Inspiring teaching, and excellence in atmospheric sciences: UGA traditions since 1801

With a look back at the first UGA meteorologist, Josiah Meigs

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The University of Georgia’s first real president, Josiah Meigs

On the occasion of my receiving the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship, I thought I’d use my 15 minutes-or-fewer of “fame” to shine a spotlight on the person this professorship is named for. It’s also a chance to shine the beam forward across two centuries to the atmospheric sciences program I’m a part of at UGA, to note some surprising similarities and an amusing contrast between Meigs and myself, and to inquire a little about the changing climate of Athens, thanks to Meigs.

Josiah Meigs Comes To Georgia

The Meigs Professorship honors Josiah Meigs, who was the first president of the University of Georgia once it actually became more than a hypothetical charter. UGA was the brainchild of its in-name-only first president, Abraham Baldwin. A Yale graduate and later tutor at Yale, Baldwin broke new ground in the United States by getting his adopted state of Georgia to charter a public university in 1785. By the time the state was able to get its act together and actually launch this effort, in 1801, Baldwin was a U.S. Senator and too busy to be a college president. So Baldwin turned to one of his top students from his Yale tutor days, Meigs, and invited him to come on down to Athens, Georgia and be the president instead.

Today, Athens has the reputation of being a great college town. In 1801, it was a tiny outpost on the edge of “Indian” country, with no actual college. But Meigs was looking for an “out.” At the time he was a Yale professor, known for high ethical standards. He was also a devout follower of Jeffersonian politics, which included some sense of a separation of church and state. Yale, however, was ruled by president Timothy Dwight, grandson of theologian Jonathan Edwards. Dwight was on the other side of the political spectrum, an uber-Federalist who embodied and intertwined political, academic, and religious power. Dwight’s family ended up dominating Yale; one Dwight relative or another was its president for a majority of the 19th century. Meigs and Dwight clashed, which put Meigs on the wrong side of history in New Haven. It was not a huge surprise; Josiah was known to be forceful in his political views. And so it was with some initial relief that Meigs and his family left Yale for the wilderness of northeast Georgia.

Meigs Creates a University, Gets Little Respect

Upon arrival, Meigs had a curriculum ready to go, modeled after Yale’s and particularly strong for the era in the sciences. But there were no students, no buildings, no library, no nothing. He was creating a university from scratch!

So Meigs became the full-service college president: the only professor on the faculty, the president, the supervisor of construction of what is now Old College (modeled on Yale’s buildings), you name it. He threw himself into the work. He was paid sometimes, it appears, but money was always in short supply for UGA in its first century-plus.

Meigs was regarded as a good and caring teacher (when he wasn’t literally running around creating the university). His great-grandson’s biography of Meigs (p. 74) notes that “(a) most amiable trait in his character was his interest in younger men, and his pleasure in associating and studying with those of them who were anxious to increase their knowledge.” (This reminds us, of course, that higher education in the early 19th century was reserved for men.)

The Board of Trustees that oversaw the new university expected Meigs to magically turn nothing-on-the-edge-of-the-wilderness into Yale in short order, Meigs’s supporters thought. That wasn’t going to happen. The lack of rapid growth in the student body (from zero to fluctuating double digits) was a concern.

Also, according to a research article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1945, the Board of Trustees was increasingly dominated by Presbyterians who wanted religious education to be strongly emphasized at the new university. Meigs was not a supporter of that, and Jeffersonians were viewed as tantamount to being deists, and so once again Meigs clashed with his superiors at the nexus of politics, religion, and academia. He resigned as president in 1810, but stayed as a professor in math and the sciences for another year before he was fired by the Trustees.

Afterwards, the good Presbyterians on the Board then opted for presidents who had associations with Princeton University, which at that time was a kind of Presbyterian Notre Dame. This approach did not succeed, at first. As the fledgling university spun down to nearly nothing, the trustees reached out to Moses Waddel, a Presbyterian minister and educator in South Carolina highly regarded nationally for his students’ successes. Waddel came to Athens as president (and, simultaneously, founding minister of First Presbyterian Church) and rescued the university from oblivion. UGA would be led by minister-presidents for most of the rest of the 19th century, each one arguably a lesser-and-lesser copy of Waddel.

The Yale influence on UGA diminished after that, save for the layout of North Campus that was designed by Meigs, a few buildings on North Campus and — curiously enough — the adoption of the bulldog in the 20th century as UGA’s sports nickname and symbol. (Yale is also the Bulldogs, although that nickname originated a century after Meigs left Yale.) There’s a statue of Abraham Baldwin on North Campus, and a building named for Baldwin that has made the news in recent years.

However, the even harder work of Meigs rates less visible recognition. Meigs Hall was built in 1905 on the edge of North Campus (coincidentally near the field where football originated at UGA in 1892), and fittingly houses the Institute of Higher Education. And there’s the teaching professorship named after him. But that’s about it. Not enough, for the person who took Baldwin’s dream and made it a reality, against long odds and strong headwinds, for its first decade.

Meigs is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, at the direction of his grandson Montgomery Meigs, the legendary quartermaster general of the Union Army during the Civil War (and a very early inductee into the National Academy of Sciences to boot). Like his grandfather, Montgomery had strongly held ethical and political views and didn’t hide them. He created the cemetery on the grounds of Robert E. Lee’s estate during the war partly as payback for Lee’s defection to the Confederacy.

Josiah Meigs, the First UGA Meteorologist

If you’re a connoisseur of UGA history, you may have known some of that history. But what few people in Athens know — but more people in my profession of meteorology know — is that Josiah Meigs was a pioneer in meteorology. Yes, meteorology (today known more broadly as “atmospheric sciences”) arrived officially on the UGA campus-to-be on June 16, 1801, in the person of new president and sole professor Josiah Meigs.

Meigs had held a chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Yale before coming to UGA. At the new UGA, Meigs taught everything. But, as his great-grandson states (p. 79), “(h)is favorite pursuits were “Mathematics, Astronomy, and Meteorology.” Meigs’s passion for weather was very specific, unlike someone of his era who might have been more generally interested in phenomena in the sky. Meteorology was a fledgling science in the late 1700s, and even the word “Meteorology” (which dates back to Aristotle) was not used as often back then as it is now. Weather would often get lumped in with other sciences or even pseudosciences. But Meigs was a man on the cutting edge of educational and scientific developments.

Meigs’s particular interest in meteorology appears to have been weather observations — particularly simultaneous weather observations across large distances. He may have been inspired by his political hero. The first such simultaneous observations on this side of the Atlantic were made by none other than Thomas Jefferson and a cousin of James Madison (who was also named James, and president of William and Mary College at the time) in 1778. This is according to the definitive Meteorology in America, 1800–1870, by noted historian of science Jim Fleming, with whom I’ve had the pleasure to serve on a national committee on meteorological history. According to a 1960 article in the magazine Weatherwise by then-U.S. Weather Bureau State Climatologist of Georgia and research associate in the UGA Agricultural Engineering Department Horace Carter, Meigs began observing the weather during his time as a lawyer in Bermuda in the 1780s and early 1790s, prior to becoming a professor at Yale.

By no later than 1803 Meigs started keeping his own local meteorological observations in Athens. Most of the records have not survived, but a climatological summary of Athens weather for the year 1805 was published in an Augusta newspaper in 1806 and reprinted in Carter’s article (which is behind an expensive paywall).

In that article, Meigs reveals that he was knowledgeable about best meteorological and climatological practices for siting an instrument and recording data for scientific purposes. [This is a topic that my wife Pam is an expert in, as the director of the University of Georgia Weather Network, which is one of the oldest continuously operating “mesonets” (or dense statewide network of weather stations) in the country.]

Meigs placed his thermometer on the north side of his house (to shade from direct sunlight at 34 degrees N latitude), and 10 feet above the ground (to reduce the influence of temperature right at the ground, which can be hotter during the day and colder during the night than the ambient air). Today’s thermometers are shaded and a little lower to the ground than Meigs’s, but he knew what he was doing, and why. He recorded temperatures three times a day: “at morning, noon, and evening,” not very different from the practices of the U.S. Weather Bureau a century later.

In addition to temperature, Meigs also measured and recorded wind direction, days of clear skies and clouds and rain and thunder and snow etc., frost dates, driest and rainiest months, and the highest and lowest temperatures of the year. He was essentially a Cooperative Observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau, except that the Bureau didn’t even exist until 1870 and the “co-op” program wasn’t created until 1890!

Meigs’s Athens temperature observations (in degrees Fahrenheit) for 1805 bear repeating:

__________

Jan: 44.90

Feb: 47.25

Mar: 55.90

Apr: 64.96

May: 69.64

Jun: 78.30

Jul: 81.30

Aug: 78.20

Sep: 77.50

Oct: 54.10

Nov: 54.83

Dec: 52.45

1805 Average: 62.90

Highest temperature: 100 on July 7

Lowest temperature: 6 on January 22

Latest frost: April 28

Earliest frost: October 3

__________

We’ll come back to this data later.

Josiah Meigs, Meteorological Visionary

Making weather observations at one’s residence was not original to Meigs. But he had bigger dreams. After his time in Athens, Meigs was appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office in the Department of the Treasury in Washington, DC. In 1817 Meigs had an idea that earns him over two pages in Fleming’s history of early American meteorology.

Meigs, in his role as commissioner, directed 20 land offices across the young United States, from Detroit in Michigan to New Orleans in the south; west to St. Louis; and east to Meigs himself in Washington. The area covered spanned over 13 degrees of latitude and 10 degrees of longitude. His idea: have each office make three-daily reports of temperature, winds, and weather and other weather- or nature-related observations, epidemics, and so forth. Basically, he was asking his offices to do the exact same kind of observations he’d been making in Athens over a decade earlier. These reports would be sent monthly to the home office in Washington.

From these broadly spaced locations, one could for the first time get a sense of concurrent regional and national weather in the United States— not just the observations at one’s home or plantation. Meigs was following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, who in the 1740s was one of the first people to intuit that weather is not merely local, but that storms move from place to place over long distances. (This is fitting, since UGA’s nickname in the pre-Civil War era was “Franklin,” in honor of Ben.) But Franklin had not plotted or compared quantitative observations. That is the direction Meigs was heading in.

This all sounds rudimentary in 2020, an age in which you can Google “weather map” and see countless examples of depictions of simultaneous regional and national weather. But the observational network needed to provide this information did not exist in Meigs’s time. Even in Europe, the weather map with the lines of equal pressure or “isobars” was not invented until 1817, the same year as Meigs’s idea. He had a world-class, cutting-edge research idea.

Meigs tried to get this idea funded by Congress. But from the 1800s to now, meteorology has been poorly funded by the U.S. government. Today’s budget for the entire National Weather Service is only $1.16 billion, 35% less than the UGA budget! That’s right, a national science agency has a much smaller budget than a state university in the United States of America in the year 2020. So, it’s no surprise that Meigs couldn’t get his network of observers and their weather instruments funded.

Meigs went ahead and collected the data he could, in spite of the lack of funding. (Some things never change in science!) He began plotting the weather data “geometrically,” i.e. in the form of a map. Nearly all of the reports are lost, but he did publish some results in a weekly publication in 1819. In the article, Meigs highlighted a cold outbreak, which he called an “almost universal prevalence of cold” from Detroit to Augusta, GA on December 21, 1818.

This is precisely the kind of “synoptic” meteorology observation that meteorologists make from weather maps today. “Synoptic” means “seeing together,” as in seeing multiple observations at the same time across large distances, and then connecting the dots. Meigs was connecting the dots! Detroit’s unusual cold was related to Augusta’s unusual cold. This was, by all accounts, pioneering work. Furthermore, he could do this not for just one moment in time, but across time. Josiah Meigs may have been the first person on Earth to use scientific data to visualize weather patterns across both space and time — something we take for granted on TV and the Internet today.

With funding for barometers and some more time, Meigs could have led a meteorological revolution in America that would have placed the young United States at least on a par with Europe in this fledgling science. Instead, his famously good health gave out suddenly, and Josiah Meigs died at age 65 in 1822 without publishing a scientific paper on his results. Consequently, his work did not have the impact it could have had on the science of meteorology.

All was not lost, however. Others in the U.S. advocated for similar observations, and the advent of the telegraph made near-instantaneous transmission of observations from far-flung locations possible. Meigs’s dream eventually became a reality, but not until the last decades of the 19th century.

It is one of the what-if’s of the history of meteorology: what if Meigs had prevailed in getting Congress to fund his effort? Or, what if he had been able to stay at UGA and make the university a nationally recognized center for meteorology education and research?

The UGA Atmospheric Sciences Program

After Josiah Meigs’s departure from UGA, the sciences received somewhat less emphasis for most of the 19th century. Two of the most notable scientists of UGA’s early history, the Le Conte brothers, left after a long-standing feud with longtime stern Presbyterian president Alonzo Church. The Le Contes ended up at the new University of California in Berkeley and in no time at all turned it into a nationally and internationally acclaimed university. Whoops.

UGA’s transformation into a research university in the mid-20th century brought with it a renaissance of science in Athens. Included in that rebirth was climatology, the longer-term kin of meteorology. A few professors and others studied climate in the Departments of Geography and (Biological and) Agricultural Engineering throughout the last half of the 20th century.

In 2000, under the leadership of its founding director Dr. Thomas Mote in UGA’s Geography Department, a cross-campus Atmospheric Sciences Program was created with undergraduate and graduate certificates in atmospheric sciences. This program has grown over time, and in 2016 an undergraduate degree in atmospheric sciences was created. We now have over 50 undergraduate majors, more than a doubling of our student body in just three years. Our faculty ranks have grown as well, numbering 12 faculty across six departments and four colleges, with the greatest concentration in Geography (seven). There are also over a dozen graduate students at any one time pursuing M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in geography who are performing atmospheric sciences research.

My wife and I are a serendipitous part of this expansion. We landed by chance in Athens in 2001, when Pam accepted the new position of Assistant State Climatologist of Georgia in Engineering at UGA. I was Dr. Dad to our young son at home and a temporary instructor in engineering. Not long after, climatologists Vern Meentemeyer and Tom Mote from Geography were talking to me about the possibility of my teaching weather-related geography courses, which I happily agreed to. One thing led to another, in a good way, under the leadership of department head Kavita Pandit. In 2007, then-Vice President for Instruction Jere Morehead created teaching-intensive tenure-track positions in several departments, including Geography. I interviewed for and was offered that position in 2008.

I think Josiah Meigs would be pleased to see what’s happened with atmospheric sciences at UGA in the past two decades. He was a man of very high standards, and that’s what we have for our students and faculty.

Our undergraduates are recipients of national undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships from the American Meteorological Society, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation. Our students have gone on to pursue research at top atmospheric sciences graduate programs such as the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech, the University of Virginia (multiple), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other undergraduate alums are fixtures in broadcast meteorology in large markets such as Atlanta (multiple), Tampa, Nashville, Birmingham (multiple), and even Auckland, New Zealand! Our graduate students are now faculty members at Northern Illinois University (multiple), Mississippi State University (multiple), Auburn, Florida State, LSU, James Madison, the University of Texas-San Antonio, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, as well as other institutions. Numerous graduates are pursuing careers in the public and private sectors, from the National Weather Service (multiple) and the U.S. Air Force (multiple) to Delta Air Lines (multiple) and the Weather Channel (multiple).

Meanwhile, our faculty excel in all three areas of UGA’s motto: To teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.” Among our six tenured or tenure-track geography faculty in the atmospheric sciences program, 67% have won a college-wide, university-wide, state-wide, region-wide, and/or national teaching award; 50% have won a college-wide advising award or a national service award; 67% have won national research or applied research awards; 33% have served national office in professional societies; and 50% have been named Fellows of one or more professional societies. Check, check, check. And now 50% of them are also Distinguished Professors at UGA.

In just two decades, UGA has gone from being largely unknown in strictly meteorological circles (geography is a different story; UGA’s Geography Department has been nationally ranked in its discipline for many decades) to being the go-to program for atmospheric sciences in the state of Georgia and attracting national attention. If you doubt this, ask our current director Marshall Shepherd — if you can catch him in-between his appearances on the national news!

Josiah Meigs would be proud, I think.

Josiah Meigs and Me

As the first meteorologist ever to be a recipient of the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship, I thought a few comparisons and one big contrast are in order.

Meigs was the youngest child in his family, a science professor with a passion for meteorology. Before that he was a journalist and publisher of a weekly newspaper. He came from a family with more smarts than money, and his politics were liberal for his time. He was an inspiring teacher who built programs.

Similarly, I’m the youngest child in my family, who decided to be a meteorologist at the age of five. There are four generations of journalists on my mom’s side of the family; I’m the grandson of newspaper publishers and editors, and the brother and cousin of journalists. My politics are also to the left of Trump’s America. My small-church minister-father never asked for a raise in his life, to my penny-pinching mom’s consternation as she kept the books. I try to be an inspiring teacher, but I’ll let my 6,000-plus UGA students since 2001 be the judge of that. And I have done all I can to build UGA’s atmospheric sciences program, serving as its undergraduate coordinator, recruiter, and advisor to all its students for the past 15 years.

However pleased Josiah Meigs might be at our program, though, he might fall dead in a faint at my being named a recipient of a professorship in his name. You see, I am the son of a Presbyterian minister; I am named for the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism; and for the past 20 years I have been an active part of Presbyterian campus ministry efforts at UGA!

Given his tumultuous experience with the Presbyterian trustees of UGA, poor Josiah would surely assume the worst of a meteorologist named, of all things, John Knox. Surely UGA has gone to the dogs! (Meigs wouldn’t even get that joke; he was before its time!)

But perhaps the circle is now complete in some historical sense. Or perhaps a long-standing debt has been repaid.

A Glimpse of Climate Change in Athens

In closing, let’s use Meigs’s observations from the year 1805 by comparing them to the National Weather Service’s climate observations for 2019 and the year 2020 so far.

While Pam would tell you, rightly, that you can’t compare temperature observations between a site 10 feet up on a house and 5 feet up at an airport over 200 years later, I’ll do it anyway. Take this with a grain of salt, “for illustrative purposes only.”

The first three months of 2020 have averaged 53.16 degrees Fahrenheit in Athens. Two hundred and fifteen years ago, Josiah Meigs recorded an average temperature of 49.35 degrees F. In scientific units, the temperature in 2020 was 2.1 degrees Celsius warmer than in 2019.

The globe as a whole has warmed about 1.2 degrees C since 1805. Comparing a few months in Athens to a couple of centuries for the whole world is apples and oranges. But it does give the right sign of the answer: we’re warming.

Even more revelatory are the frost dates Meigs recorded. The last frost in spring 1805 was on April 28. In 2019, it was on March 20, more than a month earlier.

And the first frost of the fall in 1805? On October 3. What was the weather on October 3, 2019? You might remember it. It’s when Athens hit 100 degrees F, the highest temperature in all of 2019. Holy smokes! From a frost in 1805 to 100-degree weather in 2019, on the same day of the year! The times they are a-changin’.

Again, the frost dates are a facile comparison, not a scientific research result. But it’s motivational in an educational sense, kind of the way Richard Feynman dunked the O-ring in ice water to prove a point during the public hearings into the Challenger disaster. Feynman knew full well that the Challenger didn’t launch into a pitcher of ice water, but the underlying point was valid.

Meigs recorded the lowest temperature of 1805 in Athens on January 22, at a bitter 6 degrees F. In 2019, the National Weather Service recorded the lowest temperature on January 30, at… 23 degrees F. (In 2020, the coldest temperature so far has been 21F, on January 22.) Where did all the cold air go? Now you’re catching on to this “global warming” concept!

Unfortunately, without a complete record of Athens temperatures from 1805 to the present, corrected for biases such as the urban heat island and station moves and instrument changes, these contrasting comparisons above are just subjective (and a bit fortunate). But the signal is undeniable in the rigorously obtained, calibrated, and bias-corrected data, from land, from ocean, from air bubbles in ice, from caves and boreholes, from satellites: our planet’s atmosphere (and oceans) are warming now, and have warmed since the 19th century. Additional rigorous science, fundamentally based on the science of the 19th through 21st centuries, shows that we are the cause of this, and the temperatures will just keep going up and up unless action is taken urgently.

As a scientist with a passion for meteorology and a vision for weather observations across vast distances, Josiah Meigs would be the first to agree. Perhaps his last act of inspiring teaching at UGA is here and now, as we use his careful observations of 215 years ago to motivate our own understanding of weather and climate in a new millennium.

— Dr. John Knox is the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia. E-mail: johnknox@uga.edu

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