On June 1, 1824, Patient #144 was admitted to the Friends’ Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason. She was 53, married, and had been suffering for a number of years. Her admission documents—the physician’s certificate that guaranteed she was insane and her application for admission—survive along with thousands of other patients’ documents.
According to the physician’s report, she had been suffering for about two years, though she had also suffered a similar affliction many years earlier. She was under no regular medical care. Although she had not attempted to harm herself, her family was “uneasy on the subject in consequence of some expressions from her.” His report was dated April 5, 1824—almost two full months before she was admitted. The same physician noted on May 31 that his initial assessment was still accurate. We don’t know why her husband waited nearly two months before admitting her to the asylum. Once he made up his mind, however, he moved quickly. On June 1 he signed the application for admission, agreeing to pay $3.00/week for her board and to pay for any damage she caused to the “glass, bedding or furniture” and “in the event of her death whilst there [in the asylum] to pay the expense of her burial.” Six months later, following a request from her husband, she was discharged “much improved.” Her story and thousands others like it wait their historians in the Friends’ Asylum archive in Special Collections at Haverford College.
The Patient Register suggests a different story. It indicates that she was admitted on May 9, 1824 and was discharged nearly a year later completely “restored.” What we can’t tell from these documents is why the discrepancy between them. ↩
Buried in Haverford College’s Quaker and Special Collections is a substantial collection of autographed letters and other miscellany. Many letters were written by astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, and others we might call (problematically or not) scientists. Leafing through the collection recently, I came across this letter from James Ferguson on behalf of Lord Charles Cavendish. Writing on 5 July 1765, Ferguson seemed to be trying to get some equipment to carry out experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids (if the note at the bottom of the letter is accurate).
In the previous few years John Canton had published in the Philosophical Transactions his results on the compressibility of water and other fluids, his “Experiments to Prove That Water is Not Incompressible” 52 (1761–62): 640–643 and his “Experiments and Observations on the Compressibility of Water and Some Other Fluids” 54 (1764): 261–262. The first paper described a his experimental apparatus and reported his findings, that water was compressible. His results disproved commonly held beliefs about the compressibility of water. But his apparatus and method were complicated and his results were, therefore, not universally accepted. He followed up his initial report with further experiments on water and other fluids, e.g., spirit of wine, olive oil, mercury. He confirmed his initial results and, further, found that water “has the remarkable property of being more compressible in winter than in summer,” by which he means cold water is more compressible. At 64° water was compressible only 44 parts per million; at 34° it was compressible 49 parts per million. The other fluids he tested were all less compressible in winter than in summer, i.e., when cold than when hot. He was nominated for a second Copley Medal for these experiments. But before it was awarded, a committee of the Royal Society investigated his results. Ferguson’s letter might give us a glimpse into Lord Cavendish’s efforts to confirm or extend Canton’s results.
Ferguson was a largely self-taught instrument maker with a strong interest in astronomy and mathematics. In the 1740s and 1750s he became something of a popularizer of astronomy—he gave lectures and published books on astronomy for people who did not have training in mathematics. He also designed and made instruments. He was unsuccessful in his effort to become clerk of the Royal Society when he applied in 1763, but was soon elected fellow. In 1765 Cavendish asked Ferguson to help set up an experiment on the compressibility of fluids in the Royal Society House. Ferguson dutifully carried out the task:
I have just been with Lord Charles Cavendish, who acquainted me of the thing contained in your Letter, and desired me to call upon you, to give you the following informations
1. To send to Mr Nairne (opposite the Royal Exchange) to desire him to send every thing that belongs to the Condenser, if finished, to the R. Society house.
2. That you sit up Shelves to hold glasses, if not already done.
3. That you provide for [sic] or five pound weight of small shot.
4. And two pound weight of Quicksilver.
5. A funnel (to be made at a Tin-Shop, with a pipe ten Inches long.
6. Conveniencies (Tea or Coffee pots) for boiling & pouring in hot water.
7. To see whether weights for weighing things in Scales are sent in.
8. A sponge.
9. Qu. whether you could assist to morrow, and how far.
I shall call upon you by and by; but must first go to a Turner’s Shop to get some things done for Lord Charles about the Experiment.
Excuse this bad paper, for I have none else in the house at present, and was loth to detain your Servant till I should send for some, who am with respect,
Sir, your most humble Servant,
Friday 1 o’Clock
NB 5 July 1765 [in a different hand] For Experiments on the Compressibility of Water & other Liquids [in a different hand]
It is tempting to see the X’s next to the items in the to-do list as evidence that Ferguson’s correspondent (who is unnamed in this letter) had completed that task. I wonder what prevented him from attending to the first and the last item? And finally, I find Ferguson’s apology for the poor quality paper fascinating for what it suggests about, inter alia, the letters Ferguson normally wrote (he implied that he typically wrote on higher quality paper), the mechanics of getting better paper (he just sent out for some), and the nature of correspondence at the time (a servant was waiting while Ferguson wrote the letter).
Canton had received a Copley Medal in 1751 for his method of making artificial magnets. ↩
This delay is reported in the The Dictionary of National Biography entry on Canton. The list of Copley recipients indicates that Canton received the second medal for his work in 1764, which if the DNB is correct, indicates the year he published his work not the year he received the medal. See the list of Copley Medal winners ↩
Sometime in late 1676 Edmund Halley left Oxford and set sail for St. Helena, an island in the south Pacific. There he hoped to accomplish two projects. First, he wanted to compile a catalog the stars in the southern sky, which would complement John Flamsteed’s catalog of norther stars. Second, Halley wanted to observe the transit of Mercury, which would occur the following year, so that he could calculate the distance between the earth and the sun. Thanks to the support of King Charles II, who wrote a letter to the East India Company asking them to take Halley to St. Helena, Halley sailed south and arrived on St. Helena around March, 1677. He set up his instruments and spent the rest of the year observing the heavens, cataloging 341 stars in the process. In 1678 shortly after he returned to England, he published his star catalog, Catalogus stellar australium.
A letter Halley wrote in late November 1677 while still on St. Helena is fascinating for what it suggests about his time on the island and the personal conflicts that threatened his reputation. He found life on the island pleasant and boasted that the “air was so agreeable to English bodies” that scarcely anybody could get sick. Far from being uninhabitable, as the ancients had supposed islands in the torrid zone would be, he found the climate more pleasing than England’s. He did, however, complain about the frequent cloud cover that prevented him from carrying out his observations. Although he doesn’t mention it in this letter, just a couple weeks earlier he was lucky enough to have clear skies when he observed the transit of Mercury. Halley also complained about the Deputy Governor, a Mr. Beall. The two did not seem to get along. According to Halley, Mr. Beall was “the most Malicious person” he had met and had “abused [him] in the basest manner imaginable.” Mr. Beall disparaged Halley to commanders and other people on the island. Here is a full transcription.
St Helena November 21, 1677
The honour you have done me, in taking notice of that acquaintance, which the community of our studies contracted, when I might well have been forgotten, through ye long absense I suffered from you, together with that extraordinary favour I [received] from you, by the [letter] you were pleased to send me in the Downs, makes me believe that the newes of my welfare will not be unacceptable to you; these therefore may informe you that ever since my departure, I have enjoyed my health, as well or rather better than in England, both on the sea, and in the Island, the air whereof is so agreeable to English bodies, that the greatest intemperance will scarce make a man sick, so that of near upon three hundred people that are on the Island, there hath been but one died of any distemper in the eight month time that I have been here; The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not inhabitabilis estu but even under the line the heat doth not exceed temperature; and had I the company and accommodations here that England affords, I should prefer a habitation here where neither heat nor cold infest us, I can find no fault with the Island, but only that it is not favourable to my purpose for we are almost continually covered with clouds, which hinder us from the sight of the starrs, sometimes for six weeks togather, so that I am almost persuaded, I must returne without the full accomplishment of my intents, [which] will be the greatest trouble to me, that can possibly happen, by reason I shall give the world cause to judg hardly, and censure me for failing in a thing I had undertaken, but to all those that know me, I have the confidence to think, that it will not be attributed either to want of skill or endeavour that I am so unfortunate; In the mean time I doubt not but your Mathematicall Studies make a better progress, under the Conduct of Mr Colson, who I believe will make good the Character I gave you of him; and I hope I shall find you well advanced in Algebra by my return which will be as I suppose in Aprill, for I have not the least encouragement to stay here, being quite in despair of weather for my purpose, and being troubled by one Beall ye Deputy Governour who is the most Malicious person I ever conversed with, and who has abused me in the basest manner Imaginable, and disparages me to all the commanders that come here, making them believe that I conceale my inabilitie, to perform my business, under pretence that the clouds hinder me, which aspersion may gain credit with those who know me not, and do me some injurie among his friends: I pray remember my respects to your friends whom you made me known to viz: Mr Boles and Mr Donne whom you may certifie of my welfare: So wishing you all health and happiness I remain
Sr Your ever assured friend & [servant]
At one point Halley seems to paraphrase book one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on the origin of the earth. There Ovid says the torrid zone is not inhabitable because of the excessive heat, “Quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu.” Halley rephrases it, saying “The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not _inhabitabilis estu_….” It is unclear whether or not Halley knew this quotation directly from Ovid or if he knew of it through some other text, e.g., Sacrobosco’s De sphaera. By the 13th century Sacrobosco’s text included these lines from Ovid. The quotation became a standard feature of Sacrobosco’s text in the print tradition. See, for example, the late 15th-century edition printed in Venice or the late 16th-century edition also printed in Venice.
Whatever Halley’s source, it seems odd that in the late 17th century anybody still bothered to mention the ancient worry that the torrid zone was uninhabitable.
A paradox lurks at the center of any archive. One the one hand, archives strive to keep the past alive, or at least on life support long enough for somebody to revive a sliver of that past, which sliver has lain comatose on a shelf locked away in a vault. Yet, on the other hand, the past is dead. Any inquiry into history is “first and foremost an encounter with death.” Sometimes that encounter with death is inescapable.
Shelved in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections is an archive from the Friends’ Asylum. Volumes of records, daily accounts, physicians’ reports, admissions documents all created for the asylum and its administrators, not for modern historians. The disjunct between the asylum’s needs and intentions and ours is most pronounced, or at least most poignant, in cases of a patient’s death.
You would be forgiven for not noticing anything special about the patient at the bottom of the first page of the Asylum Register of Admissions and Discharges. The entry doesn’t attract your attention. The patient was just one of thousands admitted to the Friends’ Asylum in the nineteenth century, cataloged on the Asylum Register’s hundreds of columned pages that transform patients into manageable, comparable, analyzable data.
These tables offer a glimpse into the ways Friends’ Asylum was trying to understand and treat insanity. After the basic identifying information, name, date, patient number, we see a handful of more interesting categories—some seem familiar, others seem strange, and some categories are striking by their absence:
Age on Admission
Age at First Attack
No. of Admission
Place of Residence
Place of Birth
Date of Discharge
The early pages of the Asylum Register lack many details that are noted for later patients. In these thousands of records you lose sight of the individual patient, each on a single row, and see instead columns of numbers. The aggregate becomes the meaningful scale. Even the “Result” column with its list of “Restored,” “M.I.” [Much Improved], “Imp” [Improved], “Status” [Status quo], and “D” [Died] is less the fate of any individual and more institutional bookkeeping that has reduced messy experience to digestible categories, the bookkeeping required to run any institution and to assess its effectiveness.
Any given patient disappears into this mass of information. Only with some effort do you notice things about the patient at the bottom of page one. You infer from her name, Jane, that she was a woman. She was admitted on September 26, 1818. Other columns reveal a bit more about her: she was the 33rd patient admitted to the asylum, was 26 years old, single, and from New Jersey. Like five other patients listed on this page, she died before she recovered. If you look a little more closely, two things seem to noteworthy: the duration of her attack had been only 6 days. If you do the math, you realize that she was the first patient to die in the asylum, just 10 days after being admitted.
The Superintendent’s Version
To learn more about Jane you have to turn to the Superintendent’s Daybook. Whereas the Asylum Register transforms patients into analyzable information, the daybook embeds those same patients into the quotidian management of the asylum. The superintendent was charged with recording significant events in the daily running of the institution so that his successors would have a record of how he had managed the asylum. But what counted as significant was open to his interpretation and relative to his immediate concerns, and without any knowledge of what would be considered significant by future readers of the daybook. You read about plowing the fields or hauling in crops or trips to the city alongside comments about patient behavior and his conversations with physicians or visitors. In 1818 when Jane was admitted, the superintendent was Isaac Bonsall.
September 26, 1818, was much like any other day at the asylum. Bonsall noted that one employee had left to see his father-in-law in New Jersey. Another employee plowed his own fields. Pumpkins were sorted “and other things attended to.” Then,
in the afternoon Jane of Woodbury Monthly Meeting Gloucester County New Jersey aged 26 years Insane 6 Days was brought here and appeared in a violent state of Insanity—they produced no Documents—a physician was sent for who after examining signed the necessary certificate—as it was evening and dark it was concluded we must lodge & entertain the friends who brought her five Persons and 4 Horses—I obtained a Check for 13 Weeks board and a Bond signed by Edward and Edmond for future pay &c.—the Order for admission is to be obtained and furnished.
There was little in Jane’s case to worry Bonsall, who dutifully recorded her admission, had the proper forms completed, and collected money for her stay. Over the next few days Bonsall noted Jane’s condition along with other happenings at the asylum. At first Bonsall saw some improvement. On the 27th, he noted: “found considerable difficulty in getting the new patient to each in the morning but at dinner She did much better.” Jane had been so disruptive (violent ?) that Bonsall felt she should be restrained. The following day he noted:
our new Patient very similar to Wm [another patient] for getting out of her Straps & breaking them eat [sic] her Meals tolerably well but had to be kept confined—Prince S. brought Doctor Williamson a respectable coloured [sic] Man from the Island of St. Domingo to see the Asylum
Bonsall folded Jane’s behavior into the daily management of the institution. It was no more or less remarkable than the foreign visitor who came to see the asylum. Over the next couple days Bonsall recorded Jane’s decline within the framework of overseeing the asylum, the comings and goings of managers, physicians, employees, his trip to the city, the sowing of wheat and rye, and the hauling of manure.
Reading Bonsall’s daybook you begin to see Jane as one part of a larger asylum economy. As superintendent Bonsall had manage the running of the institution, entertain visitors, attend to financial issues, oversee labor, and monitor all the patients. His attention and time were finite. He had to allocate both as he judged necessary and within his domains of expertise. He was a manager, not physician.
On October 1st Bonsall was worried because an employee had to go into the city just when Bonsall needed him to help “sow several acres of our grain.” While most of the patients were well behaved, Jane was not doing well, so her “head was Shaved and a Blister applied.” The next day Bonsall was occupied with sowing, clearing fields, collecting manure, and hauling crops. He also had to spend time with the visiting managers. Jane did not merit a mention.
By October 4th, however, Bonsall was becoming increasingly concerned about Jane. Although he reported “her mind has become clear” and was “mostly rational,” he worried because she suffered “great bodily debility.” When the resident physician suggested that Bonsall send for a second, he did so at once. Jane was “quite ill—much attention was given to her.”
Whatever else happened at the asylum on October 5th and 6th, Jane was the main focus of Bonsall’s attention and all he recorded in his daybook.
10th Mo: 5 second —
My Wife remained with Jane until near 2 O Clock A.M. when Ruth took her place and continued with Jane until day light after which different members of the family administered to her wants the Doctor being particularly attentive—in the course of the day She [Jane] told my Wife & Ruth She had two Mothers attending upon her and She told Ruth that She did more for her than many sisters would do for a sister—when I came towards her Bedside She said “this is a good friend I always loved good friends” She took hold of my hand and held it a considerable time toward evening my Wife enquired of her if She did not feel her mind more comfortable than She had done her reply was “Yes much more so” notwithstanding every means in our power to help her was rendered She continued to sink—my Wife and Ruth concluded to spend the ensuing Night as they had the preceding one in carefully watching her and supplying her wants—
The next morning Jane’s physical condition had worsened, though Bonsall remarked that her mental state seemed to remain improved, she “appeared to possess a quiet mind.” Then, “about half past 11 O Clock A.M. She very quietly departed this life.” Bonsall immediately sent a letter to her friends so that they could come to see her before the funeral the next day. Her brother and aunt came in time to pay their respects before the funeral, which took place in the afternoon of the 7th. “Jane’s brother and aunt appeared quite satisfied with our Conduct &c. relative to the deceased both before and after death.” With that final comment, Bonsall turned his attention back to the other aspects of running the asylum.
You finish reading Bonsall‘s daybook and now know more about Jane, at least more about her arrival, decline, and finally death from Bonsall’s perspective. You see him struggling to manage a growing institution filled with patients each of whom required particular attention. He had to oversee employees and ensure that the institution’s farm ran smoothly. He also had to manage the visiting managers. Bonsall’s understanding of Jane’s case was informed by the demands of his position. Reading his daybooks you sense his profound sadness at having lost a patient, but you also sense his confidence at having done what he could as well as his feeling of accomplishment at having restored her sanity before she died.
The Physician’s Version
Finally, you turn your attention to the physician’s medical register, looking for more information about Jane. Just as the superintendent was charged with keeping a daybook, during the early years the attending physician was charged with keeping a medical register in which he recorded his observations and treatments for each patient. During Jane’s time at the asylum, Dr. Lukens was the attending physician. You leaf through the volume looking for Jane’s entry and find it on pages 204 and 205. Jane’s final 10 days rendered as a series of medical observations, physical symptoms, and prescriptions.
9 Mo 26 — …[Jane] Has been extremely violent was very much bruised &c. by the violence used to restrain her—she had made attempts to injure herself—she is now very violent and has to be confined to the bed—Pulse frequent and debilitated.
Lukens recast Jane once again. This time she became the object of his medical expertise and, therefore, a concatenation of symptoms and treatments. The next day she remained extremely violent. So Lukens prescribed medicines to calm her, but noted that they did not produce the desired result. He looked for related symptoms and found them:
28 — Bowels costive Rx Calomel gr. x Jalap gr. xij it did not operate in the evening—but she could not be prevailed to take any thing now—apetite [sic] very poor
29 — Rx Calomel gr. x Jalap 2j —it operated well—she is some better.
30 — Bowels lax—apetite [sic] very poor—a slight dawning of reason appears
When his prescriptions failed to work, he augmented them with other treatments, particularly ones intended to draw out harmful fluids:
10 Mo 1 — She sat up some has three cups on her temples—but was faint and weak—and the operation was ceased. Her head shaved and a blistering plaster applied over it—
Lukens carefully recorded Jane’s reactions to his treatment as well as her general condition, and adjusted his treatment as her condition changed. When she continued to have no appetite, he gave up the Calomel and prescribed camphor and a mixture of “wine-whey as much as she will take.” He tracked her pulse, which remained weak, and monitored her bowel movements, which remained infrequent. He noted that she was throwing up with some regularity and prescribed “Carbon: amonia” along with the wine-whey and a beef tea. He also applied a blister to each ankle. In the evening he noted that her pulse was stronger and that she appeared better.
The next morning he worried that the blisters had “produced a good deal of inflammation but not much discharge.” He changed her prescription again, adding “vol-alkali” along with the wine-whey mixture. He decided to apply another blister this time to her breast. Nothing seemed to help much.
6 — Much restlessness through the night, though she seemed to sleep some…towards morning she swallowed with very great difficulty, after seven oclock she could not swallow anything—and died about eleven.
For the physician, Jane was a series of medical puzzles to be solved. His clues were her symptoms. His guesses were his prescriptions and treatments. The physician’s perspective is the hardest to understand. You try to see Jane as Dr. Lukens did, but your modern ideas about insanity and health stand in the way. His treatments seem barbaric, horrific, even harmful. You have to resist the urge to blame him, the urge to shout: “You killed her.”
But your task isn’t to judge Dr. Lukens. Instead, when you entered the archive, you agreed to try to understand the past, to understand Dr. Lukens’ efforts for what they were, the best he could offer. There is a more generous and humane approach. Try to appreciate his constant monitoring, evaluating, and revising his treatment in light of Jane’s developing symptoms and their refusal to respond to treatments.
Archives are nested experiences. Sort of Matryoshka dolls, each nested account giving you another version of the story, each resembling the others but not identical. Unlike the Matryoshka doll, however, the center of the archive rarely contains some solid core, a single account that can be judged right or wrong. Instead, you end up with multiple versions from which you piece together a history, which unlike the past is not dead but rather vibrant and meaningful. And even the shortest histories are often humbling. Lukens’ frenetic search for medical solutions to help Jane, Bonsall’s sorrow at her death, the asylum’s careful recording of her case all point to an institution struggling to understand mental and physical illnesses. Our shock and horror at Jane’s 10 days in the Friends’ Asylum, her last 10 days, should remind us that future historians and physicians are likely to consider our current efforts equally barbaric. But it’s the best we can do.
The French historian Arlette Farge used this expression to describe her experiences in the judicial archives in Paris. See A. Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8. ↩
Although I present this post as as if we are exploring in real time, like all histories, I have reconstructed this story, having pruned out my fumbling through the archives, having omitted the dead ends and repetitions, and having imposed a coherent story meaning on otherwise recalcitrant, meaningless detritus from the past. ↩
There are two copies of the Asylum Register, one seems to have been made from the other. Neither copy includes much information for the early patients. ↩
Except for this last category, “Died,” to understand these various categories requires looking beyond the Asylum Register. What behavior indicated “M.I.” or “Restored” is far from obvious. The diligent historian could probably recover those behaviors poses significant challenges, given ↩
I want to be clear: I am not accusing the Friends’ Asylum of anything. At one level, institutions have to look beyond the individual, particularly if they are interested in tracking and improving the effectiveness of their treatment. ↩
Whenever I’ve mentioned this case to physician acquaintances, they immediately offer a range of acute ailments to explain this short duration of insanity. Unfortunately, we will never know what ailment caused Jane’s insanity. And my point is not to say what really happened. ↩
This last information is not obvious, is not recorded in the tables, but requires you to compare Jane’s entry with others. ↩
The superintendent was, in this way, creating an archive, a sort of bureaucratic archive for his successors. ↩
The people bringing a patient were supposed to submit a form completed by a physician that attested to the patient’s condition, and to complete an admissions form, guaranteeing to pay for board and damages. Unfortunately, Jane’s forms are missing. ↩
The medical register is the physician’s archive, the medical analog to the superintendent’s daybook. ↩
In the late 1850s students at Haverford College had to pass exams in three departments: English, Classics, and Mathematics. They demonstrated their mastery in these divisions through a grueling set of exams at the end of the senior year. First they had to pass a battery of private exams that covered all the subjects and spanned two weeks. These private exams were followed by a set of public exams.
According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty had to determine the private exam schedule in advance and give the seniors one full week’s notice. In 1859 the seniors had to take the following test:
Private Exams at Haverford College in 1859
Antigone & Grk. Ex.
Lat. Prose (Cic. & Tacit.)
Horace & Lat. Ex.
Each exam was supposed to include a “series of written questions … [with] a number being annexed to each question, to represent the value assigned to a correct answer” and must include a “suitable number of questions” to test the students’ mastery. Each day students filed into the examination room where under the watchful eye of a faculty member they were prohibited from talking to each other while they took the exam. Exams lasted up to four hours.
Seemingly in an effort to reduce bias against students, the faculty had stipulated that each student should assume a motto and should sign his exams not with his name but with that motto. According to the regulations set down in 1855:
XII The papers containing the answers, must not be signed with the students [sic] name, but with a name or motto, assumed for the occasion; and a sealed envelope, inscribed with said assumed name, and containing the real one, must be handed in to the first meeting of the council, after the merit of the answers has been determined.
Predictably, some students were quite creative in the mottos they adopted, sometimes capturing, no doubt, their own anxiety about the exams:
Crocket, H. St. John, Mohawk, O!, Kit Carson, Incog., Imparatus, No Anxiety, Anxietas, √–1.
Equally predictably, others viewed it as a tedious task, choosing something trite—Greek letters were common, e.g., Omega and Beta were common.
Some of the mottos reflect the prominence of the classics in Haverford’s early curriculum:
Aeneas, Tyro, Hesperus, Ajax, Hector, Themistocles, Ὄνομα, Ἑρμῆς, Ξένος, Παραδειγμα, Φευ φευ.
Finally, and most interesting to me, some mottos seem to reflect a growing interest in astronomy, e.g., Regulus, Hipparchus, and most bluntly Telescope.
In 1859 eight students took the private exams.
The Haverford College Catalogue lists the books seniors studied and the faculty who taught the various course. From the list of books and the public lectures faculty agreed to give, we glean some idea of what seniors were supposed to have learned. In the late 1850s Moses Stevens was responsible for teaching the mathematics, which was divided into three subjects: mechanical philosophy, optics, and physical and practical astronomy. For the first two subjects, students were assigned a book by Olmsted, perhaps Dennis Olmsted’s An Introduction to Natural Philosophy (1844)). For astronomy, they read a book by Robinson, probably Horatio Robinson’s A Treatise on Astronomy, Descriptive, Physical, and Practical (1850).
Although we don’t have Stevens’s lecture notes, we do have copies of the exams he gave the students in 1859 along with the students’ answers and marks on each section. Stevens divided mathematics into six areas and tested the students on each: Analytical Geometry, Differential Calculus, Integral Calculus, Mechanics, Astronomy, Optics. The first three the students learned as juniors; the second three they studied as seniors.
Although all the exams—both the exams for the various mathematical subjects and the different students’ exams in each subject—would repay study, here I’ll look at just one student’s responses to the astronomy exam. The student, “Katabasis”—Benjamin H. Smith was his real name—was an average student. He performed slightly better than average on the astronomy exam, but overall he was slightly below average.
When Katabasis walked in to examination room on the morning of the seventh day of the first week of exams he confronted nine questions that asked him to identify astronomical instruments and their parts, define astronomical terms, and carry out a range of calculations:
Name the varities [sic] of eye-pieces in common use and describe each. Val 5.
Describe the transit instrument. Val 6.
How do we compute the correction for to the time of transit, for inclination of axis, for collimation and for meridian? [Val] 20.
Given the R.A. and Dec. of two stars to find their distance apart. [Val] 8.
Give a method for finding the lat. of a place. [Val] 10.
How can we find the position of the equinoctial points? [Val] 10.
What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed? [Val] 8.
Give the method of computing Rad. of earth at any point. [Val] 12.
Define the parallax of a heavenly body, and show how to computer the par. of moon in R.A. [Val] 21.
Unfortunately, there’s no indication how long Katabasis and the other students had to complete the exam, though a couple of them remarked that they didn’t complete a question because “time fails.”
Although the three years of astronomy courses at Haverford used Robinson’s textbook, when Moses Stevens taught the course he had to supplement this material. For example, Robinson’s textbook said nothing about varieties of eye-pieces or transit instruments. Katabasis’ answer to question one seems to have come from Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy, which the college assigned a couple years later as the astronomy textbook. The order, the drawings, the terminology, and even the underlining in Katabasis’ answer echo that found in Loomis’s textbook. Perhaps equally telling, the unnecessary information and detail Katabasis added, e.g., when he described how to “find the power of the telescope,” is exactly the detail that follows Loomis’s discussion of eye-pieces.
It is easy to imagine one of two scenarios: First, Stevens turned to Loomis’s textbook to fill in important information he thought was missing from the assigned text. Haverford had, after all, built and equipped a new observatory that it prided itself on and required students to use. In such a case, basic, practical knowledge of the instruments would be useful. Second, Katabasis had for one reason or another not learned the information in class. To make up his deficiency he had consulted Loomis’s text during his six weeks of review prior to the exam.
Although the college boasted that its students had plenty of opportunity to do astronomy in its new observatory, only the first two questions gave the students a chance to demonstrate their experience working with astronomical instruments. And even these two questions don’t require working with instruments so much as being able to describe their parts—neither required the tacit knowledge that students might gain only from working with instruments. Most of the exam asked students to explain how, in principle, to carry out certain astronomical calculations. Surprisingly absent from the exam were problems that asked the student to carry out astronomical calculations.
Again, Katabasis’ answers to these latter questions seem to owe a debt to Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy rather than Robinson’s text. For example, question 7 asks to define the “angle of the vertical” and show how to calculate it. This term is found nowhere in Robinson’s textbook. However, in Loomis’s text this problem is explained in terms remarkably similar to Katabasis’ answer, including the diagram that illustrates both Katabasis’ exam and Loomis’s textbook.
On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the questions are found in Loomis’s textbook but not in Robinsons. Question 6, e.g., asked how to find the equinoctial points. Whereas Robinson’s text says nothing about this problem, Loomis’s textbook discusses the issue and works three examples. Unfortunately for Katabasis, he did not recall either the discussion or the examples. For question 6 he noted, simply, “Non reminiscor.”
The astronomy exam and Katabasis’ answers give us a glimpse of Haverford’s astronomy curriculum in the mid–19th century. Together they help us see beyond the prescribed curriculum and texts—in this case, his answers suggests that the prescribed text was not the primary resource used to teach astronomy. The exam questions also give us a chance to see what the college considered valuable astronomical knowledge. Considered alongside the other students’ exams and Katabasis’ own diary, we can perhaps begin to piece together a detailed picture of astronomy education at Haverford College in the mid–19th century.
These departments resemble our current divisions. Mathematics, for example, included mathematics as well as mechanics, optics, and astronomy. English was divided into “Ethics etc.” and “Belles-Lettres.” ↩
During the same period the class known as “second junior” (what we now call sophomores) took a set of exams. Before long Haverford did away with it idiosyncratic “second junior” and “third junior” terms and adopted the more common (and now standard) sophomore and freshman. ↩
Unfortunately, I have not located copies of Stevens’s lecture notes, so we don’t have a clear sense of what he tried to teach the students. We do have Samuel Gummere’s lecture notes from a few years later, after he took over the teaching of mathematics. I’ve looked briefly at Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus, but his entire set of notes merit further attention. ↩
I have just noticed that we have a copy of B.H. Smith’s diary while he was a student here at Haverford—it is also in this collection Call# 910H, which is a treasure trove of diaries, lecture notes, and other source material (it also includes another set of lecture notes by Samuel Gummere (see Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus for a set of notes from Call# 910F)). I didn’t have a chance to look at it before writing this post but will look read through it as soon as I can. ↩
The slight variations and minor spelling mistakes in the questions across student papers suggests that the students had to copy the questions from a blackboard (one student didn’t write out the questions to the astronomy exam, just his answers, so it seems unlikely that students wrote down questions as they were read aloud at the beginning of he examination). ↩
Although the description of eye-pieces is sufficiently generic to cast doubt on finding Katabasis’ source, the underlining in his answer that corresponds to the italics in Loomis’s text certainly suggests a close link between the two. I’m not implying any malfeasance on Katabasis’ part. Just looking for sources for his information. ↩
It is interesting to see students in the 19th century doing what students still do today and perhaps have always done: bulking up answers with unnecessary information. Perhaps this practice comes from not yet knowing (or being confident that you know) what a good answer would include. Perhaps it comes from a general anxiety about having left something out. Perhaps it comes from a mistaken notion that more is better or at least not worse. Whatever the source, it’s comforting to know that what I no doubt did as a student and what I see students doing now has a long pedigree. ↩
According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty gave the seniors and second juniors a six-week reading period to prepare for exams:
II. The Senior and 2d Junior Classes, will be allowed the six weeks next preceding the examination, for a general review of their studies….
Haverford’s current one-week reading period seems paltry in comparison ↩
If only we could find a copy of Moses Stevens’s lecture notes for this period, we would be set. Samuel Gummere’s notes from a few years later might also be helpful, especially because by that point Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy was the prescribed textbook. ↩