I’ve been out of commission for a few days with some kind of bug. I’m still feeling a bit wobbly, but I didn’t want to let today pass without a mention of H.A. Wilson, Rice’s first professor of physics. They’re dedicating the new home of the physics department, Brockman Hall, today. I think it’s safe to say that if Wilson were here to see it, he’d be absolutely giddy with excitement.
President Lovett recruited Wilson from a career in teaching and research at Cambridge and London Universities and McGill in Canada. I believe he was actually the first member of the Rice faculty to show up in Houston. When he arrived, only two buildings were finished. But it was the promise of the third that held his interest–it was going to be a physics laboratory. When Lovett started thinking about the research facilities that the new institution would need, he gathered a committee of some of the best American experimentalists to advise him, but it was Wilson who had by far the strongest hand in the design of his own lab.
And from the opening of the building in 1914, Wilson produced a steady stream of both first rate scholarship and excellent graduate students, including Maurice Ewing and Tom Bonner. He was also one of the organizers and the first president of the Houston Philosophical Society as well as a popular public lecturer. The success of the early physics department under his leadership established Rice’s international reputation as an important seat of scientific learning and is the best early example of how Lovett’s vision for the Institute as a community of scholars could actually work.
Interestingly, Wilson actually left Rice for a year at one point. In 1924, he was unable to resist the opportunity to hold the Kelvin Chair at the University of Glasgow. But he was unhappy there, and wanted to return to the facility he had built. He would prefer to be back at Rice, he wrote Lovett, “with its better laboratory. I do not like to think of the Rice Physics Building without a first class physicist to keep up the traditions we established there.”