Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/December 1903/The Progress of Science

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Robert Henry Thurston.



By the death of Professor R. H. Thurston education and science suffer a serious loss. His activity was wide reaching and entirely beneficent. As a physicist he was not the peer of Gibbs and Rowland, but his work covered such a broad field and was so large in quantity that the highest exactness could scarcely be attained. His special researches in thermodynamics and their applications to the steam-engine have given him an eminent place among scientific men, while his conduct of Sibley College has proved him to be one of the educational leaders of the country. While thus carrying on the work of two men, he devoted himself unsparingly to every good cause. Innumerable demands on his time and patience were met cheerfully and helpfully. His death is a personal loss to every one who knew him, and is at the same time a public misfortune.

Thurston was born at Providence, R. I., on October 25, 1839. His death from heart disease occurred with entire suddenness on his sixty-fourth birthday, while he was awaiting guests whom he had invited to his house. He was educated at Brown University and in his father's shops. At the outbreak of the civil war he enlisted in the naval engineer corps, and served with distinction. He was on the Monitor in its famous engagement with the Merrimac and later was first assistant in charge of the ironclad Dictator. At the end of the war he became professor of natural philosophy in the U. S. Naval Academy, and in 1871 accepted the chair of engineering in Stevens Institute of Technology. In 1885 he accepted a professorship in mechanical engineering at Cornell University and the directorship of Sibley College. Under him the college was organized and, chiefly through his personal efforts during the past eighteen years, it has attained its present preeminent position. There are this year nearly a thousand students in the college, and its courses of study have set standards for other institutions. While thus engaged in constant teaching and arduous administrative work, Thurston was equally occupied with investigation and publication. He was the author of eleven books and of some three hundred papers. In this journal will be found many of his more popular articles, and in the present number we have the sad privilege of publishing his last paper. He was one of the editors of Science and of Johnson's and Appleton's Cyclopædias. He was constantly engaged on committees and commissions, and took an active part in scientific and educational societies. He was three times president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was first president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.


Science and education have always ignored the boundaries of nations and have been important factors in promoting peace and good-will. It is a most extraordinary fact that there should have been 10,000 students from all parts of Europe at Bologne in the thirteenth century. The origin of the words 'university' and 'college' appears to have been in the separation of the students from different countries into guilds, and the organization of the studium generale was definitely based on the division into 'nations.' Teachers, as well as students, migrated from

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university to university in a manner rather difficult to reconcile with the general conception of the 'dark ages.' This movement had an important effect on the development of European civilization. It has never since been equaled, though there have been significant migrations of students, the most interesting of which from our point of view being the large number of Americans who studied in Germany during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This movement reached its culmination about 1890, when some five hundred Americans were pursuing nonprofessional graduate studies in German universities. But the students who went earlier to Germany had a greater effect on our educational system, as witnessed in the development of Harvard College and the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University. The movement has now become widespread, and we have some thirty universities and 5,000 students carrying on graduate work on the model of the German university. There are now a few European students attracted to our universities and at least one professor in an American institution has been offered a chair in Germany. Numerous students have come from Japan and a considerable number from South America.

The American college was directly modeled on the corresponding institutions in England and Scotland, and it would probably have been an advantage, both educationally and from the point of view of international relations, if we had kept in closer touch with the British university. The will of Cecil Rhodes was an attempt to promote artificially such relations, and there is every reason to believe that it will meet with a fair degree of success. Ninety students from the United States residing at Oxford will contribute to the development of the university and will bring back to America the traditions of English education and culture. From the point of view of this journal, the entrance requirements and part of the curriculum at Oxford are a medieval survival, and the opportunities for advanced work in science are limited. But no one who has been brought intimately in contact with the Oxford life can fail to realize its charm. The influence on a few American students scattered over the whole country will surely be of advantage to them and to our relations with Great Britain. The American university presidents who have been given control of the administration of the Rhodes scholarships have decided to require residence at an American college before the student proceeds to Oxford. This is contrary to the intentions of Mr. Rhodes and appears to be scarcely justifiable from an educational point of view. For undergraduate work, Oxford possesses peculiar attractions. It would be better for a student to go through the B.A. course at Oxford and then pursue graduate studies in Germany or America, rather than to reverse the order. It may be remarked incidentally that Cambridge now offers admirable opportunities for research students in the natural and exact sciences, quite equal to those of the German universities, and that these should be more largely used than is at present the case.

A few years since America was almost outside the limits of European vision. In order to meet foreign scholars it was necessary for us to go abroad. But these conditions are changing rapidly. European men of science, and scholars singly and in groups, are continually going up and down over the land. The most eminent representatives of science and learning from Great Britain, Germany, France and other nations visit us in order to teach and to learn. Just now, for example, we are entertaining the educational commission organized by Mr. Mosely. Some thirty of the more active and eminent British educators were invited by Mr. Mosely to visit America as his guests, in order to make a study of our educational system from the primary school to the university. The commission includes scientific men, such as Professors Armstrong, Ayrton, Frankland and MacLean. A visit of this character will conduce to Anglo-American amity and the improvement of educational methods. An even more interesting event is promised for next year, when more than a hundred leading European men of science and scholars will visit the United States to take part in the Congress of Arts and Science, organized in connection with the St. Louis Exposition.


The Popular Science Monthly has had the privilege of printing two of the four Huxley Memorial Lectures, given before the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain—that on Huxley by Lord Avebury and that on the 'Improvement of the Human Breed' by Dr. Francis Galton. The latter subject is continued by the last lecture of the series given by Professor Karl Pearson, who in general is carrying forward the quantitative work on heredity which owes so much to Dr. Galton. Professor Pearson sent circulars to a large number of teachers asking them to grade pairs of brothers and sisters for mental and moral traits, such as popularity, conscientiousness, probity, vivacity and general ability. There proved to be a remarkable fraternal resemblance, represented by a regression line of one to two, exactly the same as that found for physical traits such as the cephalic index. Professor Pearson concludes that mental and physical heredity are equally potent; mental traits are bred in the bone and are not the result of training. Great Britain could not help its position among the nations by improving its schools or by increasing technical education. The trouble is that the less able and the less energetic are more fertile than the better stocks.

Professor Pearson's figures require confirmation. The writer of this note once remarked on the resemblance of some children to their mother; the resemblance became less obvious when he was informed that she was their stepmother. The fact that two children are brothers may lead a teacher to regard them as similar in mental traits. But Professor Pearson's figures in any case appear to be misinterpreted. If the resemblance of brothers in physical and mental traits is alike, we must conclude, contrary to Professor Pearson, that the inheritance of physical and mental traits is not equal. Association and similar home life have some influence, however slight, on traits such as temper and honesty. It would be possible to argue from the figures that mental traits are not hereditary, the effects of similar environment being equal in amount to physical heredity.


The American Association for the Advancement of Science with a large number of affiliated societies, including the American Society of Naturalists, The American Chemical Society, The American Physical Society, The Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, the Botanical Society of America, The American Anthropological Association, The American Psychological Association and others, meet at St. Louis in convocation week, beginning on December 28. We shall give in the next issue a forecast of the meeting, at present only calling attention to the importance of this meeting and to the admirable arrangements that have been made and urging the privilege and importance of attendance, both for professional scientific men and for those who are interested in the progress of science.

The Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University will receive a very large sum, said to be more than $4,000,000, from the estate of the late Gordon McKay.

President Schurman, of Cornell University, has proposed the erection of a new building for Sibley College, in memory of the late Professor Thurston, to be known as Thurston Hall. The students of Sibley College have voted to erect a bronze memorial tablet in honor of Professor Thurston. — An obelisk of unpolished grey granite has been placed over Virchow's grave in the old Matthäi graveyard, Berlin. It bears on one side a black marble tablet, on which is inscribed 'Rudolf Virchow' and the date of his birth and death. A statue of Virchow will also be erected near the place where his scientific work was conducted.