Contributed Papers

Science in the U.S. South

Presenter 1

Southern Nationalists and the Early Smithsonian

Michael Gunther

Georgia Gwinnett College


In the mid-1850s, President Franklin Pierce's Secretary of War was Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, the future president of the Confederacy. Davis had fought in the U.S.-Mexican War and served as a congressman and senator. Intriguingly, he also supported the creation of the Smithsonian Institution and was a member of its board of regents and close friend of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. Davis had also voted for the creation of the Department of the Interior in 1849. In short, he was a warm supporter of science in the late antebellum years, advocating for federal patronage, support, and collaboration. This may seem unusual, given the association of Davis and other southern politicians with states' rights ideas. He was not alone, however: at various junctures, Frederick Stanton, Sam Houston, John Berrien, and James Pearce, among other southern politicians, also voice support for the Smithsonian. My paper begins to trace the early activities of the Smithsonian before the Civil War through the eyes of southern politicians such as Davis. I aim to shed light on the final debates over the founding of the Smithsonian, its role in collaborating with topographical engineers in the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission and Pacific Railroad Surveys, as well as the plan to introduce camels into U.S. Army activities in the Southwest. Tracing scientific patronage offers a new perspective on southern nationalism in the critical years before the Civil War.


Presenter 2

The Science of Southern Medicine: Disease Theory and the U.S. South

Jeremy J. Montgomery

Mississippi State University


Climate served as the datum for nineteenth-century Southern doctors. They measured their ability to treat disease and cure ailments based on the climate. To understand a "Southern" body a physician needed to be "acclimated" to the climate of the South. This meant that one had to dissect a cadaver and learn in the insalubrious climate. By having a medical education that was linked to the climate would-in theory-greatly assist the physician in treatment. The Northeast climate was ill-suited for a proper Southern physician's education. In short, the medical science that connected "regular" medical practitioners was contested on regional terms.
Wanting to connect directly to the teaching of Greece and Hippocrates (especially Air, Waters, and Places), Southern doctors sought to remove the Northern grip on medical education by countering with newly founded medical schools and educational programs. The South, I argue, is distinctive because those Old South doctors and citizens believed it to be so. Taking these doctors on their own terms reveal what medical education and knowledge meant to a pre-Civil War society. The climate of the South helped to spur the regional development of medical schools in the 1850s, as well as saw the mass exodus of Southerners from Northern medical schools. The geographical, topographical, and climatic boundaries of the U.S. South have spurred a large section of historical scholarship; and the South's distinctiveness-real or imagined-is what this paper seeks to discuss.


Presenter 3

The Evolution of Physics Research and Graduate Education at Fisk University, 1910 - 1970

Ronald Elbert Mickens

Clark Atlanta University


Fisk University was created for freed enslaved blacks just after the conclusion of the American Civil War. By the early 1950's, its Physics Department was conducting world class research in infrared spectroscopy and training African American students, academics, government, and industrial researchers in this and related areas of investigation and applications. All of these activities were based on extensions of the fundamental research of Elmer Samuel Imes, a 1903 (BA) and 1915 (MA) graduate of Fisk University, who obtained in 1918 a doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan. Returning to Fisk, Imes established the Physics Department in 1929, and this resulted in the beginning of the graduate program and the creation of the Fisk Molecular Spectroscopy Research Laboratory in the late 1940's and the founding of the Fisk Infrared Institute (FIRI) in 1953. We present an overview of the FIRI, its connections to Vanderbilt University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and several industrial IR instrumentation companies. We also review the funding of this research by NASA and the influence and expansion of FIRI abroad, especially in Argentina and India. Finally, a history will be given of the role played by FIRI in the integration of the Southeastern Section meetings of the American Physical Society.


Presenter 4

Scalawag Science: Northern Capitalists and Carpetbag Geologists in the Reconstruction of the South

Paul Lucier

Independent Scholar


Southern state governments devoted a great deal of resources to rebuilding their economies following the Civil War, and, accordingly, historians have devoted a lot of attention to the roles that Southern Republicans and sympathetic Northerners have played in that rebuilding. These efforts often also involved sending Southern representatives (so-called "scalawags") to the North to try to recruit men of science. Northern consulting geologists ("carpetbag geologists") were keenly sought out for their expertise and experience in investigating and evaluating coal and iron mines as well as for their contacts with Northern capitalists. To date these recruitment efforts and their successes and failures have not received much attention from either American historians or historians of science. They bear closer examination, however, because they reveal the extensive entanglement of science and capitalism in the Reconstruction of the South and in the industrialization of the US more generally. Using hitherto unexamined correspondence between scalawags, capitalists, and carpetbaggers (including the earliest American legal contracts for consulting commissions), this talk explores the role of geology (a field science -- in contrast to the laboratory sciences of chemistry and physics) as well as the relative importance of natural resources (and their exploration and exploitation) rather than of manufacturing as the perceived sources of economic recovery and expansion in the nineteenth century.