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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
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FROM KANSAS TO WASHINGTON, D.C. (CHAPTER III - PART I)


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Edwin Slosson was born in the frontier town of Albany (now Sabetha), Kansas, in 1865, a descendant of New England colonial stock, with no fewer than three ancestors of Mayflower vintage. His father came to Kansas from New York in 1857 to help promote abolition during the "Free Soil" movement, and settled in Albany where he opened the first store and ran an underground railroad station. From his father, Slosson reputedly derived a "pioneer spirit," while from his mother, a school teacher, he absorbed a love of reading. Slosson's interest in books was fortunate, for he acquired a strong dislike of the outdoor life after a few summers of farm work. His other encounters with nature were similarly unpleasant, as the chief events he recalled from his Kansas boyhood were Indian raids, buffalo hunts and grasshopper plagues. Religion also was an important part of Slosson's life, for his family was Congregationalist, and Slosson served as a deacon in that church for nearly thirty years. The Puritan and pioneer traditions were thus the two most important influences on Slosson's early development. 122

After a European trip upon graduation from high school, Slosson enrolled at the University of Kansas, taking his Bachelor of Science degree in 1890 and the Master of Science degree in 1892. Although his principal studies were in chemistry, physics, geology, and psychology, his interests were not limited to science, as is evident in his election to Phi Beta Kappa in addition to Sigma Xi. An omnivorous appetite for learning was one of his most distinctive characteristics, and he was said to be concontemptuous of what he regarded as the artificial divisionof knowledge. On receiving his Master's degree, Slosson received two job offers, one from G. Stanley Hall, who offered him a fellowship in experimental psychology at Clark University; the other from the University of Wyoming, which offered him an assistant professorship in chemistry. Slosson chose the latter position, in part because it allowed him the money to marry May Preston, the first woman to receive the Ph.D. from Cornell University, a YMCA director, and a prominent suffragette. 123

For the next thirteen years, Slosson taught chemistry at the fledgling University of Wyoming in Laramie, a town of only seven thousand people though still the second largest city in the state. Slosson was a one-man department at Wyoming, teaching all the chemistry courses in addition to acting as State Chemist at the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station. His research included investigations of soils, Wyoming petroleum deposits, and food adulteration, and he was the first to use the bomb calorimeter to determine the fuel value of cereal foods. During summer vacations he studied organic chemistry under Julius Steiglitz at the newly-founded University of Chicago, receiving his doctorate magna cum laude in 1902. Not one to let his literary interests lie dormant, Slosson also wrote articles for various periodicals during his spare time, most frequently for the Independent, a respected Congregationalist journal based in New York City. With his Ph.D. in chemistry attained, the restless Slosson wangled a summer job at the Independent. Its editor, Hamilton Holt, was evidently impressed with the chemistry professor from Wyoming--Slosson worked in exchange for only a railroad pass and his board--and offered him a full-time position as Literary Editor. Why Slosson deserted chemistry so soon after taking his doctorate is somewhat puzzling, though perhaps he had grown tired of the routine of college teaching and analyzing soils for local farmers at the Agricultural Experiment Station (as Watson Davis would later grow weary of testing concrete). Or perhaps Laramie had grown too civilized for him and lacked the excitement of a frontier. Whatever his reasons, as the first automobiles began to appear on the streets of Laramie, Slosson dropped a huge unfinished project on the chemical causes of odors, and fled eastward to a new, personal frontier as a journalist. As his son, Preston, observed, "Dr. Slosson could still be a pioneer in ideas, but no longer in geography. 124

Edwin Slosson spent seventeen years in New York City, where he aided Hamilton Holt in transforming the Independent from a denominational weekly of small circulation to a secular weekly with over a hundred thousand readers. At the Independent, Slosson not only produced prodigious amounts of copy, writing from three to six thousand words a week on such topics as foreign affairs, literature, and science, but also earned a reputation as a frank, fearless editor (he was known as the "Wild West editor"). His first major literary success was a series of articles on "Great American Universities," published as a book in 1910. A particularly scathing commentary on Princeton in this series won high praise from Woodrow Wilson. This work was followed by a two-part series of interviews with twelve leading intellectuals, including John Dewey, H. G. Wells, Henri Bergson, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Ernst Haeckel, published as Major Prophets of Today and Six Major Prophets. His best-known book, Creative Chemistry, was published in 1919 and consisted, as almost all his books did, of articles which had originally appeared in the Independent or other periodicals. A best-seller, Creative Chemistry sold two hundred thousand copies by 1929, putting it in the same sales league as Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. 125   In 1920, soon after the Eddington eclipse expedition had confirmed Einstein's general theory, Slosson produced one of the first popularizations of relativity, Easy Lessons in Einstein. Sir Oliver Lodge called it "the best book yet published to convey some idea of the theory of relativity to the general reader." 126 From 1912 to 1920 Slosson also managed to find time to teach a course in physical science for journalists at the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University.

However, Slosson felt too much the journalist in New York just as he had felt too much the scientist in Wyoming. Thus he rejoiced at the opportunity to combine the two professions as a "scientific journalist" when he was offered the editor's position at Science Service in 1920. As the Service began to prosper late in the decade, Slosson enjoyed the happiest and most productive years of his life. 127 His popular science articles written during this period were collected in four volumes, Chats on Science, Keeping Up With Science, Snapshots of Science, and Short Talks on Science, all of which were favorably received by the public.

Including works on psychology, education, and religion, Slosson wrote a total of eighteen books, twenty technical reports, eighty pamphlets, and over two thousand signed articles, editorials, and essays, of which about four hundred were of a popular scientific nature. 128 In all of his writings, Slosson expressed himself with a distinctive clarity and pungence, with a facility for drawing on metaphors from everyday life to illuminate abstract concepts and using humor to lighten the tone of ponderous subjects. The quantum theory, for instance, he tagged as the "jerk theory," hormones were compared to labor "agitators," and coal-tar resins were likened to "a molecular trust, indissoluble, uncontrollable, and contaminating everything it touched." 129 While his works were always heavily laced with facts, his argument was always easy to follow; Thomas Edison called him "a 'Star' in lucidity. 130 By the end of the decade, Slosson's vivid style and prolific output had won him a wide following. In many ways he was the Isaac Asimov of the 1920s.

As one historian noted, Edwin Slosson's life seemed a preparation for his career at Science Service. 131 With a doctorate in chemistry and his experience as a journalist, Slosson was familiar with both the scientific and literary worlds, and was thus ideally qualified to translate scientific ideas into popular terms. In fact, his reputation as a "Renaissance man" was such that Rollins College in Florida was about to name him "Professor of Things in General" just before he died. 132 However, even though Slosson was well-versed in the humanities, his values were still pre-eminently those of the scientific community in which he was mainly educated and in which he spent the first thirteen years of his career as a professional member. Literature, for Slosson, was not a serious pursuit but a hobby in which he found relief from long hours in the laboratory at the University of Wyoming, and it was largely by chance that he was able to pursue a career in it. Slosson states his intellectual priorities very clearly in a rather preposterous article in the Independent entitled ''Science vs. Literature as a Professorial Profession." The scientist was far superior to the literary man because, as Slosson claimed, he has to stick to the facts. To obtain these all-important facts, the scientist must get his hands dirty and work harder than the literary man, who doesn't have to bother with reality at all. 133 Clearly Slosson's perspective was that of a scientist, and while his literary talents strengthened his abilities as a popularizer, it was predominantly the values of the scientific culture which shaped and colored his interpretations of scientific ideas. Slosson's concerns regarding popular science were essentially those of the scientists of the postwar era, which were, as William E. Ritter expressed them, "to make science duly appreciated and adequately supported. 134

Chapter Two -    Part I    Part II    Part III           Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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