Magie, William Francis

Magie, William Francis 1879 (1858-1943), a founder of the American Physical Society and its president from 1910 to 1912, taught physics at Princeton for almost half a century and was chairman of the department during twenty of its formative years. He was one of the able group of alumni of the McCosh era (e.g., Wilson, Fine, West, Hibben) who nurtured Princeton's development from a college to a university.

Magie's early interests were humanistic. In his sophomore year he tried reading his way through the masterpieces of English literature on his own. As an upperclassman he came under the influence of Cyrus Fogg Brackett, Charles A. Young, and Arnold Guyot, excellent scientists and extraordinary teachers -- and President McCosh, whose ``dogmatic methods aroused our antagonism but made us think.''

Magie was an editor of the Princetonian as were his classmate Woodrow Wilson and Henry B. Fine 1880. He stood near the top of his class all four years and at graduation was class valedictorian. He had thought of following his father into the practice of law, but, stirred by news of the first Princeton expedition to the West in 1877 and the subsequent paleontological researches of William Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Magie ``could not help wishing'' that he too ``might have a chance to work in some scientific field.''

His chance came toward the end of his senior year, when Professor Brackett, who was carrying all of the work of physics instruction single-handed, suffered a breakdown, and his friends insisted that he should have an assistant. Brackett offered Magie the job on Commencement Day, and he accepted. ``I did not then know it,'' Magie told his classmates fifty years later, ``but I now know that the subject of physics, into which I was inducted in this somewhat casual way, was the one subject which was best suited to my habits of thought. I never had enough originality or mathematical skill to do great original work, but I always loved the fundamental and philosophical aspects of the subject, and loved to teach it.''

Magie did not neglect the scholarly side of his career. After collaborating on a small piece of research on the electrical discharge, he and Henry B. Fine were given leave in 1884 and went to Germany, where Magie studied at the University of Berlin under the great Helmholtz, and earned his Ph.D. with a thesis on the measurement of surface tensions. A decade later he collaborated with two physicians in publishing the first paper in this country on the possible use of Roentgen's newly discovered X-rays in surgery. He later published occasional papers on the properties of solutions, and was the author of a highly regarded account of the rise and content of physical theories, Principles of Physics.

His greatest contribution, however, was in teaching and administration. After 1889, when Brackett began his graduate program in electrical engineering, Magie took over the undergraduate courses in physics, and shared increasingly in the administration of the department. On Brackett's retirement in 1908, Magie succeeded him as chairman and, a little later, as Joseph Henry Professor of Physics. Magie and Brackett worked closely with Dean Fine in building up a strong physics department as part of Fine's efforts, as President Wilson's dean of the faculty, to strengthen all the science departments. In the controversy between President Wilson and Dean West, Fine supported Wilson, but Magie sided with West.

When Hibben became president in 1912, Magie accepted appointment as Henry B. Fine's successor as dean of the faculty; he held this office until 1925. He continued to serve as chairman of the physics department until his retirement in 1929. At Commencement that year President Hibben conferred on him an honorary Sc.D.

As departmental chairman and dean, Magie was noted for his calmness, patience, and fairness. Allen Shenstone '14, his student, later his colleague, and then his successor as chairman of the department, said that the cordial relationship that had always been maintained in the physics department ``through agreements and disagreements'' was due to the enduring influence of the personality of Magie, ``a man of firm character but gentle manners.''

The Magie Apartments for junior faculty on the north side of Lake Carnegie, next to the Hibben Apartments, were named for Dean Magie in 1965.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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