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DeWitt Bristol Brace

Founder and Professor, Dept. of Physics

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Brace Laboratory of Physics

DeWitt Bristol Brace (1859-1905) arrived at the University of Nebraska in 1887 when physics and chemistry were still not distinct departments. Initially hired to take over the teaching of physics, he went on to carve out a Physics Department at a time when scientific coursework was becoming specialized at the University.

Brace, a native of New York, received Bachelors and Masters degrees from Boston College in 1881 and 1882 respectively. He then studied Physics at Johns Hopkins University and in Berlin, receiving his PhD in Germany in 1885. When he arrived in Lincoln he had some limited teaching experience and was interested in pursuing specialized scientific research, a relatively new concept in higher education. Eventually Brace developed a strong department that brought prestige and recognition to the University. It had four full time faculty, a large laboratory budget, and a productive research agenda. However, the department suffered from lack of modern instruments and its own specialized facilities. Physics was taught in old Nebraska Hall, as were nearly all science courses, and laboratory space was inadequate. By the late 1890s, Brace was actively lobbying for a new building. Finally, in 1903, the Regents set aside $75000 for the construction of a new physics laboratory.

Brace was heavily involved in the design and construction of the new building. He worked closely with Charles Chowins, the Superintendent of Construction, Grounds and Buildings, during the development of the plans. Eventually Brace was challenged by the powerful Athletic Board. His new building would come dangerously close to the new football field. As a compromise, Brace and the architects altered the footprint of the building in an effort to spare the field and keep the building project moving forward.

Throughout 1904 and 1905 Brace monitored progress on construction of the new building. As the semester commenced he became ill, and was unable to teach classes. By the end of September he was suffering from septicemia and attended by doctors almost constantly. He died on October 5, 1905 at the age of 46, just as the new building was completed. In February 1906, at the request of the physics faculty and the University Senate, it was formally announced that the new physics building would be called "Brace Laboratory of Physics"? as an acknowledgement of Brace's distinguished service to the University of Nebraska.

Source Information:
Science at the American Frontier: a biography of DeWitt Bristol Brace. Cahan, David, and M. Eugene Rudd. University of Nebraska press, 2000.