By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Dave Ferguson uncovered a mystery when he went searching for a topic to present to the Findlay Symposium Literary Club.
He discovered that renowned astronomer William Wallace Campbell had been born in Hancock County. Ferguson also learned that Campbell went on to receive international acclaim for his scientific achievements and was nominated for a Nobel Prize.
“My eyes just lit up and I did some more research and I asked around. And the story just kept getting better and better and better,” he said.
His research led to a new exhibit that opens at 10 a.m. Friday at the Hancock Historical Museum, 422 W. Sandusky St. The exhibit includes images and artifacts of Campbell’s early life in Hancock County, as well as his tenure as the president of the University of California and director of the university’s Lick Observatory.
The following day, April 11, what would have been Campbell’s 153rd birthday, has been proclaimed William Wallace Campbell Day by the Hancock County Commissioners. The observance will be part of the Ohio Local History Alliance regional meeting that will be held at the museum from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ferguson will also give a lecture on Campbell at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Senior Center, 339 E. Melrose Ave.; and at noon April 20 for the Findlay Rotary Club.
“I feel really honored and privileged to do this. It’s just happenstance,” said Ferguson, retired vice president for advancement at the University of Findlay.
It all started in January 2014 when he was preparing to give a talk to Symposium.
“I didn’t like the topic I was given so I went with another one. I Googled astronomy which I like playing with, and Hancock County. And I hit on a Wikipedia page on William Wallace Campbell,” he said.
He talked to several people about Campbell, including Dick Kern, professor emeritus of history at the university.
“I was afraid I was the only one in town that didn’t know about him. Well, nobody knew about him,” Ferguson said.
Campbell, he said, had been largely forgotten.
“Nobody here in Hancock County knew about him,” Ferguson said. “So I kept digging and kept digging and … came up with this story of a man who just went on to be the leader of the scientific community, literally, in the world.”
According to Ferguson’s research, Campbell was born April 11, 1862 in Cass Township, just east of Van Buren. He was the youngest of seven children.
His father, Robert Wallace Campbell, was a farmer and carpenter. He died when William Campbell was about 4, said Ferguson.
“The son is said to have worked on a farm and made about $6 a month which apparently all went to the family,” he said.
When Campbell was in his early teens, the family moved to Fostoria where they had family living. Campbell graduated from high school there in 1880.
“A program from his commencement which the University of Santa Cruz has now had him giving the oration, the first thing on the program,” Ferguson said. “And the topic of his talk was ‘Every Man Has His Place,’ which in those days was totally acceptable, of course. But it sounds a little sexist these days.”
After graduation, Campbell enrolled at Ohio State University, but couldn’t afford the costs.
“He drops out, makes some money and he’s admitted to the University of Michigan in civil engineering,” Ferguson said.
While a student at Michigan, Campbell discovered his passion for astronomy when he read Simon Newcomb’s “Popular Astronomy.”
He graduated with a degree in engineering in 1886 and spent two years as a mathematics professor at the University of Colorado, where he met Elizabeth Ballard Thompson. They were married in 1892 and had three sons.
About the same time, the University of California opened Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California. It was the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory.
“He’s there as their resident astronomer and does work with astronomical spectroscopy which is the viewing of light that comes from stars and you can break it down into different spectrums,” Ferguson said. “His work is so good and so precise, he was nominated for the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1900.”
Campbell became the director of the observatory, a position he held until about 1930, said Ferguson.
During that time, he led several solar eclipse observation expeditions all over the world, including India, Spain and the Ukraine. In 1922, Campbell led an expedition to Australia where he proved Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity — that light from distant stars would be bent by the sun’s gravitational field.
“One of the things we have in the exhibition is a letter from Einstein thanking him for his work,” said Ferguson. “There are also pictures of Campbell with Einstein, with Thomas Edison, with Edwin Hubble of the Hubble space telescope.”
When Campbell returned from Australia, he was offered several jobs, including president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, president of the Smithsonian Institution and president of the University of California, Berkeley.
“He originally turned them all down, but then when Berkeley kept pushing, he accepted that, so he was president of Berkeley for awhile,” said Ferguson.
A few years into his presidency, Campbell reportedly got into a controversy over athletics and the role of academics, he said.
“This issue was brought to the board … and he told the board it had to make a decision whether they were going to emphasize academics or athletics,” Ferguson said. “And according to the story he gave them 10 minutes to do it, and he walked out. Nine minutes later they bring him back in and say we want to focus on academics.”
“And that seems to be the tipping point where Berkeley took off on its trajectory of excellence. So he was right there at the right time,” said Ferguson.
He later served as president of the National Academy of Sciences. Today, Campbell has an asteroid named after him, as well as a crater on Mars and a crater on the moon.
Campbell later became ill, suffering from aphasia which diminishes a person’s ability to write, read and talk, Ferguson said.
“They moved back to San Francisco where he could get medical treatment. And one night, when he just decided he couldn’t live up to his own high standards, he took his own life,” Ferguson said.
Campbell died in 1938 at the age of 76.
“His death was on the upper right front page of the Oakland Tribune. It was a big three- or four-column headline,” he said. “And in that story he was described as a shy and gentle man who was very professional. And that may be, but in the interest of full disclosure there’s evidence that he could be very demanding and very tough and very focused.”
Ferguson’s research led him to California where he met with representatives from the Lick Observatory, University of California-Santa Cruz Special Collections and Archives, and Campbell family members, including granddaughters Martha Campbell and Margaret Campbell Rhoads.
He also attended the dedication of the new $80 million Campbell Hall at the University of California, Berkeley in February.
“Outside this Campbell building there’s a row of reserved parking spaces, and they have signs up, reserved for Nobel laureates,” Ferguson said. “They have eight spaces and room for three more, but it’s right outside the Campbell building. That’s not a coincidence. This guy was known for excellence in the science.”
Ferguson gave the talk for Symposium and then the museum and a Senior Forum at the University of Findlay.
He also worked with director Sarah Sisser, accessionist Mark Donaldson and curator Joy Bennett on the Hancock Historical Museum’s exhibit.
Items on loan from the Lick Observatory include a Brashear lens from an Einstein camera, a chronometer, holograph observing books and several other instruments used by Campbell in his research. The University of California-Santa Cruz Special Collections and Archives has loaned his medal from the Royal Astronomical Society Institute along with the Bruce Medal for lifetime contributions to astronomy, the Draper Medal awarded by the United States National Academy of Sciences and the LaLande Medal for scientific advances in astronomy.
Ferguson said he’s excited to bring Campbell’s story back home.
“It’s an upbeat story and it’s about one of our very own,” he said.
“I can only imagine what he would be like now if he was alive today with all the capabilities now,” he said. “And maybe somebody out there right now is following in his footsteps.”
In connection with the exhibit, a Funday Sunday is planned at the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 1.
The final day of the exhibit is Nov. 15. Financial support was provided from the Charles J. Younger and Mariann Dana Younger Funds of the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation.
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