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William F. Meggers, Dean of American Spectroscopists

William Meggers

by Jim Schooley, SAA History Committee

On June 12, 1914, William F. Meggers received an appointment as a laboratory assistant at the National Bureau of Standards. Meggers was a young man then, but still more than 12 years older than was NBS. They grew up together, the Bureau to become the envy of metrology laboratories throughout the world, and Meggers to become known as "Dean of American spectroscopists".

Meggers was born in 1888 to a farm family near Clintonville, Wisconsin, a rural community west of Green Bay. William was a bright lad, valedictorian of his high school class in Clintonville, and he was awarded an academic scholarship to Ripon College, some 60 miles to the south of his home. After his graduation with an A.B. degree in physics in 1910, he stayed another year as a graduate assistant to the chairman of the Ripon physics department, and then spent 1911-12 in graduate studies in the physics department of the University of Wisconsin. The Carnegie Institute of Technology awarded Meggers a position as instructor in physics in the fall of 1912. In 1914, however, Meggers read a paper in which Niels Bohr offered a theoretical explanation of the hydrogen spectrum based upon the concept of atomic energy levels. This paper so captured Meggers' imagination that he immediately decided to become a spectroscopist. He chose to pursue that career at NBS, then still forming its technical divisions. Meggers took the rigorous two-day civil service examination, passed the exam with high marks, and was hired by Samuel Stratton, the first director of NBS.

The first issue of the Culture of Excellence series stressed that Stratton had only 13 staff members when he first established the Bureau of Standards in 1901, and that it was Stratton's vision to hire the best scientific talent available to attack the many problems facing the new metrology agency. Meggers was one of many promising young scientists hired by Stratton who later became acknowledged leaders in their fields. By 1927, the periodical American Men of Science recognized 23 NBS scientists, including Meggers, as especially productive in their chosen fields (the largest number for any U.S. institution at that time).

When Meggers came to NBS, spectroscopy was still a developing technique, fascinating because the multitude of discrete lines displayed in the spectra of excited samples provided clues to atomic structure, but puzzling because the technique had not provided a ready method for such applications as quantitative chemical analysis. As Meggers noted in an early paper, tiny amounts of various impurity atoms produced strong spectral lines in a radiating sample, while others showed none. "Luminous vapors in a Bunsen flame", he wrote, "may show the lines of the alkali metals with an intensity which apparently bears little or no relation to the quantity of material present, while many elements such as the halides and metalloids may be present in large quantities and still show no spectrum under these conditions." Leading the study of spectroscopy as a useful analytic tool would be one of the strongest features of Meggers' life work. In his early studies, he addressed the influences of the physical condition of samples, the method of excitation used, and the optical and photographic apparatus employed in obtaining and recording spectral data, thus improving the spectrochemical technique into an extremely useful metrological tool. One of his first papers recorded his success in bathing photographic plates in a dicyanin rinse to sensitize them to longer-wavelength radiation.

As Meggers struggled to help improve spectroscopic and spectrographic instrumentation, he continued with his university physics studies., earning a Masters degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1916, and a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University in 1917.

In 1922, Meggers, C.C. Kiess, and F.J. Stimson published a paper on the use of spectrography as an aid to quantitative chemical analysis. The authors gave as an example of the technique the determination of the purity of gold bullion used for coinage or reserves by the U.S. Mint. Analysis for base metal impurities by the method of wet chemistry had proved to be expensive and tedious, but the NBS group established a quantitative spectrographic method that was highly accurate, quick, and inexpensive. Such success convinced Meggers of the value of developing uniform methods of spectral analysis and of compiling an exhaustive library of spectroscopic data.

But spectrochemistry was by no means the greatest of Meggers' contribution to science. As his spectroscopic tools became increasingly useful, he more often turned his attention to the power of spectroscopy in unraveling ever more complex atomic structures. Over a period of some five decades, Meggers undertook a systematic study of the spectra of some 50 elements. In the process, he helped establish standards for spectrographic measurement that were accepted throughout the world. The international recognition of Meggers as a leading atomic physicist was largely based on his energy-level classifications of spectral lines of these elements and the resulting enormous amount of atomic energy-level data he produced for a great variety of neutral and ionized species.

In 1967, an entire issue of the NBS Journal of Research commemorated the productive career of Dr. Meggers (Volume 71A, Number 6). In a Foreword, Karl G. Kessler offered an appraisal of the impact made by Meggers' work: "...More than any other man, Dr. Meggers came to be identified with the voluminous increase in our knowledge of atomic structure..."

"During the early years of atomic spectroscopy", wrote Kessler, "the analysis of spectra engaged the efforts of many of the world's physicists. When, during the early 1930's, the glamour in this field passed on to nuclear physics, most physicists followed.. Though much was known about atomic structure, the available information was frequently fragmentary and unreliable, and virtually nothing was known about the complex rare earths. Working with his colleagues, Carl C. Kiess and a handful of others, Meggers turned to ever more complex atoms and gave us, through his 178 published papers, one of the most extensive, significant, and reliable collections of data available to science."

One of Meggers' personal goals was to improve the international standard of length by spectroscopic means. Accordingly, in 1945 he followed a suggestion given by Jacob Wein and Luis Alvarez and obtained a sample of mercury 198 that was distilled from gold irradiated in the neutron flux of an Oak Ridge nuclear reactor. Studying the monoisotopic sample, Meggers found the wavelength of the well-known green line to be exceedingly narrow. He devised a lamp containing the isotope that provided a standard of length with an uncertainty of one part in 100 million, superior to either the standard meter (then known to one part in 10 million) or the red line of cadmium. Although the orange-red line of krypton 86 eventually was selected as the international standard of length in 1960, the NBS-Meggers mercury lamp continued to serve as a useful working standard for many years.

Meggers received many honors throughout his long career, and he served the spectroscopic community well. Among these honors and contributions are the following:

Served as Chief of the NBS Spectroscopy section from 1919 until his retirement in 1958.

Served 6 terms as a Member of the International Astronomical Union Commission on Standard Wavelengths and Spectral Tables, beginning in 1932. Meggers served as President of the Commission in 1938.

Awarded the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America in 1947.

Awarded the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 1948.

Awarded the Elliott Cresson medal of the Franklin Institute in 1948.

Served as President of the Optical Society of America, 1949-51.

Presented with the Medal award from the University of Liege in 1950.

Elected to the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Physics in 1950

Presented with the first medal award by the Society for Applied Spectroscopy in 1952.

Elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1954.

Meggers officially retired in 1958 after more than 40 years with NBS. However, the announcement of his retirement included the prediction that retirement would not interfere with his scientific work. The prediction turned out to be accurate, as Meggers continued his studies until his death on November 19, 1966. On December 16th of that year, NBS held a memorial service honoring Meggers' influential career. NBS Director Allen Astin spoke, as did Paul D. Foote, a close associate of Meggers who joined the NBS pyrometry group in 1911; Carl C. Kiess, who began working with Meggers in 1917; and Prof. George R. Harrison of MIT, whose association with Meggers began in 1921. The tributes given by these colleagues were preserved in a 20-page program. Taken together, they provide an inspiring picture of the long, joyful and productive life of William Frederick Meggers. Both before and during the service, many of his colleagues, both within NBS and elsewhere, recalled that he was consistently friendly and helpful to them. Among many others who gave tribute to him, Prof. John A. Wheeler, then President of the American Physical Society, remembered with gratitude his two summers at NBS as a student assistant to Meggers. "He was a guide, a philosopher, and a friend for a 19-year-old young man", wrote Wheeler, and the sentiment was echoed by many others.

In 1970, the Optical Society of America created the "William F. Meggers Award" for excellence in spectroscopic studies. Dr. William C. Martin, a Meggers colleague who himself still maintains a scientific connection with NIST, served as a member of the first award committee.

On the basis of the foregoing recitation of his very productive and important scientific exploits, one might understandably think of "Bill" Meggers as a one-dimensional scientific automaton, devoted to science to the exclusion of all other facets of life. But it would be unkind of a biographer to ignore an intensely human side of the man. In fact, he was a "man of many parts". As a Ripon College student, perennially short of cash, he organized a dance orchestra, in which he played the violin, the trumpet, and the trombone, to help pay his the bills. Years later, he and many of his scientific colleagues joined the NBS orchestra. Meggers married in 1920; he and his wife, Edith, carefully nurtured their three children towards productive professional lives of their own. Two other features of his personality bear reporting as well. In the course of his travels, many to Europe to visit famous scientists in their laboratories, he became a collector. He collected photographs taken during his trips, along with mint sheets of U.S. stamps, coins, usa-buttons, typewriters, antique long guns, phonographs, rocks and minerals..To accommodate his collections, he turned his home into a private museum. In addition to his penchant for collecting, Meggers devoted considerable time and money to encouraging the growth of science. For 20 years, he wrote abstracts for the journal Chemical Abstracts. He established a Meggers Trust Fund with the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for the benefit of young science students. In his will, Meggers also left his coin and stamp collections to the AIP for the same purpose; the collections were valued at $50,000.

Truly, William Meggers lived a full, interesting and productive life.

Sources utilized for these notes include the following:                

"Measures for Progress", by Rexmond Cochrane, NBS Miscellaneous Publication 275, 1966.                

"William Frederick Meggers, 1888-1966", A Biographical Memoir by Paul D. Foote, published in 1970 for the National Academy of Sciences, by Columbia University Press, New York.            

Conversations with Dr. William C. Martin who, besides providing personal memories of Meggers, lent the author copies of many articles about him, including the printed program of the December 1966 memorial tribute to Meggers' career.

The NBS/NIST Culture of Excellence series is produced under the auspices of the Standards Alumni Association. The SAA, with offices in the basement of the Administration Building, supports NIST management in a variety of ways, but principally by assistance with historical projects such as oral histories of staff members, biographical files, the Portrait Gallery of outstanding employees, and the museum. Membership in SAA is open to all present and former employees of NIST. For information, call 301-975-2486.

Created October 24, 2010, Updated November 8, 2018