by Ann Kessler
A remarkable illustration of the movement of National Bureau of Standards (NBS) physicists into the Forest Hills neighborhood in the 1920s can be found in the 2900 block of Brandywine Street NW. Three houses on that block were occupied by NBS physicists, more specifically spectroscopists, in the 1920s and the following decades.
It all started in the Spectroscopy Division at the NBS in the early 1920s. Three Spectroscopy staff members who worked together wrote one of the seminal works on the subject, Practical Spectrographic Analysis (PDF), in 1922. The authors were William F. Meggers, Chief of the Spectroscopy Section, and two of his assistants, associate physicists Carl C. Kiess and Florence J. Stimson. These scientists first became colleagues, and then became neighbors as one by one they moved to the 2900 block of Brandywine.
The first of these families to move onto Brandywine Street, around 1923, was the Stimsons. Carl C. Kiess bought land next door at 2928 Brandywine in 1923 and built his house by 1926. The chief of the division, William F. Meggers, got a permit to build his house at 2904 Brandywine in 1925.
Florence J. and Harold F. Stimson, 2920 Brandywine St. NW
2920 Brandywine was the home of not one, but two physicists. Both Florence J. and Harold F. Stimson were trained physicists who worked at the NBS. The Stimsons first bought their property on Brandywine Street NW in the early 1920’s and built a one room home they called a “coop.” They eventually added more land and built their brick home in 1926.
By 1927, Florence had left the NBS where she had been an associate physicist under Dr. Meggers, and became a stay-at-home mom to two girls. She became very involved in her community, volunteering with the Girl Scouts, promoting gardening, and working with the Home and School Association at the local public school, Murch Elementary.
Dr. Harold Stimson was hired by the NBS in 1916 and retired in 1960 at age 70. He frequently called his retirement a firing, because he resented being forced to retire at 70 because of the NBS’s age limits. His specialty at the NBS was temperature measurement and he was the author of numerous publications.
While he was a distinguished scholar, he also was known to have served as a barber, cutting his colleagues’ hair.
On June 13, 1971, the Washington Post published a photo of NBS retired physicist Harold Stimson mowing his front lawn with a hand mower. He was 81 at the time and, according to the article, known to be the “neighborhood’s most fascinating character.” This Post story focused on his 96/100 of an acre garden in the Stimson backyard. He and his wife Florence liked a big garden of vegetables and flowers and used an old plow pulled behind the family station wagon to create it.
His backyard also included a crystal garden made of huge chunks of crystal that had been unusable for scientific purposes and brought home from the NBS.
Harold Stimson was a lifelong friend of the rocket pioneer, Robert H. Goddard. Stimson is first mentioned in Robert Goddard’s diary in 1911 (See the Robert H. Goddard Papers) when they were both at Clark University. Dr. Stimson himself kept files on Robert Goddard – clippings, programs of events, correspondence with Goddard’s wife, Esther, mementos, etc. – which he donated to the National Air and Space Museum Archives.
Carl C. Kiess, 2928 Brandywine St. NW
Carl C. Kiess, another author of Practical Spectrographic Analysis, was, in addition to being a spectroscopist, also a respected astrophysicist. In fact, he discovered the Kiess Comet (also known as C/1911 N 1) in 1911 before coming to NBS.
A crater on the moon is named for him. Dr. Kiess also studied whether there was life on Mars, determining, with the aid of his wife who was also an astronomer, that there was no oxygen or water vapor to be measured spectroscopically on Mars. He also theorized that there was poison gas on Mars through spectrum analysis of Martian light in 1963 (after his official retirement in 1957).
Dr. Kiess was also an active citizen of DC. He strongly supported voting rights and, upon his retirement from NBS in 1957 at age 70, asked that all contributions for his party be given to Children’s Hospital.
William Frederick Meggers, 2904 Brandywine St. NWDr. Meggers is called the “Dean of American Spectroscopists.” The Meggers Crater on the moon is named for him.
Dr. Meggers was hired by the National Bureau of Standards as an assistant in the spectroscopy lab in 1914 for a salary of $1,000 a year. In 1920, after receiving his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, he became the head of that division, a position he would retain until his official retirement in 1958 at age 70, though he continued to work informally until his death in 1966.
His accomplishments were many in the field of spectroscopy and he is credited with establishing standards of spectrography measurement that are accepted around the world. He also made contributions to the fields of atomic and nuclear physics, astrophysics and photography.
An article in the Washington Post on Feb. 23, 1941 titled “Introducing the Meggers Family: (They Collect Just About Anything You Can Name),” is a human interest story describing Dr. Meggers’ fun family. Dr. Meggers was also an amateur photographer whose collection of photos of Nobel Laureates in spectroscopy and other related fields became the core of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) “Gallery of Nobel Laureates.” He had a strong relationship with AIP, donating his valuable stamp and coin collections to the institute to establish the Meggers Project Award for work to improve high school physics instruction. He also left his papers to the institute, and most intriguingly, his family also donated their home movies to AIP.
It is hard to say what it must have been like to live near people with whom they worked every day. It is easy to say, though, that these were all brilliant scientists who chose to make Forest Hills their home.
This is a three-part series. Yesterday: The father of Forest Hills’ Halloween parade. Tomorrow: An Edison associate.
Adam Sieminski says
Norman Kiess (son of Carl Kiess and his spouse Harriet) inherited the property at 2928 Brandywine. Norm, born in 1930, was also a physicist. He was teaching at a university in Texas but returned to DC after the death of his father to help care for his mother. He continued to live in his boyhood home after his mother passed away. Norm lived simply and alone, but loved to talk with his neighbors about physics, astronomy, gardening, and the stock market. One of his favorite stories was how he traded stock market tips at Wilson High School class reunions (Class of 1947) with Warren Buffett.
Norm said that his father and neighbor Harold Stimson (Norm called him “Stimy”) bought and then split the empty lot between their properties (so there is no 2922, 2924, or 2926 address on Brandywine St.), and the lots at 2920 and 2928 are wider than most of the others on the street.
Norm’s parents also owned a summer home at Scientist Cliffs, MD and Norm told us that several of the NBS scientists had places there. The original community bylaws said that only scientists would be eligible for membership!
Toward the end of the last decade, Norm moved to assisted living and he passed away a few years ago. We remember him fondly.
William Polson says
I had Dr. Kiss in several graduate classes at Stephen F Austin in Texas. He wanted me to go to Hopkins and become a spectroscopist but I went elsewhere and did theoretical nuclear instead. Did not know he had passed until I saw this article..
Edward Kiess says
I am the youngest son of Carl and Harriet Kiess. Very interesting article, brings back memories. Iam also a physicist; taught at Hampden-Sydney College 35 years. Norman died in 2008. Are you the daughter of Karl Kessler?
Ann Kessler says
Thanks so much for responding to my article. I am not related to Karl Kessler, but I am the wife of Carl Kessler, a native of Boston. We moved into the area in 1974 and raised our kids here. I have dabbled in Forest Hills history for years, writing a history of Murch Elementary School in 1990. That history is being updated by students this year, so I was wondering if you went to Murch? If you did, the students might like to ask you some questions.
I came across the information about that block of Brandywine just by chance. I found the Wikipedia entry for your father and his obituary. I wondered though how the families mentioned interacted while living on that block?
Hope Stimson O'Toole says
My grandparents, Harold (Stimy) and Florence Stimson were incredible people. They were both simple, common sense people. They never stopped learning about a wide variety of subjects. They inspired me to continue reading and learning. Not a day goes by that I do not think about them and the thirst for knowledge they gave me.
Edward Kiess says
Yes I attended Murch @ 1938-1944, then Deal and Wilson.
The neighbors were friendly and respectful of each other.