7. World War I

The advent of World War I brought modest change to Williams College and the science departments. The 549 students enrolled in 1916-1917 represented the largest enrollment ever. But by June 1917, the number of students in residence had shrunk to 398. Of the 151 students who had left, 117 had entered some form of wartime service. Those 117 were no different from many young men at other colleges and universities who likewise volunteered as ambulance drivers, medical corpsmen, pilots, and enlistees in other services. Despite Williams' loss of such a substantial number of students, in his commencement address President Garfield stated, "While it is inevitable that the minds of the students should be preoccupied with the momentous events involving them, regular college work has gone forward with less interruptions than might be supposed."[1]

The science faculty had barely recovered from the disastrous fire which destroyed the Chemistry Laboratory, when it faced another major challenge: World War. In a faculty meeting on February 5, 1917, President Garfield read a letter which he had written to the President of the United States regarding the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany. The President then stated that, in his opinion, "The question of introducing military science courses as an emergency measure was an appropriate one to consider."[2] At the end of the meeting, the faculty adopted a resolution to cooperate with the President of the United States and to help with courses relating to military drill and military science. The faculty also agreed to begin research into the establishment of a Reserve Officers Training Corps.

During the emergency situation, several new courses were created, including Military Art and Navigation. Also, several suggestions were offered which would give students credit in agriculture and industrial work as long as that work supported the war effort. Students who would have graduated in June, but who left Williams in order to enter the ambulance service, were allowed to receive their degrees without completing the rest of the requirements.[3]

If the curriculum and atmosphere changed during the war, so, too, did admission requirements. In a "special announcement for candidates for admission in September, 1917," Dean Frederick C. Ferry announced that the College would open as scheduled, the College Entrance Examination Board would hold exams that June, and the college examiners would have the information regarding the examinees in September. The notice also stated:

Resolved: that the Committee on Admission is hereby authorizing at its discretion to admit to college on trial...without formal certification and without examination, such candidates as may have left school with good record before the end of the school year in order to engage in military or naval service or in organized agricultural or industrial work to meet the war-time needs of the country, provided (1) that the school record of the candidate be approved by the Committee on Admissions; (2) that the principal recommend that the candidate be admitted to college; (3) that the candidate enter college in September, 1917; and (4) that the candidate submit, at the time of admission, evidence that he has continued in such approved service from before June 24 until September and leaves in good standing.[4]

To further demonstrate war time support, the college adopted a Students Army Training Corps (SATC), a program established to use the facilities, equipment and organization of the college in the training of future officers.[5] Students enrolled in this program participated in military and related subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, Topology, Map Making, Meteorology, Geography, Hygiene, Sanitation, and Descriptive Geometry). Not only did the contents of these courses not fit the Liberal Arts ideal, but they were prescribed by the War Department. For example, instead of teaching Organic Chemistry for the principles of reaction mechanisms and an understanding of carbon based organic compounds, the purpose was to understand the relationship of aromatic and aliphatic compounds to drugs, explosives, and gas warfare.[6] Introductory courses in Chemistry and Physics took on a very practical orientation, basing their problems and illustrations on the application of physical laws in everyday situations, and war situations specifically. Biology offerings, structured around the laboratory, included many dissections potentially useful to future medics, ambulance corpsmen, and physicians. Mathematics emphasized graphical methods and trigonometry, skills applied to courses in Navigation, Mapmaking and Surveying where understanding how to read scales and determine direction were essential.[7] Professors Herdman Cleland in Geology, and Willis Milham in Astronomy taught Surveying and Navigation respectively, courses not usually found at Williams.

Freshmen were given the option to enroll in an optional Military Art course along with the required Freshman Gymnasium and Hygiene, providing they took another Military Art course while still in college. Upperclassmen could decrease their major load by enrolling in the Military Arts program as well. In the Faculty Meeting of October 12, 1917, the College was informed by the War Department that Major Steedman would be the new Professor of Military Science and Tactics.

Despite Williams' many different activities in support of the United States' War effort, the war ended before the College's reaction and response had had very much time to produce any long term effects upon the institution or its curriculum.

8. Between the World Wars, 1918-1941

The temporary suspension of normalcy caused by World War I produced virtually no lasting effects in the administration, organization, curriculum, teaching and research in the sciences. Between World Wars I and II, slow and steady growth, cautious experimentation, and a broadening of the subject areas in the study of science characterized the sciences at Williams. As President Garfield once noted, college work went forward with less interruption than might have been supposed, even though for a brief time some students had fewer major requirements to fulfill in order to graduate, because they had been involved in the SATC program.

In the two decades before World War II, however, it is worth briefly examining five developments which affected the curriculum or organization of the sciences: the creation of the Geology major group, modernization of the Physics course offerings, the introduction of science courses for the non-scientist, the introduction of the Honors program, and, towards the end of the period, establishment of the Williams/M.I.T. Engineering Collaborative.


In March 1920, the Committee on Curriculum voted to create the Geology major group, with the addition of more Geology courses and a list of requirements. The new major, which students would begin in their Junior, rather than in their Sophomore year, included new courses like Regional and Economic Geography, which included a study of climate, physiography, and the distribution of natural resources that influence the economic and political development of a region. Geology had not only been recognized as a substantial discipline, but had expanded its curriculum in order to incorporate a broader social context.


In the same vein of catching up with paradigm-creating work in the rest of the world of science, the physics curriculum also moved into the 20th century. In 1895 and 1896 the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity had astonished the world and increased doubt about the validity of classical physics. Between 1900 and 1927 the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had revolutionized the theoretical foundations of physics. Those new theories would have enormous implications for the rest of the 20th century.

In 1924, the Physics department asked to introduce a new course, Physics 7-8: Light, Radiation and Atomic Structure. The Curriculum Committee responded affirmatively, concurring that additional material was needed in the physics major sequence and acknowledging that the rapid development in physics called for emphasizing prominent discoveries.

Evidence of Williams' active interest in contemporary changes in physics can be inferred from the 1923 invitation of Amherst College to Williams faculty to attend a series of lectures called "The Atom" by Niels Bohr, Professor of Physics at Copenhagen university, and, with Einstein, one of the most eminent physicists of the time.[9]

Science for Non-Scientists

If Geology and Physics had reformed and modernized their curricula, new material was also appearing for the non-scientifically inclined. Professor Donald Richmond introduced a course in "The History and Methodology of Physical Science" to the curriculum in 1936.[10] Precursor to what is now the curriculum in the history of science, the course gave students an opportunity to learn about the history of scientific development, offering a non-technical perspective on scientific subjects. In 1937, the philosophy department offered "The Logic of Scientific Method".[11] Like the History and Methodology course, Scientific Method gave the non-science minded student an alternative approach to the discussion of scientific concepts. Since the mid-30s, departments have continued and expanded their course offerings in the sciences to meet the different interests and backgrounds of the student body.


The broadest curricular change of the period occurred in 1926-1927, when Honors work was introduced on an experimental basis. The option, offered in conjunction with the regular major requirements, was open to Juniors and Seniors who showed special aptitude and ability to work independently. Juniors, with at least half of their grades B or better and with the consent of the department, could plan the program for each year, with the Junior year's work usually connected to a regular course and the Senior year involving individual study.[12] In the sciences, the Chemistry department enrolled nine students in the program while the Mathematics department had but one.[13]

Williams/MIT Engineering Collaborative

In 1937-38 the Williams and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the MIT/Williams Engineering Collaborative. Successful completion of the ten semester program resulted in a B.S. from MIT, and a B.A. from Williams. Students who enrolled were to take courses for their first three years at Williams, and then move to MIT for the remaining two. A "B" average in science at Williams was needed to continue in the program, although students did not have to major in science to participate in it. Professor David Park recalled, "It was more of a recruiting tool than anything else. Most students caught Purple Valley fever and stayed at Williams. In 1941, my first year here, I think about sixty kids signed up, and not one went through with the program. We sent less than one student a year to MIT".[14] Despite such small numbers, Williams students excelled in the program. The President's Report of 1952 states, "Sixty-eight students, on average, have enrolled in the past four years in the Collaborative Program. Those few that completed the program always performed well enough to rank Williams at the top of the fifteen colleges (that) sent students to MIT".[15]

9. The Second World War

Looking back on the interwar period and the Depression, the few changes affecting the sciences reflect little more than gradual modernization and diversification in the curriculum. In contrast to World War I, a brief and largely inconsequential blip in the first half of Williams second century, World War II had a profound impact on the science departments, especially the Department of Physics. World War II changed the face of science at Williams, in the form of curricular changes, student and faculty depletion, and post-war reflection on the role of science. The beginning of the 1942-43 academic year witnessed a dramatic change in the College Catalog; a new, practical patriotism defined the ends of education during wartime. Gone was Williams' usual emphasis on a liberal education:

"The Williams student today must prepare himself to serve his country in the war effort and he also must so educate himself that he will be an effective citizen upholding the democratic way of life for which we are fighting."[16]

Figure 19: Williamstown Railroad Station

Curricular Changes

The highly technological nature of World War II made training in science of unprecedented importance for military recruits. For this reason, Williams reorganized its science departments, as it had during World War I, to facilitate military training.

The onset of curricular change preceded U.S. involvement in the war. In March, 1941, the faculty, "Responding to the ´vital needs' of 1941 undergraduates . . .sanctioned the adoption of new Spanish and mathematics courses designed to prepare the student for national service in the present war emergency."[17] The math department met the challenge by offering courses that reviewed basic algebra and trigonometry, while geology made efforts to provide students with a strong background in map reading and aerial photography.[18] Chemistry offerings remained relatively unchanged, although the military wished all incoming individuals to have an understanding of explosives. Chemistry faculty felt that the College did not have the facilities necessary to ensure adequate supervision or protection of the students.

Figure 20: Drilling at Cole Field

The college also instituted an accelerated program that would allow students to graduate in two years, eight months, by enrolling in three semesters each year. Thus, a student could get his degree, and still have time to join the War. Six and one-half months after Pearl Harbor, the program opened with a summer term on June 29, 1942. Students were encouraged to enroll, especially if they planned a pre-medical curriculum, a major in the physical sciences, or to enter the MIT/Williams Engineering Collaborative. As a further incentive, the college reduced costs.

The Armed Forces' many ROTC programs were the largest impetus for curricular change. The major programs were the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps, the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve, the Marine Corp Reserve, and the Navy Reserve (V-1, V-5, V-7, and V-12). Students enrolled in these programs were eligible to be called into service by the Secretary of War after graduation. Students with strengths in Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry were encouraged to join. Others were welcome, but potential marines weak in the sciences, "must be outstanding in all other respects to receive consideration."[19]

Figure 21: World War II Chemistry Laboratory Exercises

[1] Williams College President's Report 1917-1919, p. 17. | Back |
[2] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, February 5, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[3] Minutes of the Special Faculty Meeting, April 20, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[4] "Williams College Special Announcement to Candidates for Special Admission in September, 1917." From the Office of the Dean. | Back |
[5] "Students Army Training Corps," Williams College Catalogue, 1918-1919, Appendix, pp. 147-158. | Back |
[6] Ibid., p. 156. | Back |
[7] Ibid., pp. 154-155, 157. | Back |
[8] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, September 19, 1917, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[9] Minutes of the Faculty Meeting, October 1, 1923, (Williamsiana, Williams College). | Back |
[10] Williams College Catalogue, 1936, p. 107. | Back |
[11] Williams College Catalogue, 1937, p. 118. | Back |
[12] "Honors Work," Williams College Catalogue 1926-1927 p. 67-68. Honors, and later, comprehensive examinations, were national responses at the time to a perceived shallowness and lack of application or discipline in students. See F. Rudolph, Curriculum, Chapter 6: pp. 230-232; 235-236. | Back |
[13] H. L. Agard, Acting Dean, "Report of the Dean," Williams College President's Report, 1924-1927, pp. 24-25. | Back |
[14] Interview with David Park, 4/16/92. | Back |
[15] Williams College President's Report, 1952, p. 23. | Back |
[16] Williams College Catalogue, 1942-43 (Oct. 1942), p.71. | Back |
[17] Williams Record, Vol. 55, No. 4 (March 15, 1941), p. 1. | Back |
[18] Williams Record, Vol. 55, No. 37 (April 3, 1942), p. 1 . | Back |
[19] "Preparation for War Service," Williams College Catalogue, 1942-43, pp. 69-70. | Back |