The American Physical Society (APS) designated Jefferson Physical Laboratory a historical site in a special ceremony on Monday (April 27). Cherry Murray, president of APS and incoming dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was on hand to present a commemorative plaque in honor of the lab to Harvard President Drew Faust.

The award recognizes the special role that Harvard’s Physics Department has played in the establishment of the physics discipline within the United States and the prominence of numerous Harvard physicists and applied scientists at the research frontier in this field.

Jefferson Laboratory, the oldest American university building erected to pursue physics research, began with a shaky start.

Harvard President Charles W. Eliot declared in 1869 that liberal education should contain science, but his vision lacked the adoption of scientific research at the university level. He believed, explained Faust, quoting the former president, “that the faculty’s main obligation was regular and assiduous class teaching.”

“The department of physics in a university must embrace both teaching and investigation,” said John Trowbridge, one of a few physics professors at Harvard at the time, who helped to change Eliot’s mind. “If it is given up entirely to teaching, the cause of science suffers, and the object of a university which is founded both to teach and increase the sum of human knowledge is defeated.”

Eliot eventually agreed, and by 1880 planning for a new physics building was under way.

Jefferson Lab first opened its doors in 1884 — five years after the release of a report that detailed that the newly established Johns Hopkins University held more than seven times the amount of physical apparatus as Harvard.

The building is named for U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, after a generous donation by his relative, Boston businessman and Harvard alumnus Thomas Jefferson Coolidge.

“We’re here celebrating not just this laboratory … but the founding of the concept of the research university,” said Faust, who touched on Trowbridge’s legacy and how Jefferson Lab’s founding helped redefine what he originally dubbed “the object of a university.”

Said Faust: “We have adopted those principles, and we live by them still.”

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