The Study of Physics at Davidson College

The study of science has been a part of the Davidson College curriculum since the founding days of the college. The original curriculum adopted by the Davidson College trustees on July 30, 1838 included courses in chemistry, natural philosophy, mineralogy and geology. In 1857, Davidson voted to award a Bachelor of Science degree to any student who successfully passed a science department examination. Over the years, the science departments have grown in popularity with the students and a large percentage of the student body now receive B.S. degrees. This exhibit describes the history of scientific study at Davidson College with an emphasis on chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and the North Carolina Medical College.

In the original curriculum of the college, astronomy was included as a required course for the junior year. The college elected its first physics professor, Clement Daniel Fishburne, on August 23, 1854 and appointed him Chair of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy. By 1900, the number of course offerings in physics had expanded to four, and all freshmen were required to take one full year of physics.

Laboratory work did not become the focus of the physics classes until the junior and senior years. The 1899-1900 college catalogue states that the junior class physics course is "confined to the department of Electricity [with a great supply of] Voltmeters, Ammeters, Wheatstone's Bridges, Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus, and the largest X-Ray outfit in the State . . . all these are used by the members of the class, and explained by numerous lectures." The senior physics class, meanwhile, focused on the "use of maps, charts, globes, apparatus for the projection of astronomical phenomena, sextant, and a Clark & Sons' Refracting Telescope."

Dr. Henry Louis Smith

One of the most exciting developments of the physics department during the late 1800's was the invention of the X-Ray photograph. Dr. Henry Louis Smith, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, had accepted a position as Professor of Physics for Davidson College in 1887. He eventually became President of the college in 1901. During his time at Davidson, Smith performed one of the first X-Ray experiments in the United States. In February 1896, he published his X-Ray photograph of a bullet in the hand of a cadaver in the Charlotte Observer.


Three of Smith's students, Osmond L. Barringer, Eben Hardie, and E. Pender Porter, also produced one of the first X-Ray photographs in the United States, although quite illegally. On the night of January 12, 1896, the three students bribed a janitor to let them into the medical laboratory on campus. After three hours of experimenting, they produced an X-Ray photograph of two .22 caliber rifle cartridges, two rings and a pin inside a pillbox, and of a human finger they had sliced from a cadaver with a pocketknife. "We kept our picture and escapade a secret and it was not until later that we realized we were making history for the college instead of just breaking the rules," Barringer wrote years later.

In 1919-1920, the physics department consisted of one full-time professor. By 1929-1930, the college had hired two additional professors, bringing the total number up to three. Today, the department consists of five full professors, one associate professor, one visiting assistant professor, and one professor emeritus.

W. Christian

Information for this exhibit was obtained from the Davidson College Archives and from Dr. Mary D. Beaty's book, The History of Davidson College (Briarpatch Press, 1988). For a bibliographical listing of other works consulted, please see the Bibliography of Works on the History of Davidson College. All photographs used in the exhibit are the property of the Davidson College Archives. The text for this exhibit was written by Molly P. Gillespie '96. For more information, please contact the following address:

Davidson College Archives
E. H. Little Library
Davidson College
P.O. Box 1837
Davidson, North Carolina 28036
phone: (704) 892-2632
FAX: (704) 892-2625

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