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August 2, 1979



EDITOR'S NOTE: The Feb. 15 "Potluck" contained paragraphs about William Wallace Campbell, a Fostoria High School graduate, who became famous in the field of astonomy. Prior to writing the article, we diligently tried to get complete information from the University of California. After the article was published, one of Campbell's associates who is still connected with Lick Observatory provided substantially more data here. The Fostoria Board of Education offered to name the high school in his honor, but he declined.

William Wallace Campbell was born on a farm in Hancock County, April 11, 1862. He was the son of Robert Wilson and Harriet Welsh Campbell. The Campbell fam- ily, of which Wallace was the youngest except for a son who died in infancy, consisted of three sons and three daughters.

His father was of Scotch descent. In 1745 or 1746, a time of great unrest in Scotland, some Campbells emigrated from there to County Down, Ireland. In 1785, seven brothers of one Campbell family sailed for America, and settled in western Pennsylvania. In 1836, James Campbell and his wife (Jane Wilson) moved from Pennsylvania to Hancock County. Their third child, Robert Wilson, married Harriet Welsh, and it was to that union that William Wallace Campbell was born.

William is reported to have no recollection of his father, who died in 1866. The mother had six children to rear and did it successfully at the cost of very hard work.

According to a paper written by W. H. Wright, part of the voluminous files about Campbell at Lick Observatory, Campbell's mother was said to be a woman of exceptional intelligence, though she had little opportunity to acquire a formal education. She is repoprted to have done arithmetic in her head. This trait is noteworthy since it was apparently passed on to her son, who had the faculty of carrying on rather complex calculations with a minimum recording of figures. He commonly looked up two or more logarithms, added them men- tally, took out and set down the product...a feat which always excited wonder on the part of one without talent for arithmetical computation.

Campbell's earliest scientific work was in computational astonomy, and his ease with numbers had much to do with his success.


The task of raising a family on the farm proved too much for the mother of the Campbell family, so they moved to Fostoria. A record search does not disclose where the family resided.

Wallace attended school in Fostoria, including graduating in 1880 from old Central High. He expressed indebtedness to Miss Abbot, a high school teacher, who provided sympathy and encouragement. She detected his ability and urged him to attend a recognized university.

After teaching for two years, he acted on Miss Abbott's advice and applied for admission to the University of Michigan in 1882 in civil engineering. There he encountered difficulties because of the low standards of his earlier schooling. However, the faculty dealing with such matters gave him a chance, and ultimately, the university had no regrets for its action.

During his third year at the university, while reading in the library, he found a copy of Simon Newcomb's "Popular Astronomy." His interest was so cap- tured by the opening paragraphs of the book that he read it through in two days and two nights. In later years, he told his friends that then and there he "discovered" astronomy and decided to make it his life-study.


Under the guidance of Professor J. M. Schaeberly, who was in charge of the university observatory, he became a skillful observer. During a vacation period he read Watson's "Theoretical Astronomy" and undertook with success the calculation of comet orbits. During his last year at the University he served as an assistant in the observatory. He graduated in 1886 with a bachelor of science degree.

For two years after graduation, Campbell was professor of mathmetics at University of Colorado.

The Lick Observatory opened in 1888, and Professor Schaeberle resigned at U of M to join the new institution. Campbell was invited to take his old professor's job. This provided him an opportunity to enter his chosen field.

In 1890, during summer vacation, Campbell served as a volunteer assistant at Lick Observatory, working under James E. Keeler on spectroscopic observations. When Keeler resigned, Campbell was invited to continue with Lick, which he did; he later was to be in charge of spectroscopic work.

The next 30 years of Campbell's life were spent with Lick and getting involved in many studies about the heavens, with some emphasis on eclipses. In 1922, a party headed by him travelled to the west coast of Australia to photograph an eclipse and thus collect evidence for further study. Their desire was to get photographs which would permit him to measure the relativity deflection theory as it related to the gravitational deviation of light. When the re- sults of their work were evaluated, they verified the values predicted by Einstein in the general theory of relativity.


When Campbell returned from the Australian trip, he was offered the presidency of the University of California. After much consideration he accepted, but also retained directorship of Lick Observatory. Campbell had a most success- full administration as the university's president, holding that office until 1930, when he retired, also relinquishing the post of director of Lick Observatory.

In 1931, he accepted an invitation to become president of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., an organization created by the Congress in 1863, which specified no duties other than that the academy would hold an annual meeting and should, "whenever called upon by any department of the government, investigate, examine and experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art."

On the conclusion of Campbell's term of office at the academy, he and Mrs. Campbell returned to California, making their home in San Francisco. His health started to fail, and he faced the loss of sight in his remaining eye, having lost sight in one eye earlier. He was now in his midseventies. His death occurred June 14, 1938.

As might be expected, Campbell had many honorary degrees and filled many lec- tureships at various universities. He was also a member of many societies and organizations pertaining to science or astronomy. He had many medals and had been decorated by many foreign governments for his contribution to science and astronomy.


When Campbell was professor of mathematics in the University of Colorado he met Elizabeth Ballard Thompson, a student there. They were married in 1892, shortly after becoming associated with Lick Observatory. Mrs. Campbell des- cribed as an ideal companion for her husband, even to the extent of accom- panying him on his many travels and expeditions for study and exploration.

Mrs. Charles Donald Shane, who so kindly and generously assisted in providing data for this article, is the archivist at Lick Observatory. She served under Dr. Campbell when he was still engaged there. She informed me the Campbells' three sons survive: Wallace in California; Douglas in Connecticut; and Kenneth, age 80, a consulting engineer in New Jersey. The latter, according to Mrs. Shane, is the only one interested in family history. However, corres- pondence with him failed to unearth facts to enhance this article about the Campbell family.

Kenneth did say his father never discussed much about his early life in Fos- toria. When he returned to Fostoria in 1928 to refuse the honor of having Fostoria High School named after him, it may have been one of the very few visits here and quite likely the last.

Our subject's oldest sister Isobel, who helped rear him, was the only one in the familhy with whom he kept much contact, according to Kenneth, who also thinks his father's profession and active life left little time to maintain family ties.

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