. From the Turn of the Century to World War I

Between the turn of the century and World War I, science departments increasingly emphasized laboratory work, adopted and assimilated Darwin’s theories, and began sending ever greater numbers of students on to graduate studies in science. Despite the resignation of Henry Hopkins ’58, and the inauguration of President H. A. Garfield ’85, slow and steady growth marked this period of stability for science at Williams.

2. Laboratory Work at Williams

On the back cover of the October 1895 issue of the Williams Literary Monthly appeared an advertisement for Williams College. The half-page ad, placed below an advertisement for the Fitchburg Railroad and the Hoosac Tunnel Route, highlighted the college’s science facilities. Science and mathematical subjects made up four of the College’s eleven departments of instruction: Mathematics, Chemistry & Physics, Natural History, and Astronomy. The advertisement copy praised the science laboratories: “The Astronomical Observatories, the Chemical Laboratory and Philosophical Lecture Room are supplied with the best means for practical instruction… The Natural History Cabinets are extensive and ample. The students work with the professor in the study and preparation of specimens, and they also have an extensive collection under their own immediate direction. The COLLEGE LIBRARY, now containing 30,000 volumes, is constantly enlarged by standard works of science…”[1]

Laboratory work had become an essential component of science courses which were otherwise taught in the traditional lecture and recitation format. In chemistry, lab work occupied about one-third of the course time, about as much as it does nearly a century later. In physics, “experimental demonstrations” supplemented oral and written recitations and lectures. The Physics Department also offered a course in drawing “for those who may be entering teaching school”, and a course entitled “Surveying and Theory of Equations of Practical Physics”, which dealt with “physical measurements in the lab…with reference to scientific literature bearing on the problem.” Such courses began to have two distinct texts, one for lecture-recitation and one for laboratory.

In 1903, Professor Leverett Mears published Outlines of Lectures on the Non-metallic Elements and Their Compounds, a book of lecture notes for use in chemistry courses at Williams College.[2] Such a book would usually be the only text for a science course, but it is not like late twentieth century textbooks. Mears’ book is simply an outline of concepts, meant to be elaborated upon by the student after listening to the professor in class. To that end, every other page was left blank so the student had space to make additional notes. Professor Mears also published Outline of Qualitative Analysis.[3] Also a book of lecture notes, it outlined various strategies of qualitative analysis. Qualitative Analysis, however, was for laboratory use. Indeed, on the days when experiments required a good deal of acidic reagents, the owner of one surviving copy seems to have been nervous, spilling reagents all over his book. Some of the pages for those labs are completely eaten through.

Activity in the chemistry labs could apparently be exciting in the early years of the twentieth century. One student wrote his brother in 1904, telling him how busy he had been in the lab. He had spent a great deal of his time one week “analyzing some caustic soda sent in by a firm in Shelburne Falls.”[4] Presumably the firm had been experiencing difficulties with a batch of soda. The student writes, “It appears, after analysis, that it has 20% or more impurities.”[5] In the student’s estimation, the caustic soda supplier had cheated his client. Ninety years later, student laboratory work is rarely as practical.

The same student continued to tell about the “fine explosion” in his lab the past week, claiming that some oxygen had somehow gotten into his hydrogen generator, causing it to “blow up gloriously.”[6] Luckily, he writes, the only damage to his own person was “a dose of acid and glass in my face and on my sweater… None of the glass slivers lodged in my face, though it scratched me in several places around the eyes and nose.”[7]

Laboratory exercises in physics also used books similar to Mears’ Outline of Qualitative Analysis. Between 1903 and 1912 the department published several lab manuals, each by anonymous author(s), for different physics courses.[8] The titles, heat and light, mechanics and sound, magnetism and electricity, indicate that basic topics and experiments occupied students’ time, much as they continue to do in the present.

3. Laboratory Facilities

The emerging importance of laboratory work had been underscored by the construction and renovation of the laboratory facilities at Williams College. Through the gift of Mrs. F.F. Thompson of Poughkeepsie, New York, work began on the Thompson Chemical Laboratory in 1892, the Thompson Biological Laboratory in 1893 and the Thompson Physical Laboratory in 1893. Each building cost approximately $60,000.[9] The Williams College Catalogue of 1895-1896 described the laboratories as follows:

The Biological Laboratory contains a laboratory for each class of work, a lecture room, library, collection room, and aquarium room. The laboratory is well equipped with microscopes, microtomes, collections, and all the appliances for general and advanced work. The Chemical Laboratory contains three large laboratories, lecture and recitation rooms, private laboratories and a reference library, all of which are supplied with the best modern appliances. The Physics Laboratory contains, in addition to a well appointed lecture room, a recitation room, separate laboratories for the work of the different classes, a department library, and rooms especially arranged for advanced work in electricity, magnetism, light, and chemical physics. Power is furnished by a Westinghouse engine of fifteen horse-power, and the electrical equipment includes a five-kilowatt dynamo, types of small dynamos and motors, Western measuring instruments, and galvanometers.[10]

Figure 11: Thompson Laboratories (c.1900-09), L to R: Physics, Chemistry, Biology

With time, the new laboratories gradually acquired additional instruments and apparatus. The 1912-1913 Williams College Catalogue description of the Biology Laboratory highlighted the “large series of charts, models, and illustrative collections, which are continually being increased.”[11] The Biology Laboratory also had a “complete stereopticon outfit, with projection microscope and arc light.”[12] Standard instruments for the measurement of voltage, capacitance and the like were added to the inventory of the Physics Laboratory.[13]

Figure 12:Thompson Biological Laboratory, ca. 1903

Figure 13: Thompson Physics Laboratory, ca. 1903

Figure 14: Thompson Chemistry Laboratory, ca. 1903

In 1912 renovation began on the Thompson Chemical Laboratories, about 20 years after their construction, and only 3 years before the fire which would destroy them in 1915. On January 18, 1913 the Williams Record reported that the renovation of the boiler room into a new Organic Chemistry laboratory was nearing completion. The new lab, “thoroughly fireproof,” was fitted with modern improvements, including stairs, asphalt floors, and lighting from large windows. Laboratory desks were Georgia pine with slate backs and maple tops; all would be supplied with water, gas, and pressurized steam.[14] The renovations would revolutionize the safety and comfort of the Organic Chemistry labs, at least for the next two and one-half years.

Figure 15: Renovation of Thompson Chemical Laboratory

On December 7, 1915, the Williams Record‘s headline read: “Night Fire Completely Destroys Thompson Chemistry Labs– Total Loss Estimated at nearly $100,000.” Spontaneous combustion was initially blamed, but later investigation determined that an unextinguished cigarette in a waste pail from a northwest corner shop had started the blaze.

The leveling of the Chemistry building affected the whole college community, administrators, professors, and students. Personal losses to professors included lecture notes, records, and calculations. The greatest loss was suffered by Leverett Mears, who had lived in an apartment at the top of the laboratories. He lost forty years of accumulated data, records, notes, and calculations.[15] Some of Mears’ acquaintances would later speculate that the blow from that loss may have hastened Mears’ death in June, 1917.[16]

The fire posed the Administration two problems: how to rebuild and where to hold classes. For a time, chemistry classes were shifted to the Physics laboratory.[17] The insurance company awarded the college $47,000 in damages.[18] The Record reported on February 14, 1916 that Mrs. Frederick F. Thompson would donate $40,000 to help rebuild the laboratory, whose final cost on completion was estimated at $86,000[19]. The efficient floor plan of the rebuilt laboratory would allow space for a library and a larger recitation room. The building would be in a colonial style with very little wood, cement floors, pressed steel framework and modern labs with the most up-to-date equipment in the country.[20] By October 1916, in less than one year, the building was once more complete and ready for use.

4. Graduate Destinations

A rapid rise in American graduate education in the sciences began to take place a decade after the Civil War. By 1876, when Johns Hopkins was founded as a research university without undergraduate students, only 44 doctorates in science had been granted by 25 American universities, since the first one at Yale in 1863.[21]

Always strongly represented in the curriculum, science attracted Williams students to professional post-graduate study; they, too, as mentioned in the preface, took part in the growth of professional research training in early 20th century America. The following table illustrates the plans of graduating Williams seniors in the early years of its second century.

Table 2: Graduate-Study and Williams Students[22]

Class 1897 1904 1909
Science & Engineering 16 12 15
Business 12 19 26
Law 21 15 16
Other/Undecided 24 34 36
Total 73 80 93

These data reveal a strong interest in the graduate study of science on the part of graduating seniors at Williams students.[23] In 1902, a statement by President Hopkins and the Trustees reflected concern that interest in graduate school had become perhaps too substantial: “A college should not become simply a preparatory department for the professional schools… ” If still less popular than other professions, science, for William students, had nonetheless become an attractive professional study.

5. Darwinism at Williams

If for science at Williams, little significant institutional change other than growing emphasis on laboratory instruction and graduate training mark the pre-World War I years, one feature of the surrounding atmosphere had changed remarkably. Darwin’s Origin of Species had appeared in 1859, and gone through six editions before Darwin’s death in 1882. Darwinism, or the theory of descent with modification by natural selection, together with all its implications, including Social Darwinism, did not go unnoticed at Williams.

Students published essays on evolutionary biology and sociobiology in various Williams publications. In November 1895, W. D. Shannahan’s “The Biologist’s Standpoint” testified to his faith in science and evolutionary theory. He stated that the goal of the biologist is “to determine the whole truth fairly and accurately.”[24] A complete believer in evolution, he wrote, “And as to the evolution theory there is not a shadow of doubt in the biologist’s mind.”[25]

Although some students and professors had accepted Darwin’s theory, Darwinism only slowly made its way into the curriculum. The description of a Biology course in 1898 includes evolution, but just barely: “At the close of the course lectures are given on the work of Mr. Darwin and some related problems now attracting attention.” In 1906 a new course, “Theory of Biology,” treated the “general problems of biology” and considered “Lamarck and the Neo-Lamarckians… (including a full) discussion of the Theory of Natural Selection of Darwin and Wallace, on which the science of biology is based. (emphasis added). Attention is given to early criticism of the theory”.[26] Judging from this description, it appears a radical paradigm shift had taken place, at least among the biology faculty; evolution had conquered the biological sciences at Williams.

It seems Darwin’s theory may have conquered the students as well. In 1910, one student, reflecting on the expeditions of the Lyceum of Natural History noted first that “never once did the great theory of evolution as we know it to-day, direct the leaders.” He went on to note, however, that “…Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace advanced the results of their investigations in 1859, but the change to the new belief came slowly at first and then swept madly aside everything of the old methods.”[27]

Figure 16: Animal collection of the Biology Department

But despite intimations that Darwinism was atheism, one influential biologist at Williams maintained his religious faith, as the following letter to Professor Samuel Fessenden Clarke, Ph. D. (1851-1928) shows:

Dearly beloved Professor Clarke: ” In the course of a conference of five neighboring colleges yesterday one of the speakers referred to you as “one who has taught biology for the glory of God.” The statement elicited applause, and brought delight to my heart, renewing as it did the many little talks and walks we used to have together for the inspiration of the present.” — J.M.W. [28]

Clarke’s faith is further demonstrated by his own words:

“Violets and primroses–are they not good examples of the Creator’s two flower color elements, the yellow granules and the purple liquid? What a world it is, and how a man does want to be worthy of it![29]

The minutes of faculty meetings reveal Clarke’s appointment to be a leader of morning prayers, and his role, with Professor Mears and another, of making announcements following Thursday morning chapel services.

Unfortunately, Professor Clarke apparently burned all his lecture notes when he retired.[30] It would have been interesting to see how or whether in his teaching, he reconciled his twin faiths in biology and religion. If Clarke remained deeply religious, so did many other professors, some of whom managed to make accommodations between religious and scientific beliefs. Such accommodations were often uneasily maintained, however, and evolution would remain a controversial subject for many years to come.

6. Curricular Reform and the Sciences

In late 1902, Dr. Henry Hopkins, son of Mark Hopkins, became president of Williams College. He set for himself the task of reforming the curriculum of the College. The Williams curricular design was increasingly out of step with other leading colleges, because it had yet to offer any system of electives for Freshmen and Sophomores. For this reason President Hopkins thought that “‘the present plan of study has become so cumbersome as to make some change necessary.'”[31]

In his inaugural address Hopkins noted the place of the sciences in the liberal arts curriculum, stating:

“Williams College stands unequivocally for that specific thing which we call the liberal education, and proposes to continue to stand for just that… What to include, what to require, where to bound the field of electives,… how to balance the humanities against the sciences, these are the delicate and difficult questions which continually recur; but the aim does not change.”[32]

In 1902, as one of his first acts of office, President Hopkins proposed a new curriculum based upon the group system. Under the new system, students were still required to take certain specified courses their first year. New, however, were the course ‘groups’ (what were later labeled ‘divisions’). Each student, once he had passed the first year, was free to roam about the curriculum. Though there were what one might call ‘distribution requirements,’ they were not very constrictive. Thus, Williams joined the great majority of colleges in which the elective system and the absence of course requirements had led to curricular disarray.[33]

Figure 17: Williams College Curriculum 1903-1904

Five years later, although the President and the Trustees had stated that,

“a college should not become simply a preparatory department for the professional schools, but should claim for the full course in Liberal Arts … an independent dignity and worth… [Thus, it is] By the grouping of subjects and the regulation of the number of choices in each group, it is believed that this curriculum, as compared with that now in use, will be conservative in the direction of the preservation of the college idea of a liberal education as distinguished from …university courses.”[34],

Hopkins’ idea for a new curriculum full of the dignity of the Liberal Arts ideal was nowhere to be found.

When H. A. Garfield became president in 1908, “only the foreign languages, the sciences, and one other department … still stood out with organized sequences of courses. The rest were a hodgepodge of unconnected electives. It was generally recognized that a student who did not wish to work after sophomore year did not need to do so. By choosing the right electives … he could be sure of his degree without opening a book… The demoralization of the student body was complete.”[35]

Uniformity and coherence had disappeared from the curriculum and needed to be brought back.[36] Garfield’s plan, submitted to the faculty on May 2, 1910, was to organize all of the departments of the College along the lines the sciences and the foreign languages employed: each course in a successive year was to contain “more advanced material and could be entered only through the preceding course.”[37]

The faculty approved the plan on April 4, 1911, after a year’s debate and argument, by a vote of 17 to 10: “they committed themselves to working under the control of an ideal education that compelled order, progression, and reasoned relations between courses in each department.”[38] A year later, students protested in the Spring, presenting to the President a petition signed by 488 individuals demanding a return to the Old Curriculum; then they threatened to strike. Nonetheless, Garfield’s New Curriculum stuck. President Garfield had “extricated the College from an educational system that had practically broken down and set [Williams] on a course that ultimately left it in a somewhat unique position among American collegiate institutions.”[39]

Figure 18: Williams College Curriculum 1909-1910

Thus, during a period of great curricular upheaval[40], the science departments at Williams not only remained stable, but ultimately served as the administration’s model for the liberal arts education. Perhaps they, like the foreign languages, had done so only by virtue of functional prerequisites, or the demonstrable accumulation of knowledge and skill that seemed then, and now, to characterize the learning of their disciplines.

7. World War I

The advent of World War I brought modest change to Williams College and the science departments. The 549 students enrolled in 1916-1917 represented the largest enrollment ever. But by June 1917, the number of students in residence had shrunk to 398. Of the 151 students who had left, 117 had entered some form of wartime service. Those 117 were no different from many young men at other colleges and universities who likewise volunteered as ambulance drivers, medical corpsmen, pilots, and enlistees in other services. Despite Williams’ loss of such a substantial number of students, in his commencement address President Garfield stated, “While it is inevitable that the minds of the students should be preoccupied with the momentous events involving them, regular college work has gone forward with less interruptions than might be supposed.”[41]

The science faculty had barely recovered from the disastrous fire which destroyed the Chemistry Laboratory, when it faced another major challenge: World War. In a faculty meeting on February 5, 1917, President Garfield read a letter which he had written to the President of the United States regarding the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany. The President then stated that, in his opinion, “The question of introducing military science courses as an emergency measure was an appropriate one to consider.”[42] At the end of the meeting, the faculty adopted a resolution to cooperate with the President of the United States and to help with courses relating to military drill and military science. The faculty also agreed to begin research into the establishment of a Reserve Officers Training Corps.

During the emergency situation, several new courses were created, including Military Art and Navigation. Also, several suggestions were offered which would give students credit in agriculture and industrial work as long as that work supported the war effort. Students who would have graduated in June, but who left Williams in order to enter the ambulance service, were allowed to receive their degrees without completing the rest of the requirements.[43]

If the curriculum and atmosphere changed during the war, so, too, did admission requirements. In a “special announcement for candidates for admission in September, 1917,” Dean Frederick C. Ferry announced that the College would open as scheduled, the College Entrance Examination Board would hold exams that June, and the college examiners would have the information regarding the examinees in September. The notice also stated:

Resolved: that the Committee on Admission is hereby authorizing at its discretion to admit to college on trial…without formal certification and without examination, such candidates as may have left school with good record before the end of the school year in order to engage in military or naval service or in organized agricultural or industrial work to meet the war-time needs of the country, provided (1) that the school record of the candidate be approved by the Committee on Admissions; (2) that the principal recommend that the candidate be admitted to college; (3) that the candidate enter college in September, 1917; and (4) that the candidate submit, at the time of admission, evidence that he has continued in such approved service from before June 24 until September and leaves in good standing.[44]


To further demonstrate war time support, the college adopted a Students Army Training Corps (SATC), a program established to use the facilities, equipment and organization of the college in the training of future officers.[45] Students enrolled in this program participated in military and related subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Topology, Map Making, Meteorology, Geography, Hygiene, Sanitation, and Descriptive Geometry). Not only did the contents of these courses not fit the Liberal Arts ideal, but they were prescribed by the War Department. For example, instead of teaching Organic Chemistry for the principles of reaction mechanisms and an understanding of carbon based organic compounds, the purpose was to understand the relationship of aromatic and aliphatic compounds to drugs, explosives, and gas warfare.[46] Introductory courses in Chemistry and Physics took on a very practical orientation, basing their problems and illustrations on the application of physical laws in everyday situations, and war situations specifically. Biology offerings, structured around the laboratory, included many dissections potentially useful to future medics, ambulance corpsmen, and physicians. Mathematics emphasized graphical methods and trigonometry, skills applied to courses in Navigation, Mapmaking and Surveying where understanding how to read scales and determine direction were essential.[47] Professors Herdman Cleland in Geology, and Willis Milham in Astronomy taught Surveying and Navigation respectively, courses not usually found at Williams.

Freshmen were given the option to enroll in an optional Military Art course along with the required Freshman Gymnasium and Hygiene, providing they took another Military Art course while still in college. Upperclassmen could decrease their major load by enrolling in the Military Arts program as well. In the Faculty Meeting of October 12, 1917, the College was informed by the War Department that Major Steedman would be the new Professor of Military Science and Tactics.

Despite Williams’ many different activities in support of the United States’ War effort, the war ended before the College’s reaction and response had had very much time to produce any long term effects upon the institution or its curriculum.

8. Between the World Wars, 1918-1941

The temporary suspension of normalcy caused by World War I produced virtually no lasting effects in the administration, organization, curriculum, teaching and research in the sciences. Between World Wars I and II, slow and steady growth, cautious experimentation, and a broadening of the subject areas in the study of science characterized the sciences at Williams. As President Garfield once noted, college work went forward with less interruption than might have been supposed, even though for a brief time some students had fewer major requirements to fulfill in order to graduate, because they had been involved in the SATC program.

In the two decades before World War II, however, it is worth briefly examining five developments which affected the curriculum or organization of the sciences: the creation of the Geology major group, modernization of the Physics course offerings, the introduction of science courses for the non-scientist, the introduction of the Honors program, and, towards the end of the period, establishment of the Williams/M.I.T. Engineering Collaborative.


In March 1920, the Committee on Curriculum voted to create the Geology major group, with the addition of more Geology courses and a list of requirements. The new major, which students would begin in their Junior, rather than in their Sophomore year, included new courses like Regional and Economic Geography, which included a study of climate, physiography, and the distribution of natural resources that influence the economic and political development of a region. Geology had not only been recognized as a substantial discipline, but had expanded its curriculum in order to incorporate a broader social context.


In the same vein of catching up with paradigm-creating work in the rest of the world of science, the physics curriculum also moved into the 20th century. In 1895 and 1896 the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity had astonished the world and increased doubt about the validity of classical physics. Between 1900 and 1927 the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had revolutionized the theoretical foundations of physics. Those new theories would have enormous implications for the rest of the 20th century.

In 1924, the Physics department asked to introduce a new course, Physics 7-8: Light, Radiation and Atomic Structure. The Curriculum Committee responded affirmatively, concurring that additional material was needed in the physics major sequence and acknowledging that the rapid development in physics called for emphasizing prominent discoveries.

Evidence of Williams’ active interest in contemporary changes in physics can be inferred from the 1923 invitation of Amherst College to Williams faculty to attend a series of lectures called “The Atom” by Niels Bohr, Professor of Physics at Copenhagen university, and, with Einstein, one of the most eminent physicists of the time.[49]

Science for Non-Scientists

If Geology and Physics had reformed and modernized their curricula, new material was also appearing for the non-scientifically inclined. Professor Donald Richmond introduced a course in “The History and Methodology of Physical Science” to the curriculum in 1936.[50] Precursor to what is now the curriculum in the history of science, the course gave students an opportunity to learn about the history of scientific development, offering a non-technical perspective on scientific subjects. In 1937, the philosophy department offered “The Logic of Scientific Method”.[51] Like the History and Methodology course, Scientific Method gave the non-science minded student an alternative approach to the discussion of scientific concepts. Since the mid-30s, departments have continued and expanded their course offerings in the sciences to meet the different interests and backgrounds of the student body.


The broadest curricular change of the period occurred in 1926-1927, when Honors work was introduced on an experimental basis. The option, offered in conjunction with the regular major requirements, was open to Juniors and Seniors who showed special aptitude and ability to work independently. Juniors, with at least half of their grades B or better and with the consent of the department, could plan the program for each year, with the Junior year’s work usually connected to a regular course and the Senior year involving individual study.[52] In the sciences, the Chemistry department enrolled nine students in the program while the Mathematics department had but one.[53]

Williams/MIT Engineering Collaborative

In 1937-38 the Williams and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the MIT/Williams Engineering Collaborative. Successful completion of the ten semester program resulted in a B.S. from MIT, and a B.A. from Williams. Students who enrolled were to take courses for their first three years at Williams, and then move to MIT for the remaining two. A “B” average in science at Williams was needed to continue in the program, although students did not have to major in science to participate in it. Professor David Park recalled, “It was more of a recruiting tool than anything else. Most students caught Purple Valley fever and stayed at Williams. In 1941, my first year here, I think about sixty kids signed up, and not one went through with the program. We sent less than one student a year to MIT”.[54] Despite such small numbers, Williams students excelled in the program. The President’s Report of 1952 states, “Sixty-eight students, on average, have enrolled in the past four years in the Collaborative Program. Those few that completed the program always performed well enough to rank Williams at the top of the fifteen colleges (that) sent students to MIT”.[55]

9. The Second World War

Looking back on the interwar period and the Depression, the few changes affecting the sciences reflect little more than gradual modernization and diversification in the curriculum. In contrast to World War I, a brief and largely inconsequential blip in the first half of Williams second century, World War II had a profound impact on the science departments, especially the Department of Physics. World War II changed the face of science at Williams, in the form of curricular changes, student and faculty depletion, and post-war reflection on the role of science. The beginning of the 1942-43 academic year witnessed a dramatic change in the College Catalog; a new, practical patriotism defined the ends of education during wartime. Gone was Williams’ usual emphasis on a liberal education:

“The Williams student today must prepare himself to serve his country in the war effort and he also must so educate himself that he will be an effective citizen upholding the democratic way of life for which we are fighting.”[56]


Figure 19: Williamstown Railroad Station

Curricular Changes

The highly technological nature of World War II made training in science of unprecedented importance for military recruits. For this reason, Williams reorganized its science departments, as it had during World War I, to facilitate military training.

The onset of curricular change preceded U.S. involvement in the war. In March, 1941, the faculty, “Responding to the ´vital needs’ of 1941 undergraduates . . .sanctioned the adoption of new Spanish and mathematics courses designed to prepare the student for national service in the present war emergency.”[57] The math department met the challenge by offering courses that reviewed basic algebra and trigonometry, while geology made efforts to provide students with a strong background in map reading and aerial photography.[58] Chemistry offerings remained relatively unchanged, although the military wished all incoming individuals to have an understanding of explosives. Chemistry faculty felt that the College did not have the facilities necessary to ensure adequate supervision or protection of the students.

Figure 20: Drilling at Cole Field

The college also instituted an accelerated program that would allow students to graduate in two years, eight months, by enrolling in three semesters each year. Thus, a student could get his degree, and still have time to join the War. Six and one-half months after Pearl Harbor, the program opened with a summer term on June 29, 1942. Students were encouraged to enroll, especially if they planned a pre-medical curriculum, a major in the physical sciences, or to enter the MIT/Williams Engineering Collaborative. As a further incentive, the college reduced costs.

The Armed Forces’ many ROTC programs were the largest impetus for curricular change. The major programs were the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps, the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve, the Marine Corp Reserve, and the Navy Reserve (V-1, V-5, V-7, and V-12). Students enrolled in these programs were eligible to be called into service by the Secretary of War after graduation. Students with strengths in Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry were encouraged to join. Others were welcome, but potential marines weak in the sciences, “must be outstanding in all other respects to receive consideration.”[59]

Figure 21: World War II Chemistry Laboratory Exercises

The V-1 Program

With the nation’s engineering schools heavily engaged in military research, the United States Navy looked to liberal arts colleges to provide their recruits with basic education. Early in 1942, the Navigation Bureau of the Navy approved a Williams curriculum for its V-1 program, a “non-militarized preinduction program.”[1.1] The program encouraged Williams men to apply and guaranteed two years of college. After these two years and a comprehensive exam, the top 45% of the class graduated to V-5, the aviation cadet program, the rest being enrolled in the V-7, a program for regular ensigns. Twenty-five Williams men applied to the V-1 program, and eleven were accepted.[1.2] Of these eleven, six passed the exam and moved on in the program.[1.3]

Figure 22: Aviation at Williams in World War II

The V-5 Program

After the success of the V-1 program, Williams was chosen as one of twenty schools to participate in the V-5 program in December 1942. The V-5 program, also known as the Naval Flight Preparatory School (NFPS), attracted two hundred cadets in January, 1943, with two hundred more to follow in both February and March. Williams provided twenty-eight full time instructors (the Navy provided twenty-two) to teach a three month program in navigation, physics, math and communications, according to an intensive schedule.[1.4]

Figure 23: Learning Airplane Mechanics

The twenty-eight Williams faculty members who participated were required to devote four hours per day to the NFPS, and one hour per day to regular curriculum. Mathematics Professor Donald Richmond, reflecting on the changed nature of the college and the curriculum, wrote, “Williams has the opportunity to preserve the values of a liberal education amid trying circumstances”.[1.5]

The V-12 Program

Figure 24: Inspection

With only 315 regular Williams students in residence, in Spring, 1943, the Navy saw ample room to start yet another program at Williams. The program, dubbed V-12, was designed to train officer candidates. In May 1943 Williams College was chosen to participate along with Harvard, Holy Cross, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute: 440 apprentice seamen came to Williams that July. While still on active duty, these men would continue their college training. Forty enrolled in an accelerated pre-medical program; the rest studied math, physics, English, history, chemistry, foreign language, biology, psychology, Mechanical Drawing, and Descriptive Geometry. Williams faculty taught these subjects in three sixteen week terms, while Naval instructors taught Naval Organization and Customs, and Physical Training. Clark, the geology building, was evacuated to house the V-12 classes.[1.6]

Coincidentally, V-1 and V-7 students from Amherst were assigned to continue their V-12 training at Williams. The irony was not missed by the College Catalog:

“This was a return to the fold, for one hundred and twenty two years had passed since a contingent of Williams men went from this valley over the hills to swell the rolls of the College then opening its doors in Amherst.”[2]


Figure 25: Graduation , V-12, 28th Batallion, 1945

Other Curricular Changes

Within two weeks of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Robert Kitteridge ’43, President of the Undergraduate Council, petitioned the administration for more courses of a military nature. In response, the administration organized a “Committee on Cooperation with the National Defense Program.” Its goal was to “provide practical means to achieve (the) desire for the participation in the defense effort as expressed by the trustees, faculty, and the undergraduate body.”[3] Five courses were introduced, two as part of the regular curriculum and credit system, and three termed “extracurricular,” for which no credit was offered. Of the two regular courses, one was simply a revamped astronomy course. Astronomy 3-4: Navigation, Meteorology, and Practical Astronomy, created by adding navigational studies to the old ASTRO 3-4. Mathematics 1b-2b: Math for Military and Naval Training was entirely new.[4] Both proved very popular with students, and were filled to capacity immediately.

Figure 26: Wartime Radio

Extracurricular courses proved to be equally popular. The most intensive was “Metal Shop Practice,” offered by a physics professor, Ralph Winch, and the college’s head machinist, George Woods. Taken by forty-one juniors and seniors, it met three hours a week for fifteen weeks. The course offered instruction in blueprint reading, metal inspection, pattern making, brazing, spot welding, use of a lathe, miller, and planer. Physics Professor Howard Stabler offered basic training in radio work, including receiving, transmitting, and simple radio construction.

Professor Stabler’s course became part of the regular curriculum for the ’42-’43 school year as Physics 5b and 11b. Those who graduated from Stabler’s course entered the Signal Corps as radar men. The Flying Club offered the third extracurricular course. Its lectures on elementary instruction in aviation ground work attracted over one hundred students from Williams and Bennington.[5]

Physics at Williams and World War II

Of the natural sciences, physics was the most relevant to wartime technology. As a result, physics was emphasized more than other sciences:

“Because of the highly complicated nature of the instruments of modern warfare, the armed forces require very large numbers of men with technical knowledge and skills for which a background in physics and mathematics is essential…There is a serious shortage of men who are needed to operate and repair the many recently developed devices employing high frequency radiation for communications, detection, and fire control.”[6]


In summer 1942 enrollment in physics courses quadrupled. Professor Stabler remembers feeling that there were students in his class taking physics for the sole purpose of having “a grasp of the subject to suit the military and not for the enjoyment that others found in the subject.”[7] In 1944, The American Institute of Physics ranked Williams twelfth in the number of physics majors for all the colleges and universities in the United States.[8]

World War II created increased interest in physics. Before the War, few students aspired to a research career in physics. Afterwards, however, a new attitude prevailed, based in part on physicists’ major contributions to the development of radar, proximity fuses, and atomic weapons. As Professor Winch noted, “The physics profession is growing. A physicist is now looked upon as a useful animal, even in peacetime.”[9]

Wartime Faculty: Exodus, Reskilling, and Scavenging

As Williams civilian enrollment plummeted — only 108 civilians enrolled for the 1943-44 school year — so also shrank its faculty ranks.[10] Many professors, almost exclusively in physics, and even a few students, were called away to do military-related research.

In February 1943, Professor Stabler was transferred to the MIT Radiation Laboratory, a major center for wartime research. Professor Emslie soon joined him there. Professor Crawford, Chairman of the Physics Department, and James Curry, a chemistry professor, were called to the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard. In 1944, two juniors were sent to the Radio Research Lab, and one was sent to Cal Tech for related research. In April 1944, Professor Park was transferred to the same Radio Research Laboratory, and then later to England. That left Professors Benefield and Winch, with some Navy instructors, in charge of the Physics Department. When finally Benefield was called away, Winch, alone, was not bitter about his overwhelming responsibilities: “We could not permit an electronics expert to teach Navy students when radar research was urgently needed for these students and others (if they) were to be kept alive and fighting”.[11] Thus, during the War, Williams physics faculty taught cadets some basic and military sciences, but made more enduring contributions away from Williamstown.

Professors’ sacrifices of time and the pursuit of personal research were major contributions in their own right. Professor Park recalled, “We were required to teach 102 hours per month during the war. Thus, we had no social life. But, we all understood that the effort was necessary. The essence of all war programs is that it is heresy to consider the end of the war imminent. Constant effort was necessary.”[12]

Professor Winch, the remaining member of the Physics Department, provided an exemplary model of constant effort. Three temporary faculty — Professors Fischer, Reinheimmer, and Beer — were brought in to help Winch with the workload. Some of the Navy students helped as well. Later Winch rightfully expressed pride in the V-1, V-5, V-7 and V-12 graduates: “It is interesting commentary on the Williams training in math and physics that these men became ‘staff members’ and made valuable contributions with no more training.”[13]

Even temporary help was not sufficient. Department capacity, in terms of laboratory apparatus and supplies, was 175 students; more than three times that number, 562, needed instruction. In the true spirit of liberal arts education, and with the patriotic fervor of wartime, other Williams faculty received some quick training and then taught physics in the V-12 program. The group included Professors Barrow from music, Beals from philosophy, Parker from theatre, Cole, Matthews, and Waterman from biology, and Perry from geology. Winch applauded their efforts and sacrifice: “The regular faculty members of literary and social science divisions saw here a job to be done, prepared themselves at tremendous cost of time and effort, and did the job with the usual high Williams standards.”[14]

Not only did instructors learn new disciplines; sometimes they were forced to improvise teaching apparatus. For example, in 1944 Professor Kirkpatrick, one of the Naval instructors, needed apparatus for his V-12 course on steam and internal combustion. Williams had no such apparatus, so Kirkpatrick and others scoured the countryside for appropriate props. Winch recalls, “From abandoned mills, beached pleasure boats, and secondhand machinery dealers came the weirdest assortment of junk Williams ever saw.”[15] The old boiler room of the heating plant was refurbished, painted and the “junk” moved into the room. Kirkpatrick was able to get all the decrepit machines running, and trained 178 ensigns in the new Williams Heat Power Laboratory.[195][16]

Responding to the pressures of wartime emergency, faculty from all disciplines did their part as needed, some on a larger, national scene, some at Williams. They readily adapted to a new rhythm of teaching and administration, acquired new skills, and resourcefully created their own instructional materials in a time of scarcity. The sense of common commitment, involvement and shared sacrifice inspired extraordinary effort and achievement; it left its mark upon those who participated in the wartime programs. At war’s end, however, former disciplinary divisions, loyalties, and commitments resurfaced. The technical would no longer dominate the curriculum. Nonetheless, in the words of Professor Park, “The military program instituted during World War II liberalized us all. It greatly boosted scientific awareness at Williams.”[17]

10. After The War : Recovery and Lull

The years immediately following World War II marked a brief period of enhanced interest and activity in the sciences at Williams. President Baxter’s enthusiastic support of the sciences, the advent of graduate education in the sciences, and the resurgence of the Science Club all testify to improved status for the sciences. The fifties, however, seemed to to be a time of consolidation and evaluation of postwar change.

World War II had increased interest in science on the part of both students and faculty. In 1954, the President’s report of 1954 showed that there were 145 science majors out of 1,267 students enrolled in science courses. When compared with similar figures for 1937 and 1938, when there were only 80 science majors our of 1,039 students enrolled in science courses, it is clear that science’s popularity had grown significantly in the post-war era.

Science and President Baxter

James Phinney Baxter ’14 had come to Williams in 1937, after President Tyler Dennett, in his “Reign of Terror”, cut funds to the bone, putting the college in a state of paralysis. Baxter was primed to bring great change to the college, but the Depression and then the War stifled his attempts. President Roosevelt, a personal friend of Baxter’s, appointed him official historian of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), a post which he held from 1943 to 1946. Baxter’s account of the OSRD, Scientists Against Time, written during the War, won a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1947. More importantly, it introduced Baxter to all the great scientists of the world, and instilled in him a new love of science. Professor Park recalls this turning point for science at Williams, saying “The sun began to shine on the science department”.[18]

Graduate Education in the Sciences

By 1951, Williams had a new, modern physics-astronomy laboratory, and a new biology-psychology laboratory, as well as new graduate programs in the sciences. Authorized to grant a Master of Science degree, the College graduated six to eight students a year in physics, as well as one or two in chemistry. According to Professor David Park, first Chair of the program, Baxter began the program for three reasons: (1) students who needed extra course work for other graduate schools could enter Park’s program for a short time, (2) graduate students could be used as teacher assistants, an advantage never before used at Williams, and (3) the Sprague Electric Corporation in nearby North Adams promised to help subsidize the program if it could send some of its research personnel for graduate level work in physics. At the time, Sprague maintained a large industrial research laboratory. When the corporation downsized and finally moved its laboratory in the late 1960s, the program gradually died out.[19]

The Science Club

Baxter also reminded the Williams College community that science was not the only subject of importance. Like his 19th century predecessors, he recognized that blind pursuit of science without the guidance of values and morals could have dangerous implications. Consonant with his view, President Baxter strongly urged students not to ignore courses that were short on technology but long in the big picture.

“If men are to be asked to train, and perhaps to fight and die in defense of democracy, it is as necessary for them to understand its real nature, and the long struggles which have characterized its development, as it is for them to require the special skills necessary for industrial production. Important as are physics, chemistry and engineering alike in peace and in war, so too are the studies that develop tolerance, without which our nation may be hopelessly divided: a well grounded understanding of modern industrial society, more necessary than ever today; and faith, without which the cause of democracy would already have been lost beyond repair.”[20]

The faculty, too, shared Baxter’s vision of science as but a part of a well rounded and well grounded citizenry. In 1945,The Science Club, discontinued for security reasons during the war, resumed its activities. The club was composed of 37 faculty members, many of whom had conducted research in electronics and radar research during the war.[21] Its president, Dr. Samuel Mathews of the Biology Department, stated that the club’s new purpose would be, “A better understanding of the advancements in science with special emphasis on the effect of the war on these developments.”[22] The club sponsored a new series of lectures, held in “roundtable” format, to permit more open discussions in hopes of encouraging novel, thoughtful, or creative insights about the issues under deliberation. Frederick L. Schuman, Professor of Political Science, and Ralph Winch, Professor of Physics, gave one of the most interesting talks, on the implications of the atomic bomb. In a later talk Winch foreshadowed the eventual problem of nuclear proliferation. He stated that the U.S. would not have a monopoly on the atomic bomb for long (5 years at the outside) because, “in science, anyone who asks nature the right questions will get the same answer as anyone else, regardless of race, color or creed.”[23] 

[1] The Literary Monthly, vol. 11, No. 3 (October 1895), p.viii. It is likely that the recent completion of the Thompson Laboratories helped stimulate production of the advertisement. | Back |
[2] Leverett Mears, Outlines of Lectures on the Non-metallic Elements and Their Compounds, (Williamstown, Massachusetts: Williams College, 1903). | Back |
[3] Leverett Mears, Outline of Qualitative Analysis, (North Adams, Massachusetts, 1907). | Back |
[4] Robert Wood to his brother Horace, 26 February 1904. (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[5] Ibid. | Back |
[6] Ibid. | Back |
[7] Ibid. Safety measures such as goggles would not be required in the laboratory for nearly another 70 years. | Back |
[8] Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 1, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1903). Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 1, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1903), Heat and Light. Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 2, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1906), Magnetism and Electricity. Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 1 and 2, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1911), Mechanics and Sound. Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 1 and 2, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1911), Heat. Directions for Laboratory Work in Physics 3 and 4, (Williamstown: Williams College, 1911). | Back |
[9] Williams College Catalogue, 1899-1900, p.21. | Back |
[10] Williams College Catalogue, 1895-1896, p.48. | Back |
[11] Williams College Catalogue, 1911-1912, p.107. | Back |
[12] Ibid. | Back |
[13] Williams College Catalogue, 1911-1912, p.108. | Back |
[14] The Williams Record, Vol. 26, No.73 (January 18, 1913), p. 3. | Back |
[15] The Williams Record, Vol. 29, Extra, (December 7, 1915). | Back |
[16] Other publications lost included volumes of Chemische Berichte, a leading research journal of the Chemical Society of Berlin, valued at $1500; two sets of the Journal of the American Chemical Society; the Journal of the London Chemical Society from 1880-1915; and Liebig’s Annalen 1834-1914. Chemical supplies and apparatus valued at $15,000 were also lost. See The Williams Record, Vol 29, No. 75, 1 January 17, 1916. Subscription to such leading research journals indicates that information about thoroughly up-to-date research was available, and apparently useful to the faculty. | Back |
[17] The Williams Record, Vol 29, No. 75 (January 17, 1916), p. 1. | Back |
[18] The Williams Record, Vol 29, No. 66 (December 9, 1915), p. 1. | Back |
[19] E. Herbert Botsford, Fifty Years at Williams.Vol. 4: Twenty-Six Years of Progress. Administration of Harry Augustus Garfield 1908-1934, (Williamstown, Mass., The McClelland Press, 1940) p. 198. | Back |
[20] The Williams Record, Vol 29. No. 82 February 14, 1916. | Back |
[21] R. V. Bruce, op.cit., p.335. | Back |
[22] Figures taken from plans as reported in The Class Book for those years. | Back |
[23] Data occasionally revealed years when no seniors planed to continue in science. Despite somewhat mercurial annual interest, the overall numbers of those interested are represented well by the years reported in the table. | Back |
[24] Williams Literary Monthly, vol. 11, No. 4 (November 1895), p.130. | Back |
[25] Ibid., p.131. | Back |
[26] Williams College Catalogue, 1898-9, p. 44; 1906-7, p. 81. | Back |
[27] J.A. Lowe, op. cit., p. 41. | Back |
[28] Charlotte Bertisch Stimpson, Comp. Samuel Fessenden Clarke (New York, Privately Printed [The Marchbanks Press], 1932), p. 20. J.M.W. is Doctor John M. Warbeke. | Back |
[29] Ibid., p. 41. | Back |
[30] “Supplement,” to Samuel Fessenden Clarke, a one page typewritten letter from Mrs. S. F. Clarke. (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[31] Williams Literary Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 8 (March 1911). p. 334., citing the President’s Report of 1903. | Back |
[32] ] E. H. Botsford, Fifty Years at Williams, Vol. 3: John Haskell Hewitt – Henry Hopkins. (Pittsfield, Mass., The Eagle Printing & Binding Company, 1932) p.60. | Back |
[33] Rudolph, Curriculum, p. 196. | Back |
[34] Williams Literary Monthly, Vol. 26, No. 8 (March 1911) p. 334, citing the President’s Report of 1903. | Back |
[35] Smith, Theodore Clarke, “The Curriculum 1908 – 1934,” in Botsford, op cit., Vol. 4, p.45. | Back |
[36] Rudolph, Curriculum, p. 227. | Back |
[37] Smith, op. cit., p. 45-46. | Back |
[38] Smith, Ibid., p. 47-48. | Back |
[39] Smith, Ibid., p. 43. | Back |
[40] See Rudolph, Curriculum, Chapter 5, “Disarray”, and Chapter 6 “Remedies.” | Back |

[41] Williams College President’s Report 1917-1919, p. 17. | Back |
[42] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, February 5, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[43] Minutes of the Special Faculty Meeting, April 20, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[44] “Williams College Special Announcement to Candidates for Special Admission in September, 1917.” From the Office of the Dean. | Back |
[45] “Students Army Training Corps,” Williams College Catalogue, 1918-1919, Appendix, pp. 147-158. | Back |
[46] Ibid., p. 156. | Back |
[47] Ibid., pp. 154-155, 157. | Back |
[48] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, September 19, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[49] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, October 1, 1923, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[50] Williams College Catalogue, 1936, p. 107. | Back |
[51] Williams College Catalogue, 1937, p. 118. | Back |
[52] “Honors Work,” Williams College Catalogue 1926-1927 p. 67-68. Honors, and later, comprehensive examinations, were national responses at the time to a perceived shallowness and lack of application or discipline in students. See F. Rudolph, Curriculum, Chapter 6: pp. 230-232; 235-236. | Back |
[53] H. L. Agard, Acting Dean, “Report of the Dean,” Williams College President’s Report, 1924-1927, pp. 24-25. | Back |
[54] Interview with David Park, 4/16/92. | Back |
[55] Williams College President’s Report, 1952, p. 23. | Back |
[56] Williams College Catalogue, 1942-43 (Oct. 1942), p.71. | Back |
[57] Williams Record, Vol. 55, No. 4 (March 15, 1941), p. 1. | Back |
[58] Williams Record, Vol. 55, No. 37 (April 3, 1942), p. 1 . | Back |
[59] “Preparation for War Service,” Williams College Catalogue, 1942-43, pp. 69-70. | Back |

[1.1] “Navigation Bureau Approves Williams Courses for Navy”, Williams Record, vol. 55, No. 36 (March, 27, 1942), p. 5. | Back |
[1.2] Williams Record, vol. 55, No. 38 (April 10, 1942), p. 1. | Back |
[1.3] Williams Record, vol. 55, No. 39 (April, 17, 1942), p. 1. | Back |
[1.4] “Navy Contingent of 200 Expected January 7 – Baxter,” Williams Record, vol. 56 (December 12, 1942), pp. 1-2. The 4 subject schedule for 12 weeks was as follows: Navigation: twice/day, 6 days/week. Physics: twice/day for 3 weeks, then 3 hours/day for 3 weeks on “Aerology and Engines”. Mathematics: twice/day for 3 weeks, then “The Theory of Flight” 1 hour/day, 6 days/week for 7 weeks, stressing “Familiarization with Aircraft” for 2 weeks. Communication: 1 hour/day for 12 weeks. | Back |
[1.5] “The Navy Moves In,” Williams Alumni Review, vol. 35, No. 3 (March, 1943), p. 83. | Back |
[1.6] “On the Campus,” Williams Alumni Review, vol.35, No. 4 (June, 1943), pp. 117-119. | Back |
[2] Williams College Catalogue, 1943-45 (Dec. 1943), p. 28. | Back |
[3] “Williams in National Defense,” Williams Alumni Review, vol. 34, No. 2 (December, 1941), p. 56. | Back |
[4] Ibid. | Back |
[5] Ibid., p. 56-57. | Back |
[6] Williams College Catalogue, 1942-43, (October 1942), p.130. | Back |
[7] Telephone interview with Professor Stabler , April 22, 1992. Note Prof. Stabler’s echo of Prof. Richmond’s recognition of the 2 essentially conflicting curricular purposes. | Back |
[8] Ralph P. Winch, “The Williams Physics Department During World War II,” The Williams Alumni Review, vol. 39, No. 4 (May, 1947), p. 122. | Back |
[9] Ibid., p. 126. | Back |
[10] Williams Alumni Review, vol. 36, No. 1 (Dec., 1943), p. 7. | Back |
[11] Winch, op. cit., p. 123. | Back |
[12] Interview, with Prof. David Park, 4/16/92. | Back |
[13] Winch, op. cit., p. 124. | Back |
[14] Ibid. | Back |
[15] Ibid., p. 125. | Back |
[16] Ibid. | Back |
[17] Interview with Professor David Park, 4/16/92. | Back |
[18] Ibid. | Back |
[19] Ibid. | Back |
[20] Williams College President’s Report, 1941, p.7. | Back |
[21] “Science Club Resumes Round Table Meetings,” The Williams Record, Vol. 60, No. 3 (December 6, 1945), p.4. | Back |
[22] Ibid. | Back |
[23] “Winch Gives Talk on Atomic Energy, “The Williams Record, Vol. 60, No. 7. | Back |