Wednesday, April 28, 2010

28 April 1806: Josiah Meigs Records Last Spring Frost of the Year

On this day in 1806, University of Georgia's second president, Josiah Meigs, recorded that the town of Athens had experienced the last frost of the season.

Before coming to the "healthy and beautiful spot in Georgia" recently named Athens, Josiah Meigs had worked as a tutor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Yale, practiced law in Connecticut and Bermuda, published a newspaper and the first American medical journal, and served as the first city clerk for New Haven, Connecticut. He was a strong proponent of scientific inquiry, and believed all sciences should be taught through experiments. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote to congratulate him on his work at "the college of Georgia," noting that "Science is indispensibly necessary."

One of Meigs first responsibilities was surveying and clearing of the land and the initial construction of the campus. In 1804, the Trustees needed money to keep funding the school and requested Meigs survey an area of the property to be sold as city lots for Athens citizens and settlers. The initial parameters of the city sat across Front Street (now Broad) from the University, and were defined by Foundry, Hull, and Hancock Streets, only slightly smaller than the Downtown Athens Historic District today.

President Meigs also was among the first to tout the health benefits of Athens and her water supply. In early 1806, he had published a summary of the 1805 weather and health conditions for Athens in the Augusta Chronicle. In it, he provides a breakdown of wind directions; the number of cloudy, clear, rainy, and snowy days; and explains how the data was collected.

In the report, Meigs notes that only one white person had died in Athens in the previous seven years, crediting "to a very great degree...very excellent water" for "this extraordinary healthfulness." He also attributed the location of the University on a hill as a healthy factor, noting in his first days in the area, "the breezes, particularly from the western semicircle of the horizon, are extremely pleasant." The Augusta Chronicle article is considered the "first research published by the University of Georgia."

As early as 1802, Meigs requested such equipment as thermometers and barometers be provided to the school, and often loudly complained that lack of such tools made it difficult to teach his students properly. His outspoken nature, as well as his lack of religiosity, made enemies for him within the state government and he was demoted to chemistry professor in 1810, finally leaving Athens entirely in 1811.

His next position was as Commissioner of the General Land Offices in 1812, where he "urged Congress to provide for weather observations." Though Congress balked, when the Army Surgeon General also wanted weather equipment, the General Land Offices also received them. Meigs had his officers take three daily weather observations "in the interest of Agriculture, as Thomas Jefferson had done."

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