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Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.
College’s chemistry department is the stuff of legend, thanks largely to three
legendary chemistry professors who helped elevate its reputation to national
Haldeman, who taught from 1918 until 1952, established a revolving loan program
that allowed 88 of his 343 chemistry graduates to successfully obtain their
Ph.D. His successor, Garrett Thiessen, who taught from 1930 until 1967, was
named by the Manufacturing Chemists Association one of the nation’s six
outstanding teachers of undergraduate chemistry. Richard “Doc” Kieft, who
taught from 1976 until 2006, left his estate of $2.3 million to the chemistry
department, establishing a prestigious eight-week summer research program.
Yet despite the
service of these memorable faculty, one equally accomplished Monmouth chemistry
professor is today largely forgotten. John Nesbit Swan, who was named Pressly
Professor of Chemistry and Physics in 1893, left an indelible mark not only on
the sciences at Monmouth College, but also the sciences in America.
Born in New
Jefferson, Ohio, in 1862, Swan received his bachelor’s and master’s degree from
Westminster College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. Before coming
to Monmouth, he taught at Burlington, Iowa; Tarkio College and Westminster
inquisitive mind caused him to always be on the forefront of technology.
Fascinated by wet-plate photography, he became an accomplished and prolific
amateur photographer, producing dozens of high-quality views of Monmouth and
Monmouth College in the 1890s, which became the basis of a lecture program that
he presented as far away as New York.
Less than two
years after the discovery of the X-ray by Wilhem Röntgen in 1895, Swan managed
to acquire the apparatus necessary to duplicate Röntgen’s experiments for $300.
A photo in the college’s collection, taken with Swan’s own camera, shows him
making an X-ray image of the arm of his 8-year-old son, Stewart Duffield Swan.
The child’s arm is resting on a photographic plate. A Crooke’s tube is
suspended above the arm on a ring stand. It receives high voltage form the
induction coil on the table, powered by a low-voltage DC battery on the floor.
The photo was
taken in the chemistry lab of Monmouth College’s Old Main, which burned in
1907. When it became apparent that a new science building would be critical to
Monmouth’s survival, Swan rose to the task. He visited numerous modern
laboratories on the east coast during the spring of 1908 and took notes to
guide the New York architects who designed McMichael Science Hall. The result
was a building so well arranged that it served the college for 60 years with
very few changes.
resignation of interim Monmouth president J.H. McMillan in 1902, Swan and
social science professor Russell Graham served as co-interim presidents for the
following year. He was also very active in the Monmouth community, serving as
chairman of the Warren County School Directors’ Association and was an advocate
for establishing township high schools.
reputation soon began to draw interest of other institutions. In 1899, he had
been prominently mentioned as a candidate for the president of the University
of Iowa. In 1912, the State University of Mississippi was seeking a one-year
replacement for the head of its chemistry department and contacted Swan, who
received permission from the Monmouth board of trustees for a leave of absence.
Three years later, that sabbatical led to Swan resigning his Monmouth position
to become permanent chair of Ole Miss’s chemistry department, a post he would
hold until a heart attack claimed his life at age 74 in 1937.
legacy lived on. The author of a book for adolescents in which he discussed the
proper way to live mentally, socially and spiritually, Swan had raised three
boys who diligently followed in his footsteps.
All three of
Swan’s sons became noted chemists and often attended the annual meeting of the
American Chemical Society as a family.
Duffield Swan, the son whose arm was X-rayed in 1897, attended Monmouth
College, Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, and received his
doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1922. A veteran of World War I, he
served in France with the Army’s Gas Regiment. He served as director of
research and development for the Dental Supply Co. of York, Pennsylvania, for
more than 30 years and was a 50-year member of the American Chemical Society.
He died in Connecticut in 1976.
William Orr Swan
served as head of the chemistry departments of Virginia Military Institute,
Louisiana College and the University of Chattanooga. He died in Chattanooga in
Thomas H. Swan
was a research chemist for the Mellon Institute of Pittsburgh and was on loan
to the Cluett Peabody Company, of Troy, New York, maker of Arrow shirts,
between 1934 and 1941, when he and another scientist invented the permanently
shaped shirt collar. He later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and
died in Rochester in 1971.
For Maple City Memories, I’m