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Physics and Astronomy

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Department History

The formal end of the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris, was negotiated in 1783. Five months following the signing of the treaty, Abraham Baldwin  prepared the Charter of the University of Georgia. He had been a faculty member at Yale University from 1775 to 1779 and came to Georgia in 1783. The adoption of the Charter in 1785 was one of the first acts of the Georgia Legislature. 

Although chartered in 1785, the University of Georgia had neither students, professors, nor physical facilities until 1801.  When the Franklin College (only later to be the University of Georgia) did open, it had a President who took a view of collegiate education that included science as well as the classics.  A mathematician and scientist with a strong interest in meteorology and physics, Josiah Meigs (shown below) would be the only non-cleric to head the college until the late 1890s. For six years prior to his appointment, Meigs had been a Professor of

Natural Philosophy (science) in Yale College.  Meigs’s curriculum rested on a traditional four-year program and included the classics, Latin and Greek, moral philosophy, mental philosophy, and the sciences. Freshmen, sophomores, and seniors studied relatively little science but much of the junior year emphasized scientific subjects.Juniors studied natural philosophy and astronomy "with the application of its principles to the determination of Geographic longitudes and latitudes by observations of solar eclipses, by the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites and by the lunar observations." Science, in all possible cases, was to be taught by experiment. Chemistry, new to the college curriculum, would include "actual experiments demonstrative of its principles." Meigs selected botany for study during the junior year and required students to learn the Linnaean system of classification.  In 1803 it was recorded in the Trustees Minutes that $1000 was allotted to Professor Josiah Meigs for the purchase of scientific and mathematical equipment.

The first Professor of Natural Philosophy was Henry Jackson, LL.D. (1778-1840) who was a brother of the Georgia Governor James Jackson. Dr. Jackson served as U.S. charge d'affaires in France (1812-1818) and taught at Franklin College (1811-1813 and 1819-1828).  When he returned from France, he brought $2000 worth of scientific equipment with him.  In the 1820s Henry Jackson received a higher salary than other faculty. In addition, Jackson sought and won release from performing "police duties" customarily assigned to professors.When the remainder of the faculty objected, the Trustees broke their agreement with Jackson who quickly resigned.A compromise resulted in Jackson’s return and his being excused from some disciplinary duties.

Other Professors of Natural Philosophy during the 1820s through 1840s were James Tinsley, M. D. (1820-22), Gamaliel S. Olds, A. M. (1825-26), James Jackson, A. M. (1827-42), and Charles P. McCay, A. M., LL. D. (1842-46) (shown at the right).

In 1846, one of the more distinguished of the antebellum scientists, John LeConte joined the faculty.  He received his M. D. degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1841 and his brother Joseph received his in 1845.  They were sons of a Liberty County rice and cotton plantation owner.  Joseph went to Yale as a graduate student and worked with the renowned paleontologist Louis Agassiz (most remembered as being a lifelong opponent of the theory of evolution); he joined his brother on the faculty of the Franklin College in 1853.  They wanted to teach, but they also wanted to do research and to publish their findings. However, college President Alonzo Church, a conservative Presbyterian minister approaching the end of his 30-year regime, held that only teaching was appropriate for faculty. Since Church tolerated no dissent, a heated and eventually public disagreement ensued. John left Georgia in 1855, and Joseph followed the next year. Half a century would pass before research and publication again emerged as Georgia struggled to become a modern university.  After leaving UGA, they both taught at South Carolina College (today the University of South Carolina) until the outbreak of the Civil War.  During the war the LeConte brothers supervised the manufacture of medicine and explosives to aid the Southern war effort.  After the defeat of the South, both brothers, having lost all their property in the war, decided to go west.  In 1869 both were appointed professors at the new University of California (Berkeley), and soon the LeConte brothers and their families were flourishing again. John served as the university's first president, 1869-1870 and 1875-1881. He continued to do research and to publish his results, but most of his energies went into a successful effort to make California the best university west of the Mississippi.  He died in 1891.  Joseph gained greater renown as a teacher and scholar with a lifetime production of 190 articles and nine books on a wide variety of subjects.  Joseph was one of the founders of the Sierra Club before his death in 1901.

In 1856 Charles Venable (shown at the right) joined the faculty as Professor of Natural Philosophy.  He had taught mathematics and astronomy at the University of Virginia and at Hampden-Sydney College (his alma mater and co-founded by his father).  He stayed only one year, following the LeContes to South Carolina.  John D. Easter, Ph. D., was Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1856-59 and the first Ph. D. on the faculty.  William L. Jones, who had also studied with Agassiz, was professor during the Civil War years (1861-66).  Dr. William LeRoy Broun, LL. D. (shown at the left) was Professor of Mathematics during the prewar period 1854-56 and returned after the war to accept the appointment of Professor of Natural Philosophy which he held 1866-75.  Broun served as president of Georgia Agricultural and Mechanical College (a branch of the University) 1872-75.  From 1875-77 the chair was filled by Montgomery Cumming, A. M.

In 1877, Leon Henri Charbonnier, A. M., who had been acting as Professor of Civil Engineering in the University since 1866, became Professor of Physics and retained the chair until his resignation in 1897. Colonel Charbonnier was a native Frenchman with a background of military training, being a graduate of St. Cyr in France.  During Professor Charbonnier's tenure at the University he also conducted student military instruction, a passion the Frenchman acquired during his days at St. Cyr military academy.  In 1874 he was architect for Moore College, the only building built on campus between the war and the 20th century; it is also the only college structure built entirely using financing from the city of Athens.  Moore College served as the home to physics and astronomy until the current building was built in 1959.  Today Moore College houses the Honors Program.

Professor Andrew H. Patterson of North Carolina succeeded Charbonnier as department head in 1897 and served until 1908. Under Patterson's direction, the work of the department was greatly expanded, particularly research into the field of applied electricity.  Patterson left to accept a position as Head of the Physics Department at UNC Chapel Hill where he pursued a passion for meteorology.

As can be seen from the preceding, science in the 19th century was a very eclectic collection of academic activities, all under the natural philosophy umbrella, and included physics, mathematics, astronomy, geology, life sciences, and more.  Charbonnier, for example, served as Professor of Ancient Languages during his tenure.  As the 20th century dawned, physics and astronomy emerged as disciplines unto themselves.

In 1908 Linville L. Hendren became Head of the department and Professor of Physics and Astronomy.  He graduated from Trinity College (now Duke University) with a degree in electrical engineering and then received his Ph. D. in physics from Columbia University in 1905.  Prior to his coming, only engineering courses had laboratories and one of his first efforts here was to include laboratory work in all physics and astronomy courses offered.  It was under his leadership that UGA first began providing graduate work in physics and astronomy; the first mention of the M. S. degree in physics or astronomy was in the UGA Bulletin of 1910-11.  He served as Head until 1937. He also had many administrative appointments during his career, including Dean of Administration (1932-40), Dean of the College (1932-46), and Dean of the Faculty (1940-45).  His name lives on today because of the Hendren Memorial Scholarship, an endowed scholarship awarded annually to our most illustrious major.  Interestingly, his name also lives on for a quotation of his, which is listed in numerous anthologies of quotations: "Fathers send their sons to college either because they went to college or because they didn't."

In 1917-1918, during World War I, the regular activities of the department were partially suspended and much time devoted to the training of students and regular groups of enlisted men in the U. S. Signal Corps for radio war work. The equipment was furnished by the U. S. Signal Corps and technical instruction offered by the physics staff in the principles and operation of radio apparatus.  After the war ended the University was designated as the main center for the training of Signal Corps men in the southeast.

During the first quarter of the 20th century, the physics faculty grew greatly from the typical one or two natural philosophers to about five.  In 1936, in addition to Hendren, faculty included E. H. Dixon, R. H. Snyder, G. H. Henry, and E. N. McWhite.  In 1937 Ellis Dixon, A. B., M. S. (UGA), Ph. D. (University of Wisconsin) became Head, a position he held until 1967.  Dixon worked among his faculty to emphasize basic research at the expense of applied physics. He campaigned for a physics unit of a proposed Science Center, a dream realized with the construction of today's Physics Building in 1959.He saw this new building, with its modern laboratories and equipment, as the necessary facility to support a Ph.D. program in Physics; the Ph. D. program was first instituted in 1960.

In July 1960 a two million volt Van de Graaff accelerator was installed in the new facility, and in February of the following year a twenty-four inch reflecting telescope was mounted in the observatory atop the Physics-Astronomy building.In the fall of 1968 the department acquired a five million volt atomic accelerator with which to pursue nuclear research.  Under Professor Dixon's leadership, research programs in infrared spectra and molecular spectra expanded, to be followed by early work in nuclear physics.

Thus, by the late 1960s, the Department of Physics and Astronomy emerged as a modern Ph. D. granting department, with emphasis on both teaching and research.  As in most universities, the size of both the student body and the faculty grew explosively in the 60s and 70s.  

Editor's Note: This document on the history of the department has been culled from many sources (bibliography), with much of the information gathered by Mrs. Jane Kenyon, long-time Office Manager of our department before her retirement, whose efforts in compiling and collecting many papers documenting aspects of the departmental history were indispensable to this narrative.