Monday, January 12, 2015

The Kelvin Scientific Society

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

A couple of weeks ago, we posted the cover of a dance card from the Kelvin Scientific Society in 1916 on Facebook.  Until then, I admit, I had never heard of the Kelvin Society, as I suspect many others hadn’t.  After doing some digging, I found that this Kelvin Society had quite an interesting history.

The Kelvin Society was founded by Lillian Belle Herrick in 1897.  Herrick was born in Horseheads on June 9, 1872 and was one of five children (Lillian had a twin sister named Millian, who sensibly went by Millie).  After she graduated from Elmira College in 1894 with a degree in chemistry and physics, she taught science at the Elmira Free Academy (EFA).  At EFA, Herrick helped expand the science department and was noted to have constructed and operated the first Marconi wireless telegram in this area.  
Lillian Herrick Chapman
[In an interesting side note, Herrick left the school in 1908, when she married her husband, Rev. William Chapman, and she became ordained as a Presbyterian minister. She was the first female Presbyterian minister in the country, but the State synod revoked her license in 1919 because it didn’t recognize female ministers.  She was then ordained in the Congregational Church serving as a pastor at Park Church and in Big Flats.  She had an incredibly active career and died at age 92].

The group was both scientific and social.  They met every two weeks to discuss the latest scientific work, but every third meeting was strictly social.  The Kelvin Society was open to both boys and girls at EFA.  They had guest lectures and also took scientific inspiration from the city.  For example, in 1900, they spent the year studying the science of local factories and foundries.   They also had meetings at their cottage by the Chemung River, referred to in this photograph as “the Shack.”

Newspaper ad from 1911
The Kelvin Society was named after William Thompson, 1st Baron of Kelvin.  Lord Kelvin was an influential British scientist for whom the Kelvin unit of measure is named.   Lillian Herrick attended a banquet in his honor at Cornell University in 1902.  The next month, the Kelvin Society received a personalized letter from their namesake.  This wasn't their first brush with scientific celebrity, however; four years earlier, the group received a letter from Thomas Edison. [Learn about another Thomas Edison connection to Elmira here]
"I thank you heartily for your letter of May 2 and for the good wishes for Lady Kelvin and myself which it contains.  I was sorry that I was prevented by incessant occupation from writing to thank you before leaving America.  Yours truly, Kelvin."
"I am pleased to learn that you have formed a scientific society.  Science in the coming years will rule the world of business.  Yours, Thomas A. Edison"

By 1909, the group had been pushed out of their meeting space at EFA (due to some school rule change) and they began meeting at members’ homes.  Although the Kelvin Society continued on until at least the 1930s, they do not appear in the EFA yearbooks after 1911.   Perhaps the Kelvin Society broke from the school and became an independent entity at that point.  They remained active, posting notices of their meetings in the local newspaper.  One of their most popular events remained their New Year’s dance.

Kelvin Society dance card from New Year's Eve Dance, 1916
Kelvin Society members, 1922-23

The last mention I can find of the Kelvin Society is from 1934.  That brief article in the Star Gazette optimistically noted resurgence in participation, but seemed to indicate that interest in the group had waned over the years.  If anyone knows if the Kelvin Society lasted for longer, I would love to hear about it.   


  1. What an interesting find......always love to read about our past .....imagine a woman in 1894 getting a degree in chemistry and physics...what a life she lead.....I hope all that read this will share with our young ladies and encourage them that anything is possible....if Lillian could do it in 1900's they can do it in 2015!

  2. In the 19th century at Elmira College, the science curriculum (for women) was already well developed.