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Augustus Trowbridge

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Augustus Trowbridge (1870-1934) was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 2, 1870, the son of George Alfred Trowbridge. His father, born in New Haven of old New England parentage, was a man of vigorous constitution and genial social gifts, a merchant by profession and by avocation an enthusiastic sportsman particularly devoted to riding and hunting. Unfortunately, however, the father's health gave way at about the time of the birth of Augustus, so that the boy was more than usually thrown on the care of his mother and older brothers and a sister. A glimpse of this influence is suggested in his inaugural dissertation for the degree of doctor of philosophy from the University of Berlin, which is dedicated by its author ''to his dear mother, in love and gratitude." (p.219)

At the age of twenty, Trowbridge entered Columbia University where, like many another promising lad of subsequent fame, he came under the influence of that great personality and scientist, Michael Pupin. He had the usual undergraduate interests of which the most prominent, of an extra-curricular nature, was probably his membership on the varsity crew. At the advice of Pupin and of Rowland, who was a distant cousin, he withdrew from the University in his junior year to accept an excellent temporary position as a civil engineer for the World's Fair in Chicago and then to go to Berlin to pursue the advanced study of phvsics, leading, after eight semesters in residence, to the Ph.D. degree in 1898. It was in this period of early manhood that two influences of profound and lasting import came into Trowbridge's life,—the one personal and the other professional,—his wife and his introduction to that developing branch of physics which continued throughout life to be his principal, though not his only field of special scientific research. (pp. 220-221)

Trowbridge was called to Princeton at a most interesting period. Under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, that University was undergoing a new burst of intellectual activity and a remarkable group of scientists was being added to the staff. L. P. Eisenhart, Gilbert- Bliss and Oswald Veblen had been made assistant professors of mathematics in the previous year, as had Henry Norris Russell in astronomy and George A. Hulett in physical chemistry, and George Birkhoff was soon to come. Edwin P. Adams, three years previously, had joined the staff in mathematical physics (though he was then actively interested in radioactivity). O. W. Richardson, one of Sir J. J. Thomson's most brilliant pupils, came in the same year with Trowbridge to initiate a great program of research in the new field of electronics. James Jeans came from Cambridge as professor of mathematical physics. It is doubtful if so many brilliant young men destined to fame in the physical sciences have ever been assembled within so short an interval of time, unless it were in the early days of J. J. Thomson at Cambridge. (p. 224)

Furthermore, the great Palmer Physical Laboratory was just then being built at Princeton, to provide those splendid facilities without which Princeton's rapid rise in the field of physics would have been impossible. With Howard McClenahan, who had entered physics via electrical engineering, Trowbridge took a particularly prominent part in planning the equipment of this laboratory; and with Richardson and Adams he shared for many years the supervision of the research by most of the physics students in the Graduate School. (p. 224)

Three other men played a particularly important role in Trowbridge's professional career at Princeton. One was William F. Magie, head of the Department of Physics during the entire period of Trowbridge's service in that department, a thermodynamicist trained by Helmholtz, and a gentleman whose fine personal qualities inspired a remarkable loyalty and cooperation among his younger colleagues. A second was Magie's predecessor, emeritus professor Cyrus Fogg Brackett, a splendid physicist of the old school, with whom Trowbridge collaborated for several years in the construction of optical instruments of high precision. The third was Andrew Fleming West, to whose educational philosophy and plans for a great graduate school Trowbridge and most of his colleagues in physics gave their strong support. (p. 225)

Trowbridge's service at Princeton divides naturally into three periods: from 1906 to the Great War; from the close of the war to his leave for European Directorship of the International Education Board in 1924; and from his return in 1928 to succeed Dean West as Dean of the Graduate School until his death. (p. 225)

With the retirement of Dean Andrew F. West from active service on account of age, the Trustees of Princeton University elected Dr. Trowbridge to be his successor as Dean of the Graduate School. A warm friend of Dean West and in full sympathy with his policies regarding this school, Trowbridge was a natural choice for the position. There was great rejoicing as he and Mrs. Trowbridge took up their residence in Wyman House, the beautiful official residence of the dean, adjacent to the Graduate College. (p. 239)

Of this third period in Princeton there is little to recount, since the work of the dean went forward with skillful and efficient management and the citations for honorary degrees were models of terse characterization so appreciated by critical commencement audiences. Example, Norman Thomas, Litt. D. 1932: "Norman Thomas, a graduate of this university in the class of 1905, a brilliant and successful clergyman, son and grandson of ministers of the religion whose earliest disciples held all things in common for the common good, who, for conscience' sake gave up a conventional form of ministry to his fellow men to become the fearless and upright advocate of change in the social order. A vigilant assailant of the corruption and the crime which batten on our complacent civic indifference notably to the conduct of municipal affairs. Irrespective of party preference we join to honor this valiant and distinguished son of Princeton." (p. 239)

Unfortunately the warnings of ill-health began to appear,— a new experience for this man whose activity at work or play had scarcely suffered interruption. Leave of absence failed to halt the encroachment, so that his resignation was regretfully accepted by the Board of Trustees in the spring of 1932. In so doing they adopted the following resolution : "The Trustees cannot allow the retirement, because of continued ill health, of Augustus Trowbridge as Dean of the Graduate School to take place without giving expression to their high appreciation of his exceptional ability as a teacher, his outstanding position as a scientist, and his unfailing efficiency as an executive. In every task assigned him throughout his distinguished career, his sincerity of purpose in its undertaking and his enthusiasm in its performance have made him eminently successful in what he has accomplished, while his charm of personality has endeared him to all—students and colleagues alike—who have come in contact with him.” (p. 239)

"Returning to Princeton in 1928, he gave four years of notable service as Dean of the Graduate School. In that position he displayed high administrative ability in handling the many difficult problems assigned to him, and maintained without impairment the high standards that had been established under Dean West. A notable addition to the excellence of his administration was to be found in the delightful hospitality of Mrs. Trowbridge and himself, which distinctly added to the advantages of residence in the Graduate College. "In teaching, in research and in administration he leaves behind him a high record, and his active presence on our campus will be sorely missed." (p. 240)

For nearly two years following his resignation, Trowbridge made a courageous effort to maintain his health. He spent the summers with his family at their summer home at Hancock Point, Maine. He put his records and papers in order. His cheerfulness and good sportsmanship never failed him,—they were too deeply rooted in his character. In the winter of 1934, seeking the beneficial climate of the Riviera which he so loved, he and Mrs. Trowbridge left on his last journey. After a happy winter, death overtook him quite suddenly on March 14, 1934, as he and Mrs. Trowbridge were together in Taormina, Sicily.

After a most impressive funeral service in the beautiful new chapel of Princeton University, he was buried in the Princeton cemetery on March 29, 1934. There can be no more fitting close to this all too inadequate record of the life and work of one of the noblemen of science than the prayer offered by his friend Dean Wicks at Dr. Trowbridge's funeral: "O God we stand in reverence and awe before the unseen source of more than we could ask or think, in debt for all rare lives gifted to embrace what lies beyond our ken and able to make vivid that to which we might aspire. We would remember before Thee and for our good, one who lived to be real, above all false sentiment and cant, and by his fruits rather than by words proved his nearness to the Great Reality; who with faith fulness in work given him to do, and with refined taste that put the cheap and crude to shame, ever kept himself responsive to an excellence beyond the requirements of men; who was guided by the inclination of love to find needs where no rules could prescribe; who let no narrow zeal blind him to the wider ranges of a cultured life, and made himself a counsellor and friend in many lands to those who sought to keep alive, in a shattered world, the interests of the mind and spirit; and whose sympathy and humor and inner resource made his companionship a blessing, especially at home, and enabled him through sorrow and ill health to fight the good fight to the end, living his life for the things that abide. Amen." (p. 241)

Source: Excepts from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Biographical Memoirs, Volume XVIII-Tenth Memoir: Biographical Memoir of Augustus Trowbridge: 1870-1934 by Karl T. Compton (Presented to the Academy at the Annual Meeting, 1937, pp. 219-244). Link

Information on Trowbridge in the Princeton Unviersity Library