MS-203:  Louis A. Parsons Papers (1895-1957)

(16  boxes,   5.28 cubic feet)


Inclusive Dates: 1895-1957

Bulk Dates:  1907-1938

 Link to Full Finding Aid (PDF)

Processed by: Karen Dupell Drickamer

March 2017


Musselman Library received the papers of Louis A. Parsons  from David Martin, Sue Boardman, Thomas Notarangelo, (all purchased at the estate auction) and Parsons’ grandson, Mark Schonbeck, over a period of four years.


Louis A. Parsons (1872 – 1957) was a Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics at Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College from 1907 to 1925. 

Parsons was born on April 9, 1872 in Burlington Iowa, to Albion and Mary Hilleary Parsons (1843-1919).  He entered Iowa State University in 1891, earning a B.A. in 1895 and an M.A. in 1899.  After teaching at Burlington High School, Burlington, Iowa, he entered Johns Hopkins University, earning his Ph.D. in 1902.  He continued as an Assistant in Physics at Johns Hopkins for the next year, before teaching at the University of Utah, 1903-1904. From 1904-1907 Parsons served as an Instructor in Physics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Parsons was hired by Pres. Samuel S. Hefelbower in 1907 to create and chair a Department of Physics. It is apparent from his correspondence that although he never intended to remain at Gettysburg College for an extended period of time, he felt another move would be too disruptive for his mother who had been keeping house for him and he passed up several opportunities to move on.   His mother died in December 1919.  On August 21, 1920, he married Eva Pauline (Polly) Derr (Class of 1910).  Their first child, Mary Elisabeth, was born on July 1, 1923 in Gettysburg, and their son, Albion Derr, was born in 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington.

While at Gettysburg College, Parsons worked diligently to build up the new department and sent many physics students to graduate school.  He was an active member of both the American Physical Society and the American Electrochemical Society who was often nominated for positions in other colleges.  He was an avid photographer and gave lectures on color photography.   In 1923, he became a member of the Association of University Professors (AAUP), and joined the local chapter at Gettysburg College when it gained enough members in 1924.  The organization was formed nationally in 1915 as a body to enunciate and defend principles and practices of academic freedom and tenure. 

Following his dismissal from Gettysburg, (December 10, 1924 to take effect at the end of the spring term) Parsons took a temporary one-year position (1925-26) at Swarthmore College, and by May of 1926 he had secured a permanent position as the head of the Department of Physics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he remained until his mandatory retirement at age 65.  The family then moved to Hampstead, Maryland, Mrs. Parsons’ family homestead and built a house on the farm. 

Parsons’ daughter, Mary Elizabeth, attended Gettysburg College with the class of 1944, but left to marry Rudolph G. Schonbeck, also a member of the class of 1944.  The Schonbecks lived and worked on the farm in Hampstead.   Parsons continued to teach whenever possible and held positions at Blue Ridge College, Dickinson College, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and the University of Maryland at College Park.  In 1944, Parsons took a job as a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C.  His son, Albion, was a student at Johns Hopkins University and graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in 1951.  In September 1945, Parsons collapsed at work at the Naval Research Laboratory. He retired for good due to failing health.  Louis A. Parsons died on February 10, 1957.

Scope and Content Notes:

As the collection was created from five different accessions and four donors, over a period of four years and each accession was totally random and jumbled, the processor chose chronological order except when a complete subject file was identified.  Parsons made carbon copies of most of his correspondence and wrote often to family, friends, and colleagues about both his personal and his professional life.  His letters are filled with personal information, descriptions of life at the College and in the Community, as well as his issues with the administration, making it difficult to separate personal and professional correspondence.  Anyone researching Parsons’ final relationship with the College should read both Series IA and IB from 1922-1926.

Series Description:

This collection is divided into seven series.  Series I: Correspondence, is further divided into five sub-series:  (A)  Personal and Professional, 1885-1957;  (B) Gettysburg College, 1909-1925; (C)  Gettysburg College, Physics Dept., Materials & Equipment, 1909-1925; (D) Whitman College, 1926-1938; and (E) Letters to wife and son.  All items are arranged chronologically within their subseries.

Series I: Subseries A contains correspondence with family and friends and colleagues, job searches, and correspondence related to his church activities.  .   Subseries B consists of Gettysburg College business for the years Parsons  taught at Gettysburg College (1907-1925) and describes life in the community as well as the college, the building up of the Physics Department, and trying for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.  1923-25 includes correspondence with Henry W.A. Hanson, President of Gettysburg College (1923-1952), members of the Board of Trustees, and executive committee members of the AAUP.  These letters center on Parsons’ attempts to fight what he saw as the unjust firing of three Department heads at the end of 1922, and then his own dismissal at the end of 1924.  Subseries C contains correspondence and orders for materials, equipment, and textbooks for the Department.  Subseries D subject matter is Whitman College Physics Department business.  Subseries E contains letters to his wife Polly and his son Albion.

Series II consists of Subject files, including estate papers, wills, and histories of both the Parsons and Derr  families.   Series III contains writings by Parsons of both an academic and recreational nature.  Series IV consists of physics manuals, notes, and grades from several schools.  Series V contains ephemera.  Series VI consists of photographs taken by Louis A. Parsons of his immediate family and friends.  Series VII contains news clippings.

 Link to Full Finding Aid (PDF)

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