Friday, October 23, 2009

Rochester's Famous Scientist

On 16th Street in Washington, D.C., stands a house that is a National Historic Landmark. This building is not a national landmark for its age or architectural significance, but for its connection to a man born in Rochester, Michigan who was an important historical figure in the field of science. The house on 16th Street is listed because it once served as the residence of Robert Simpson Woodward (1849-1924), noted American physicist and geologist.

Woodward was born in Rochester on July 21, 1849, the third of five children of pioneer farmer Lysander Woodward and his wife Peninah Simpson. Although Lysander Woodward was a progressive farmer who applied scientific agricultural principles to the operation of his farm and served as president of the Oakland County Agricultural Society in order to urge others to do the same, he nonetheless did not believe that university education had any real merit and had to be convinced to allow his son to attend the University of Michigan after he completed his basic education in Rochester.

Robert S. Woodward was graduated from the University of Michigan in 1872 with an engineering degree. He worked on the United States Lake Survey and also served as an assistant astronomer with the United States Transit of Venus Commission. He then moved on to the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was chief geographer in charge of the Division of Mathematics, and there conducted research and published numerous scientific papers.

In 1893, Woodward became Professor of Mechanics and Mathematical Physics at Columbia University. He remained at Columbia for a dozen years and then accepted the position of president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at which time he made his home in the District of Columbia. He retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1921, three years before his death.

Robert S. Woodward also served as associate editor of the journal Science - still published today - from 1889 to 1924. He was regarded as a leading authority in his field, and the list of his publications, honors and awards goes on for pages. He died in Washington D.C. on June 29, 1924 at the age of 74, from lingering ailments after a bout of influenza.

A lengthy professional biography of Robert Simpson Woodward, prepared in 1937 for the National Academy of Sciences is available online here. A photo and information about his residence in Washington, D.C., a National Historic Landmark, is available here.

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