Thomas Corwin Mendenhall was an autodidact physicist and meteorologist who learned his craft through self-education. He became one of the first professors hired at Ohio State University as well as being superintendent for two of its predecessor surveys – United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and United States Geodetic Survey, serving from 1889-1894 respectively.
Mendenhall was also an enthusiastic boater and captained Balliol College’s crew while at Oxford. Mendenhall served as president in an era when small colleges often had limited resources available to them, providing hands-on leadership.
Early Life and Education
Thomas Mendenhall was born October 4th 1841 in Hanoverton Ohio and attended Union school, known for providing excellent education. After he graduated high school he continued his studies at Balliol University in Oxford England where he eventually went on to study medicine.
Mendenhall was an accomplished teacher and lecturer on many subjects, with special expertise in physics. In 1873 he was hired by Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College – predecessor of Ohio State University – as its inaugural professor of physics and mechanics.
Later he served as president of Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana and superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey where he issued the Mendenhall Order converting American weights and measures from those based on England to metric system.
Mendenhall was an independent scholar who quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the foremost autodidact physicists of his day. He developed weather signals for railroad trains, led the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889-1894 (an ancestor of NOAA), and advocated strongly for adopting the metric system in America.
Mendenhall had an immense love of sailing and boating; during his Oxford years he captained Balliol College crew while later coaching Berkeley College under President Smith’s presidency. While in retirement on Martha’s Vineyard he enjoyed sailing his Menemsha 24 sloop while serving on several conservation groups’ boards.
Mendenhall epitomized the best qualities of an administrator from an era in which university administrators actively participated in campus life. He led Smith College through several transformations, from expanding science and fine arts facilities to abolishing college-wide academic requirements and expanding participation in intercollegiate athletic competition.
Achievement and Honors
Thomas Mendenhall was an independent, self-taught physicist and meteorologist. As such, he became one of the founding professors at Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, later known as Ohio State University in 1873. Additionally, Mendenhall served as superintendent for United States Coast and Geodetic Survey – one of the precursors to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) from 1889-1894.
He pioneered gravity measurements and created a pendulum-based instrument known as the Mendenhall Gravimeter to conduct these studies, yielding some of the most precise readings for Earth’s gravitational field at that time.
Mendenhall was an esteemed educator renowned for his wisdom, tact, and sense of humor. He advocated for diversity and free speech as well as women’s rights and was an avid rower; captaining Balliol College crew while at Oxford and coaching Berkeley College team during his Yale days.
Mendenhall was an active public servant, serving on numerous boards and commissions in Terre Haute, Indiana; serving as president of Rose Polytechnic Institute; being superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and member of Massachusetts Highway Commission.
He was an accomplished sailor throughout his life and deeply passionate about boating and crew. He captained Balliol College crew at Oxford and provided informal coaching at Smith. Additionally, he wrote several books detailing collegiate rowing history.
Mendenhall presided as president of Smith College from 1959 to 1975 and oversaw significant reforms that altered both its curriculum and social environment. He was instrumental in expanding Four College consortium into Five College consortium, while increasing Smith participation in intercollegiate sports competition.
Mendenhall has amassed an estimated net worth between $1 and $2 Million due to his successful academic career.
He is an established actor and voice actor, having featured in multiple movies and shows. After auditioning for General Hospital soap opera – where he eventually got cast as Mike Webber – he went on to work in many movies and shows as both voice actor and actor.
His ancestors were English and settled in a hamlet called Marridge Hill. As they converted from Church of England membership in Ramsbury to Quakerism, attending Lambourn Woodlands Meeting — two miles from their Marridge Hill home — near Lambourn Woodlands Meeting of Berkshire — his family also practiced nonviolence and abstained from military service.