Missouri childhood

Harlow Shapley (figure 8.1) and his fraternal twin brother Horace were born on 2 November 1885, on a farm near the small town of Nashville, Missouri. The family included an older sister, Lillian, and, later, a younger brother, John. Their father grew hay and occasionally taught school in Nashville. Their mother, a descendant of New England abolitionists, read to the children and encouraged them to ''amount to something, get somewhere, go

Figure 8.1 Harlow Shapley (1885-1972). (Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Shapley Collection.)

to school,'' as Shapley recalled.3 Half a century later, Shapley fondly remembered her introducing them to the English Victorian comic adventure Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.

Shapley described his own life as something like a series of adventures in his informal autobiography, Through Rugged Ways to the Stars. He painted a picture of his youth that emphasized his self-reliance, hard work, and unusual academic inclinations. He pitched hay from a wagon and took care of livestock, but he also recited poems of Tennyson as he milked cows to ''keep the rhythm going'' and he developed an early botanical interest in wildflowers.4

Although the elder Shapley taught school in Nashville, Harlow and his brother attended a one-room schoolhouse at the edge of the farm, taught by their sister. Lillian nurtured

Shapley's talents and prodded the twins to seek more education than was locally available. However, Shapley's early education followed no traditional structure and was interrupted by his work as a newspaper reporter.

Inspired in part by Lillian's advocating a career in writing, Shapley spent his mid teens as a journalist for the Chanute, Kansas Daily Sun and the Joplin, Missouri Times. The boldness that later characterized his professional dealings manifested itself in his pursuit of sensational stories. He prided himself, for example, for his role in the downfall of a local politician. After being kicked out of the politician's office for representing an unfriendly editor, Shapley sat outside the door as he talked to reporters from rival newspapers, and took notes in shorthand. The politician's language was foul, but Shapley's newspaper was able to report on it explicitly by printing a picture of the shorthand notes. The cursing cost the politician the election. In another coup for Shapley, he unmasked the secret of a circus horse who supposedly solved equations by pawing out the answer with his hoof: Shapley asked the horse what the square root of four was. Not all of this lively journalism was fun, however. At 16, Shapley covered a shooting ''duel'' in which one of the contestants died.

Eventually, Shapley and his twin brother decided to save their money for college — but that meant they would have to finish high school first. They presented themselves at an ''elegant'' high school about 20 miles from home, but were turned away for lack of preparation. They enrolled instead at a small Presbyterian school in the same town, the Carthage Collegiate Institute. Shapley took special examinations and studied Latin and geometry on trips home to work on the farm. His efforts paid off. He graduated first in his class of three, delivering an address on Romantic values in Elizabethan poetry. In 1907, he was admitted to the University of Missouri in Columbia. His brother went back to farming.

0 0

Post a comment