Memorial Address for Simon Newcomb

Leland Ossian Howard (1857-1950) was an American entomologist. As President of the Cosmos Club and Permanent Secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science he had known Simon Newcomb well. He gave a Memorial Address for Simon Newcomb to the Philosophical Society of Washington on 4 December 1909. We give a version of that address below:

The brief contribution which I shall make tonight to the memory of Simon Newcomb will be simply reminiscential in its nature, and will refer to only one or two sides of his many-sided and wonderful character. I knew him in the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on the Board of Management of the Cosmos Club, and as Executive Secretary of the International Congress of Arts and Sciences at St Louis in 1903, I saw him intimately for a few weeks under extraordinary conditions which gave me an insight into his character which only those closest to him could have gained.

When I joined the Cosmos Club nearly five and twenty years ago, I was shown about by my sponsors who introduced me to this and that well-known scientific man, and who ultimately pointed out a stern looking, bearded man engaged in playing chess, with the whispered comment "That is the most eminent member of the Club, Simon Newcomb, the astronomer and mathematician." The reverential awe with which I watched him was thoroughly genuine and lasted for many years. His face seldom softened with a smile and, although presented to him several times, I never ventured to accost him. He seemed so aloof from ordinary men, and always in an attitude so superior to the small things of life, that in his presence I felt like one of the smallest of those things.

Years later I came into the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which Newcomb, as a past President of that great organization, was a perpetual member. He had little to say, although his interest in the welfare of the Association was evidently deep, but when he did speak it was with a mixture of sound, scientific judgment and of clarified common sense that showed me that he was far more than the abstracted scientific genius I had always supposed him to be. But he still seemed unapproachable. His unbending carriage, his leonine head, his stern expression, did not invite the approach of younger men. And so I knew him only from a distance, which, as I later found, was not to know him at all.

And then there came a summer (it was after his retirement from the active list in the Navy) when his wife was away and he was thrown upon the Club. The men of his own scientific pursuits and of his own time were no longer there; but Newcomb interested himself in the younger men - not only those engaged in scientific work, but others. And he took his luncheons, curiously enough, with a group of architects - Glenn Brown, Dessez, Fuller, Hornblower, Marshall, Poindexter - and jokingly denied a seat at his table to all but architects. And then I and all the rest of us learned to know him better, and soon the sense of awe passed away and a feeling very much like affection took its place.

Soon after there began a miniature revolution in the Club. New by-laws were adopted, emphasizing the intellectual features of the organization, and, as the most eminent exponent of that aspect of the Club life, he was made its President by practically a unanimous vote. In the meetings of the Board of Management he took the most serious interest, even in the most sordid details of club management, and showed himself a man of rare business judgment and capacity, while in all his relations with the other members he exhibited a charming courtesy at first and a warm friendliness later that showed us how much we had lost in not penetrating his apparent reserve at an earlier period.

But it was the 1903 International Congress of Arts and Sciences at St Louis which opened my eyes most fully, and those of many others, to the all-around greatness of the man. He had been chosen first among the organizers of the Congress and as its President. He and the two Vice-Presidents, Doctor M√ľnsterberg and Doctor Small, were sent to Europe to secure the cooperation of the leading men of science and art in all branches of learning, and to gain their support to the Congress and their attendance. It is obvious that no better choice could have been made, for Newcomb was, of all the American men of science, the one best known to European investigators. He was received everywhere with all the respect which his eminent scientific standing demanded and which his irreproachable character deserved; and the success of his journey and that of his colleagues was surprising. He returned to this country and immediately began the organization of the Congress. He secured offices and a corps of helpers, and worked night and day. He saw the necessity for the appointment of an executive secretary of the Congress in a person accustomed to the handling of large meetings of scientific men, and it was upon his suggestion that the exposition authorities appointed the speaker to that position. Arriving at St Louis, in the hot days of late July, little had been done locally. The confusion attending the opening of a large international exposition had hardly passed away. The necessity for large and competent meeting halls in great number had not been met, and there was room for hard work and organizing ability in the extreme. All emergencies were met; the Congress assembled; distinguished men of all branches of learning came from all parts of the world; Newcomb was the controlling factor; his opening address, devoted as it was to the broad subject of the evolution of the scientific investigator, was broad and profound and eloquent. I quote a paragraph from his closing words, to give you an idea of the felicity and eloquence of his diction:

"The assembling of such a body as now fills this hall was scarcely possible in any preceding generation, and is made possible now only through the agency of science itself. It differs from all preceding international meetings by the universality of its scope, which aims to include the whole of knowledge. It is also unique in that none but leaders have been sought out as members. It is unique in that so many lands have delegated their choicest intellects to carry on its work. They come from the country to which our republic is indebted for a third of its territory, including the ground on which we stand; from the land which has taught us that the most scholarly devotion to the languages and learning of the cloistered past is compatible with leadership in the practical application of modern science to the arts of life; from the island whose language and literature have found a new field and a vigorous growth in this region; from the last seat of the holy Roman Empire; from the country which, remembering a monarch who made an astronomical observation at the Greenwich Observatory, has enthroned science in one of the highest places in its government; from the peninsula so learned that we have invited one of its scholars to come and tell us of our own language; from the land which gave birth to Leonardo, Galileo, Torricelli, Columbus, Volta - what an array of immortal names! - from the little republic of glorious history which, breeding men rugged as its eternal snow-peaks, has yet been the seat of scientific investigation since the day of the Bernoullis; from the land whose heroic dwellers did not hesitate to use the ocean itself to protect it against invaders, and which now makes us marvel at the amount of erudition compressed within its little area; from the nation across the Pacific, which, by half a century of unequalled progress in the arts of life, has made an important contribution to evolutionary science through demonstrating the falsity of the theory that the most ancient races are doomed to be left in the rear of the advancing age - in a word, from every great centre of intellectual activity on the globe I see before me eminent representatives of that world-advance in knowledge which we have met to celebrate. May we not confidently hope that the discussions of such an assemblage will prove pregnant of a future for science which shall outshine even its brilliant past?"

This occasion, which I consider to be perhaps the culminating public function of Newcomb's career, was a fitting climax to a life of research. Here in bodily presence he appeared, as he had so long been in the minds of intellectual workers, a great leader in the world of thought.

Last Updated October 2015