University Archivist Tamar Chute introduces us to three OSU greats whose names are familiar but whose expertise on certain subjects may not be.
Edward S. Orton Sr.
In addition to serving as OSU’s first president, Edward Orton Sr., was an expert on geological sciences.
Born in Deposit, N.Y., in 1829, Orton graduated at age 17 from Hamilton College. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Orton came to OSU from Antioch College, where he served as president and professor of Natural History. Along with his duties as OSU president, Orton also served as its first professor of Geology, Mining and Metallurgy.
Orton served as president from 1873 to 1881 when he offered his resignation to the Board of Trustees — three times. According to its June 1881 minutes, the board finally agreed, with “unfeigned regret,” that he would give up the presidency to study geology. A year later, Orton accepted the appointment of state geologist, while retaining a professorship in Geology at the university. He remained in that position until his death in 1899.
While serving in both capacities, Orton “devoted more time to the geology of Ohio than any other person, and in particular had treated the scientific and practical aspects of the Ohio gas and oil fields with a thoroughness that has no parallel,” according to a 1900 article on Orton by Samuel Derby, OSU Latin professor and genealogical historian.
In 1891, the Board of Trustees decided to honor Orton by naming the university’s new geology building after him. Orton had helped design the building, which reflects Ohio’s own geological history. For instance, the exterior is made up of 40 types of Ohio stone, laid in the order in which they appear in the bedrock. The building, now known as Orton Hall, opened in 1893. Inside are the Edward Orton Memorial Library and the Orton Geological Museum, to which Orton provided roughly 10,000 of his own geological specimens. According to a 1964 alumni magazine article, each was recorded and numbered by hand; the last entry was dated just four days before Orton’s death.
Ralph D. Mershon
Ralph Mershon may best be known as the namesake for the Mershon Auditorium, but he was a world-renowned electrical engineer who also was an expert on civilian military training.
Mershon was born in Zanesville on July 14, 1868. He enrolled at Ohio State in 1886 and graduated in 1890 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He began experimenting and consulting in the fields of electrical engineering, which would eventually gain him worldwide recognition for his inventions and his work with hydroelectricity, particularly at Victoria Falls in South Africa.
During World War I, Mershon served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Corps of Engineers but his greatest contribution to the military was his efforts to establish a civilian military training program for the nation’s universities. Before World War I, military training on campuses consisted mostly of drills and physical education; he argued to broaden the curriculum so that students would be ready to serve as military officers once they graduated. This effort first led to the Ohio Plan for Reserve Officers. In 1916 the Ohio Plan was presented to Congress; that year, the National Defense Act was passed, and it included a provision for the establishment of the ROTC.
Mershon died on Feb. 14, 1952. He left his $7.5 million estate to the university. An endowment fund was established, with half of the annual income to be used to promote military education. The funds are still used to support professorships, scholarships and seminars in the field of military education and his bequest also led to the establishment of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State. The fund also paid for the construction of the Mershon Auditorium, which opened in 1957.
Herrick L. Johnston
Herrick Johnston’s expertise in chemistry was actually top-secret at one point, since it involved research for the Manhattan Project.
Johnston, who was born in 1898 in North Jackson, served as a Second Lieutenant in World War I, then attended Wooster College where he received a bachelor of science degree in 1922. In 1928 he earned his doctorate at the University of California and joined the Ohio State faculty in 1929.
A member of the American Chemical Society, Johnston founded OSU’s Cryogenic and Rocket Research Lab in 1941 with funding from the Development Fund and a contract from the Manhattan District Project. It was the first major government research contract in the area of physical science at the University. Johnston soon guided the lab into international recognition for its investigation of thermodynamic properties of matter at low temperatures. Known during World War II as the War Research Lab, work was done there with liquid gases related to the atom bomb project.
The work was of such a secret nature that the laboratory was under 24-hour guard, and while Johnston was passionate about the research, he was repulsed by the bureaucracy involved in running such a top-secret lab, according to his obituary in a 1965 issue of the alumni magazine.
After the building opened, security forms had to be filled out by all personnel working there. Apparently, Johnston refused to fill out the papers because of the time involved. One day when he came to the Lab, a guard refused to let him in the building. Johnston soon found out that the guard knew his identify but had been ordered not to admit him until he had filled out the necessary paper work at the administration building. There was then a small scuffle, and Johnston’s glasses were apparently broken. The next day, however, Johnston entered the building without any delays. According to the article, Johnston never did fill out the papers.
In 1953, Johnston left the university and established Herrick L. Johnston Inc., a manufacturing company in Columbus. His legacy at the University continued, however: In 1960, the Board of Trustees renamed the cryogenics lab building the Herrick L. Johnston Laboratory. And in 1974, one of Johnston’s doctoral students, Paul Flory, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.