Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Seaside Scientists


“10 Foreigners at Woods Hole: Summer Students From Europe, Asia.” This was the headline on a story in the Cape Cod Standard-Times, Thursday, June 19, 1947. The story added that seven of the 10 students were from Canada. My father, Jim Hamilton, was one of them.

World War II had been over for two years, and people were starting to put their lives back on track. My parents had been married for a year, and I wouldn’t make my appearance for another year, so this was an opportunity for him to study physiology for six weeks at the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod.

Jim Hamilton, circa 1940
 At the time, he was doing cancer research at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. Cancer research was in its early days then, and the aim of the project was to learn more about the fundamental character of cancerous cells. According to an article in the London Free Press describing the study he was involved in, “the methods employed in physical chemistry are to be used wherever they are applicable…. The services of a well-trained physical chemist, J.D. Hamilton, have been obtained for the research project.”



My father had an M.A. in physics, mathematics and chemistry from the University of Toronto, but he needed to improve his knowledge of the biological sciences, hence the summer course at Cape Cod.

Every summer the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), founded in 1888, attracted graduate students, as well as some of the world’s best biological scientists, to carry out research and share ideas about invertebrate biology, botany, embryology and other subjects, focusing on the marine life found in the waters around the institute. (The MBL still exists today, affiliated with the University of Chicago, and its research and educational programs are now year-round.)

My father had an excellent memory, a maverick attitude and endless curiosity about esoteric subjects. He was interested in everything from history, philosophy and psychology to mathematics. I can imagine him thoroughly enjoying himself as he dissected a starfish or watched a sea urchin egg multiply under the lens of a microscope, and the knowledge of physiology he acquired during that six weeks no doubt helped him when he studied medicine several years later.  

A postcard of Woods Hole from my mother's scrapbook.
My mother, Joan, accompanied him on this trip. Now that the war was over, she, like many other married women, had left the workforce, so she had the time to travel. Fortunately, the institute had accommodations for married couples and even children. She was also an intelligent and curious person, and she aspired to be a writer, so rather than just sit on the beach, my mother wrote her own article about the lab. It was never published, but she kept a copy of the draft article, along with clippings and photos. She wrote:

“The lovely New England setting of Woods Hole provides a working example of the internationalism of science. In the lab mess hall you may hear Dr. Jean Brachet of Belgium discussing his experiences as a scientific hostage of the Nazis. At another table Dr. Dashu Nie may be telling some of his companions how scientific terms are described in the Chinese language. Still another group may hear Dr. Mohan Das, Professor of Ecology at the University of Lucknow [India], tell how marine life in India differs from that found on the U.S. Atlantic coast.

“On the beaches, in the dorms, or over a cup of coffee at Cap’n Kids, one hears shop talk. For students and research workers alike, the conversations with some of the best scientific minds of many countries provide tremendous inspiration and encouragement, and from a word dropped at such friendly conversations may come the germ of an idea which will lead to the answer to one more problem.”

Both my future parents found Woods Hole to be a stimulating place. They also enjoyed the social activities, which included Thursday night square dancing and Monday’s traditional record night, when, my mother recalled, “it is very peaceful to sit in the darkness, watching the lights come out across Vineyard Sound and listening to Bach or Beethoven.”

After the course ended, they drove up the coast to Boston and to Maine before heading back to Ontario.

See also:

“Jim Hamilton, A Life,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Sept 30, 2015, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com/2015/09/jim-hamilton-life.html

“My Mother’s Breakout Years,” Writing Up the Ancestors,   Sept. 12, 2018, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com/2018/09/my-mothers-breakout-years.html

This article is simultaneously posted on www.genealogyensemble.com.






Thursday, June 20, 2019

Making Connections


“There’s a reason for our connection.” So says the poster at the entrance to the current exhibit by artist-in-residence Hannah Claus at Montreal’s McCord Museum. The exhibit focuses on several objects she found in the museum’s permanent collection, and her creative response to them.

I have a connection to one of those objects, so that connects me to Claus and her art, to my ancestor who once owned that object, and to the images my ancestor inspired me to create.

Claus, a Montreal-based visual artist of English and Mohawk background, chose a number of objects in the museum’s collection and listened to what they said to her.  “Materials have a language,” she writes in the exhibition notes. “They have a sensory language and rhythm that speak to me as an artist.” Then she created her own objects inspired by what she saw. Through the process, she came to discover the innate links between objects and their makers, their collectors, ourselves and the world around us. “I understand through making,” she says.

Bag, Tonawanda Seneca, 1830-1850; gift of Mrs Alan C. Lindsay, McCord Museum

One of the objects Claus chose for the show is a tiny beaded handbag. Its pink, white, blue, green and black beadwork is delicate and beautiful, and she was drawn to the repetitive curves of the pattern and the artistry of its indigenous creator.

I had an additional reason for wanting to see this handbag: it once belonged to my great-great-grandmother, Catharine Mitcheson Bagg (1822-1914). She gave it to one of her daughters, and a descendant’s widow recently donated it to the McCord.

Catharine Mitcheson grew up in Philadelphia, and married Montreal notary and landowner Stanley Clark Bagg in 1844. The bag is dated 1830 – 1850, so perhaps Catharine received it as a wedding present.

collage by Janice Hamilton, photo of CMB, McCord
Museum, Notman Collection #71147
Writing about ancestors is similar to exploring relationships with objects. I daydream about these individuals and learn about the events that impacted their lives. Sometimes I feel deep connections with them. Hannah’s comments also help explain why people treasure objects they inherit from family members. In addition to their aesthetic properties, a teacup from a mother or a carpentry tool that belonged to a great-uncle can symbolize our connections with these people and help us understand their life experiences.

The exhibit also displays the art that Claus created as a response to the objects she chose. The bag’s beadwork inspired her to create a display of shiny disks hanging on strings, and to riff on the patterns used in the handbag.

This museum experience reminded me of my attempts to incorporate themes related to Catharine Mitcheson Bagg in collaged photo transfers done for an art class several years ago. I had just started doing genealogy research at that time. The McCord Museum has copies of several letters Catharine wrote, and I photographed them because I was interested in what she had to say. In my art project, the letters became important as visual objects. I enlarged a photo of Catharine from my own collection of cabinet cards and framed it inside images of her handwriting.

collage by Janice Hamilton; b&w photo of Fairmount Villa, residence of Stanley Clark Bagg, Studio of Inglis, BAnQ    (click to enlarge) 
In a second collage, I tried to connect Catharine to the place where she lived, starting with a photo of a painting of her. This painting of Catharine Mitcheson Bagg, done by artist William Sawyer in 1865, once hung in my grandparents’ dining room and now belongs to the National Gallery of Canada. I added a hand-painted photo of Fairmount Villa, Catharine’s home in Montreal, as well as a copy of a painting she did, probably in Philadelphia when she was young. In the background are snippets of old maps of Montreal.

Connections can be found everywhere when you look for them.

See also:
Janice Hamilton, "Reflections on a great-great grandmother", Writing Up the Ancestors, April 14, 2014, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.com/2014/04/reflections-on-great-great-grandmother.html