Teacher by day, observer by night

In his speech at the dedication of the building in 1916, Van Vleck Observatory director Frederick Slocum emphasized the equal importance of both instruction and research in the observatory. Slocum himself embodied this dualism. He helped develop Wesleyan’s star parallax program while also teaching introductory astronomy courses. His achievements as a researcher (including organizing observations of of three solar eclipses) are well documented in the scientific literature. But Van Vleck itself, and the materials we’re discovering here this summer, reveal that teaching was also central to his work, and to his vision for astronomy at Wesleyan and beyond.

Wesleyan built its Astronomy Department around Slocum in the same manner a professional sports franchise might build their team around a superstar. In March of 1914, at the tender age of forty, Slocum was appointed a full professor on account of his experience teaching at Brown University and researching at the Yerkes Observatory, where he had worked on the newly invented spectrohelioscope. Working remotely from Yerkes, Slocum prepared for his arrival in Middletown. He was given charge of the $70,000 Van Vleck fund (around $1.5 million today), which he used to design and construct an observatory that would be a center for both teaching and research, and to purchase the 18-in refracting telescope from Alvan Clark & Sons it was planned to house. Today, the observatory remains true to his intentions, with active research, teaching, and public programs.


(Left) Slocum the Researcher, (Right) Slocum the Professor, from the Frederick Slocum vertical file. Images courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University.

Understanding the man behind these achievements proves more difficult. Fortunately one piece of evidence sheds some light on Slocum’s personality: a student’s teacher evaluation of Slocum circa 1940.

How this document survives is a story in and of itself. The teacher evaluation was part of a study conducted by two Wesleyan professors between 1946 and 1952 about why students chose science as a vocation and how individual teachers influenced that decision. The students likely filled out these evaluations a few years removed from their time at Wesleyan. Reflecting the important position of science education in the post-World War II era, the questionnaire asked students to rate their professors on the following characteristics: humor, patience, temper, energy, dominance, enthusiasm, warmth, competitiveness, and initiative. (One wonders in what light traits such as dominance or competitiveness were seen in this Cold War age!)

One student awarded Slocum double-checks in humor, patience, and energy, but only single-checks for enthusiasm, warmth and initiative. However, the student later clarified his single-check in the warmth category. “To a stranger or even to a large class,” he wrote, Slocum “might seem a bit cool at first. This should probably be called ‘Yankee reserve.’ But on closer acquaintance he became the essence of warmth and friendliness.” Clearly the man had made an impression on this student through his personal qualities as well as his abilities as a researcher and instructor.

Achievements in research—publications, awards, titles—can be easy for historians of science to discern. Certainly, Slocum’s contributions to the field are apparent in the astronomical literature. But, as the design of Van Vleck suggests, Slocum placed a high value on instruction as an important companion to research. This student’s brief reflection on Slocum the person helps us answer more difficult historical questions—such as how those sitting in his classroom, or assisting him at the telescope, might have seen him, and how their own paths may have been influenced by their interactions with this man of “warmth and friendliness.”