OSA Historical Archives
the Early 1950s
John N. Howard
John chronicles the lives of two
key Society leaders in the 1950s—
a distinguished spectroscopist and a
pioneering optical engineer.
William Frederick Meggers
Meggers was born in Clintonville, Wis.,
U.S.A, on July 13, 1888. In 1907, he en-
tered Ripon College on a scholarship. He
earned most of his expenses by organiz-
ing an orchestra in which he played the
slide trombone. He was awarded a B.A.
degree in 1910, and he remained at Ri-
pon another year as a graduate assistant.
From 1911 to 1912, he was a graduate
student at the Uni-
versity of Wisconsin,
working under C.E.
Mendenhall. In Sep-
tember 1912, Meggers
moved to Pittsburgh,
where he became an
instructor in physics at
the Carnegie Institute
classical paper on the “Constitution of
Atoms and Molecules” by Niels Bohr,
he decided to become a spectroscopist.
He passed a two-day civil service exam
and was appointed on June 12, 1914, as
a laboratory assistant with the National
Bureau of Standards (NBS)—a position
that forced him to make considerable
financial sacrifices. He served there con-
tinuously for more than half a century
In March 1914,
after reading the
in spectroscopy, photography and atomic
physics. He o;cially retired in 1958 as
chief of the spectroscopy section, but
he continued working until a few days
before his death on November 19, 1966.
In 1958, he was made an honorary member of the Optical Society. He received
the Frederick Ives medal in 1947 and the
C.E.K. Mees medal in 1964. Meggers is
also honored by an OSA annual award
in his name that was established in 1970
to recognize individuals for outstanding
work in spectroscopy.
Brian O’Brien was born Jan. 2, 1898, in
Denver, Colo., U.S.A., and he began his
education at Chicago Latin School. He
continued at Yale University, where he
received a degree in electrical engineering in 1918 and a Ph.D. in physics in
1922. From 1922 to 1923, he served as a
research engineer with Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh. While much
of his work was scientific research in physiology, human vision, and several fields of
optics, he always applied his engineering
training to the projects he undertook.
In the 1920s, he studied the biological e;ects of solar radiation on tuberculosis at the Adams Memorial Hospital in
Perryburg, N.Y., and developed special
arc lamps for producing enhanced ultraviolet radiation at the desired therapeutic
wavelengths, as well as a unique way of
irradiating milk to produce vitamin D.
In 1930, O’Brien went to Rochester as a
20 | OPN Optics & Photonics News