The Gish Family Legacy at DTM

Oliver H. Gish
Oliver H. Gish with atmospheric conductivity apparatus for the Explorer II balloon flight to the stratosphere, 1935. (Credit: DTM)
Thursday, October 30, 2014 

Oliver H. Gish, a DTM staff scientist who led our efforts in atmospheric and terrestrial electricity from 1922-48, died peacefully at the age of 103 on 22 February 1987. On September 11 of this year, his daughter, Eleanor Gish Crow, passed away, and left a generous monetary gift in her will to DTM in her father’s memory.

O. H. Gish, born on a farm near Abilene, Kansas on 7 September 1883, majored in physics at Kansas State College in 1908. In 1913, he graduated with his master’s degree in physics and became a mathematics instructor at the University of Nebraska where, in 1914, he also met his soon-to-be wife, Edna Miller.  

While he and his wife continued their doctoral studies at the University of Chicago during the summers of 1915-17, Gish worked alongside Robert A. Milliken, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923, on some of the first cosmic-ray research in the United States.

Oliver H. Gish holding his daughter, Eleanor, at 10 months old. (Credit: The Crow family)

In 1922, Gish joined DTM as an associate physicist. Sebastian Mauchly, DTM’s chief of the section of experimental work at the time, recommended him for the job after Gish presented a paper on cosmic rays at an American Physical Society (APS) meeting.

However, the family’s move to Washington following World War I was complicated. “There was a housing shortage in Washington at the time,” Crow explained to DTM Librarian, Shaun Hardy, in an interview in 2010. “My father slept outdoors in a tent at DTM. My mother and the rest of us (children) went back to Nebraska until my father could find a place to rent.”

Eventually finding a home in Somerset, Maryland, Gish went on to become a physicist in 1927, chief of the section on terrestrial electricity in 1928, and assistant director in 1933, all during his time at DTM.

Gish was a recognized authority on electrical currents of the Earth and atmospheric electricity. He designed instruments to measure air conductivity for the 1935 stratosphere flight of the balloon Explorer II, a manned U.S. high-altitude helium balloon. He also traveled to Guatemala in 1939 and Mexico in 1945 to study electrical phenomena associated with volcanic eruptions. 

In 1929, Gish participated in the first leg of what would be the final voyage of the research vessel Carnegie, which suffered an onboard explosion in port in Apia, Samoa, while gathering supplies. The explosion mortally wounded Captain J. P. Ault and a cabin boy, and the Carnegie subsequently burnt to the waterline within a few hours. 

Before Crow worked alongside her father at Carnegie, she attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate student, and earned her master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in 1940.

Eleanor Gish Crow and daughter, Nancy. (Credit: The Crow family, 1949)

After moving back to D.C. in 1942, Crow began a job at Carnegie working three days a week as a “computer,” tasked to perform mathematical equations and calculations by hand. She worked with E. H. Vestine, and later on magnetic anomalies in Korea and Japan, until she left in 1945 to become a physics teacher at Anacostia and Roosevelt high schools in Washington D.C. She went on to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and in 1965, accepted a job at the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. 

“DTM was like an extended family,” said Crow to Hardy. “The scientists’ wives were concerned about each other and socialized and picnicked together." 

After retiring from DTM in 1948, Gish became a consultant to the U.S. Air Force where he directed a program that flew B-29 planes equipped with scientific instruments through and around thunderstorms to collect data. He also worked with the U.S. Naval Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Florida, in 1953, and was a visiting professor at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbonale until his final retirement in 1957.

Listed in a tribute to Gish published in Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, Vol. 68, Issue 27, in 1987 by Crow and her brother, Donald M. Gish, O. H. Gish was a member of AGU, president of the Terrestrial Magnetism and Electricity Section from 1935 to 1938, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society, as well as a member and officer of the Washington Academy of Sciences, the Philosophical Society of Washington, and Washington D.C. Chapter of the Society of Sigma Xi.

The Gish family was an integral part of DTM for more than three decades, and continues to be an extended part of our community today. We thank them for their kind contribution.

Written by Robin A. Dienel
28 October 2014