Just One More Thing, 1926 With Update

Update: The first time I got interested in the 1926 Math Department photo (five years ago!) I found myself perplexed about the location of the group and had to go out to look for it. It was changed from the time of the photo and now it’s changed again from what it looked like five years ago.  I’ll put the new pictures down at the end.

Let’s look at this photo one more time:

After I got over the shock of Miss Hickey, the second thing I noticed was — where are they? I just couldn’t quite place it.

Luckily there were only a small number of buildings in 1926. At first I thought it might be a part of Chemistry that was remodeled but the bricks weren’t right. So I just walked outside and started looking. Ten minutes later I had it:

That’s a wheelchair lift, by the way:

The reason I couldn’t identify it right away is that there seem to be precisely zero pictures of this spot in the Woodson. Aside from the apparently compelling need people have to photograph the front (and only the front) of buildings, this is in a weird little notch that lacks some of the charisma of the rest of the Physics Building.

This is the closest I could get. If you could see through H.A. Wilson’s little building it would be right there:

And here you can see it on the Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson drawing, just to the right of the “Print within red line” notation:

Update: The wheelchair lift is gone.

And this ramp has replaced it, apparently with Divine approval:




Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

I Made A Mistake In One of Those Math Department Posts

It was this post, about Hubert Bray ’18, the first man to get a doctorate at Rice. This mistake led me down quite an interesting path. Even as I wrote it I was bothered in the back of my mind by the fact that his dissertation didn’t have his advisor listed on the front page. When I wrote it I just assumed that it had to be Griffith Evans, who produced a lot of Ph.D.s, but still bothered a week later I gave in and ran it down. That’s how I discovered my mistake. Bray’s advisor turns out to be a gentleman named Francis D. Murnaghan, who was recruited by Dr. Lovett after receiving his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. He stayed only a couple of years, returning to Hopkins where he spent the rest of his long career. I know very little about him. His only mention in the Thresher is a notice of his arrival in the fall of 1916. There are few photographs of faculty in the early Campaniles and his picture is not among them.

What I do have, though, is a short memoir written by Bray (that handwriting!) about Griffith Evans and the beginnings of Rice’s math department which mentions Murnaghan. Read to the end and you’ll be rewarded with some comedy about collegiate athletics:

I also discovered that the Woodson does indeed  have a photo of him, but in a place I didn’t expect. Here is the cast of a play performed in 1918 by Rice faculty (and spouses?), a comedy called Green Stockings. I believe that’s Mr. Murnaghan standing fourth from  the right:

I can’t stop myself from pointing out James Chillman, who taught fine arts in the architecture department, kneeling at left and John Clark Tidden kneeling at the right. Besides Murnaghan in the back are Physics professor Claude Heaps and biologist Herman Muller.

Bonus: Part of what makes me smile about the commentary about athletics in Bray’s little piece about Evans is that Bray himself was a huge supporter of Rice athletics, serving for decades on the Committee on Outdoor Sports.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

“questioning the ethics of Rice Institute,” 1931

I’m stepping away from the Math Department for a moment (but only for a moment–I’ll be back there next week) because I came across something unusual in the Business Manager’s Papers, not typically the most entertaining collection. You just generally don’t see a lot of emotion in there but these two letters are pretty hot, some might even say a tad overwrought. There’s at least one clear lesson, though: don’t piss off the baking industry.

The first one, addressed to the trustees, came from the Better Business Bureau:

And next,  from Weingarten’s to Dr. Lovett:

There was nothing to do after reading these but to go look for the ad itself, a surprisingly easy task if you have access to the Houston newspaper databases:

A.J. “Pappy” Hartsook was really a chemical engineer, working in what Rice then called Industrial Chemistry. He came to Rice from MIT in 1921, became head of the Chemical Engineering department in 1927 and held that job until 1956 so apparently he got a stern talking to and was sent back to work.

Here he is at the time of his retirement in 1970:

And here’s his lab, where he performed his illicit bread tests:

Bonus: Pretty.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

An Unexpected One From the Math Department, 1926

This is the kind of thing that happens when you spend thirty years in the same archive.

One day last week I was rummaging around in a box of images used by the Rice News back in 1999. I smiled when I came upon this one of James Baker, Baker Institute Director Ed Djeregian, and in the middle David Gergen, who served in several presidential administrations and later became a political commentator:

They look to be somewhere inside the Baker Institute building but I have no idea what was happening here and honestly that’s not even what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is this:

The last guy on the right up on the steps is Gergen’s father, John J. Gergen, Ph.D. ’28. Gergen was a Teaching Fellow when this image was made, working on his doctorate with Griffith Evans, who stands just over Miss Hickey’s left shoulder. If you’re interested, his dissertation is here and here. (Why two? I don’t know but his genealogy shows that he worked with both Evans and Mandelbrojt.) He went on to have a distinguished career, spending almost thirty years as chairman of the Math Department at Duke.

Bonus: Any Occasion.

What could this mean?

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The First Man to Get a Ph.D. From Rice, 1918

It  might seem improbable but the first man to receive a Rice doctorate appears in the very same 1926 photograph as the first woman to earn one. Hubert Bray ’18 is right over Miss Hickey’s shoulder towards our left:

It’s not as unlikely as it seems, though, as Edgar Odell Lovett, a mathematician himself, had gathered an unusually strong group to staff that department. (More about this later.)

Bray, an Englishman, was finishing a masters degree at Harvard in 1916 when he was visited by Lovett, who sought to recruit him as a teaching fellow and doctoral student. (I sometimes stop in wonder at what a salesman EOL must have been.) He came, of course, and did his degree with Griffith Evans (who stands over Miss Hickey’s other shoulder in the photo). His dissertation is here if you’re into that sort of thing.

Dr. Hubert Bray, Rice Institute

Aside from his scholarly work Bray soon became fully engaged in the life of the university. He married a Rice student, Gertrude Boxley ’21, and stayed on the faculty, becoming head of the department in 1935. He remained in this position until he retired at the age of 70 in 1959, but continued to teach as a Trustee Distinguished Professor until 1970. He died in Houston in 1978.

During the Institute’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1962 the Thresher ran a series of articles about the longest serving faculty members still on campus. The piece about Bray is exceptionally interesting for the light it shone on the early development of the school:

Bonus: The Brays at one of the big Cohen House New Year’s Eve bashes, 1967.

Warning: I’ve now become interested in how many blog posts I can generate from that 1926 Math Department picture. Three to four more, is my best guess, without stretching too much. Hold on to your hats.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The First Woman to Earn a Rice Doctorate, 1929

Update: I got several emails and comments about yesterday’s post about Shmuel Agmon, specifically about the presence of two women in the department in 1926. This is a post from several years ago about the younger of the two, May Hickey. The older woman, of course, was the indomitable Miss Alice Dean.


I am asked a lot of questions (more than you can imagine, really) but this is the answer to a question that no one has ever asked. And in all honesty, I hadn’t thought to ask it myself. This was an accident. It began with a photograph, one that I’ve looked at a minimum of five dozen times, of the Math Department in 1927. Always, I was focused on the man in the dark suit, standing right in the middle of the picture. His name was Szolem Mandelbrojt and he was an important part of the history of Jews at Rice, which is one of my main preoccupations:

Last Thursday night, though, I was idly flipping through images on my laptop with no ideas already taking up space in my head. When I lit on it this time I was dumbstruck: where did that girl come from?

I had to dig hard but I found her. Her name is May Hickey. She was born in Lumberton, Mississippi to a family of small farmers but her father moved the family to Texas, first to the Dallas area and then to Houston, at least in part to take advantage of the free college education provided by the Rice Institute. All seven Hickey siblings attended Rice while their father, who hadn’t gone to high school, worked as a laborer for the railroad and an oil refinery. May was valedictorian of her class at Houston Heights High School and her principal made a prediction on the back of her Rice application:

He was right. When I found her records I was astonished. She was a brilliant student, her transcript covered in 1s. In the days before grade inflation, at a school where they weren’t particularly concerned about anything but performance, I’d never seen anything like it before. As an undergraduate she was an assistant in the Math department, an assistant in the English Department, and an assistant in the German Department. Two years in a row she earned the Graham Baker Award for the best student at Rice. After graduation she was appointed to a fellowship in the Math Department, teaching undergraduates while earning a masters in Math and Physics in 1927, and then her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1929:

After her year of research in Germany Dr. Hickey returned to Mississippi where she was professor of mathematics at Delta State until 1938. That year she married Alfred Maria, who had been a Fellow in the Rice math department and her teacher when she was an undergraduate. In 1939 both Marias became faculty members at Brooklyn College. I’m very grateful to Colleen Bradley-Sanders at the Brooklyn College Archives for finding this photo of May Hickey Maria during her years there:

(George L. Bing Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections and Archives).

Alfred Maria died in 1964 and May continued teaching at Brooklyn College until her retirement in 1975. She passed away in Austin in 2001 at the age of 96.

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Happy 100th Birthday to Shmuel Agmon!

I got an email yesterday afternoon from Rice Computer Science professor Moshe Vardi letting me know that his Great Grand Advisor Shmuel Agmon was celebrating his hundredth birthday. (Mathematicians carefully trace their academic genealogies. Here’s Agmon’s.)

Agmon was hired by Rice in the spring of 1949, not long after Israel became an independent nation. He arrived in Houston in 1950 as a lecturer in the math department, became an assistant professor in 1952, and then returned to Jerusalem to teach at Hebrew University. He came back to Rice as a visiting professor in 1964.

Agmon’s arrival at Rice elicited quite a bit of interest. The Thresher ran an unusually long article, seemingly prompted by his background, which was pretty unusual on campus at this time:

Even more interesting from my own perspective is how Agmon got here. If you looked at his academic genealogy you will surely have noted that his own Ph.D. advisor was Szolem Mandelbrojt, one of the most important figures in the history of mathematics at Rice. Mandelbrojt taught at Rice in 1926, then returned to campus for a good part of World War II. His time here was incredibly productive. He taught both graduate students and undergraduates, gave lecture series which were later published, and was the speaker at every Math Department colloquium for the next four years. After the war ended he spent every spring semester at Rice for twenty years. It was on Mandelbrojt’s advice that President Houston hired Agmon.

Here’s Mandelbrojt, front and center, with the Math Department in 1926:

Take one more genealogical step back and you will discover that Mandelbrojt’s own advisor was the eminent French-Jewish mathematician Jacques Hadamard. Dr. Lovett met with Hadamard on his trip around the world and Hadamard came to Rice to lecture in 1920 and 1925, beginning the long and fruitful association that continues to today.

Bonus: As far as I can tell, Professor Agmon’s wife Galia was the first Israeli student at Rice. She did graduate work  in the English department, I believe with Professor McKillop. This photo is from her application.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

No. Just No. 1918

This is almost the definition of an unexpected find–a petition signed by the better part of the female students, asking simply that they be allowed to play tennis on the campus women’s courts with friends who weren’t enrolled at the Institute:

It’s mildly interesting as evidence of how protected the young women were at this time, but it was Dr. Lovett’s response that produced a chuckle:

What a different world this was! No explanations, no attempt to placate, no administrative gobbledygook, just an immediately comprehensible “no”.

And that was that.

Bonus: Here’s the first signatory, Camille Waggaman, on those same courts.


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

“In Memory Of,” 2022

While I was home sick with covid a thought occurred to me and kept rolling around in my mind, causing me a bit of worry. If you’ve stuck around here for a while you may remember I spent too much time trying to understand the history of the Tau Beta Pi bent and of this little spot where Abercrombie and Mech Lab met:

The thing that was bothering me was the two benches that sat there. Both have memorial plaques attached, which I wrote about here and here. Remembering and honoring our dead is the sort of thing I take very seriously and with the demolition of Abercrombie and the ongoing construction of its replacement I worried about what had become of them.

So when I was on campus this week I hurried over to have a look. The general area is, as one would expect, rather a mess, with the landscaping torn up. But the benches are still sitting there behind some construction fencing:

I trust someone is paying attention to this.

Now I’m wondering where the bent is.

Bonus: Abercrombie’s replacement. If it has a name I haven’t heard it.

Extra Bonus: Deep in the Heart!

Oh heck, as long as I’m over by Mech Lab here’s one more. The last functioning original water fountain is still functioning. Careful, though–you can see where the water shoots when you turn it on!

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

A&M Train List, 1946

I was looking for something specific in the Woodson yesterday and, as usual, I didn’t locate even a wisp of what I needed. But, again as usual, I found some other interesting and surprising things. I was moderately interested by this sheet I came across in the Dean of Students file. I knew that there had been a pretty long tradition of Rice students going in groups by train to both UT and A&M games but I’d never thought about the logistics of these trips until I saw this:

When I turned the page, though, I found the thing I really love: people! And as I read the names on the list I was surprised and somehow oddly moved to recognize so many of them. A few that immediately jumped out at me were Jerry Dobleman, Hallie Beth Poindexter, Joe Reilly, Ed Jennings, Leonard Attwell, and Marjorie Bray but there are others that I recognize but don’t know well (at least not yet).

David and John Eisenlohr, below, were I believe the sons of Otto Eisenlohr ’21, whose letters from Rice to his girlfriend, later wife, in Dallas are in the Woodson.


We won that game, by the way, in the middle of a fantastic 9-2 season that ended with a victory over SEC co-champion Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Rice finished that year ranked number ten, although we’d been as high as five earlier in the year.

Bonus: Yet another grandchild arrived this weekend, making five total so far. This is Grace and her mother, who looks too good to have just produced a child. The picture was taken by the anesthesiologist, the tips of whose shoes can be seen at the bottom of the image.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments