Every Feb. 25, members of the Beta Beta Beta national biological fraternity at Marietta College organized a special gathering to honor the birthday of one of the most endeared faculty members in the biology department: Harla Ray Eggleston, known simply to students as “Prof.”
And every year, for nearly four decades, Prof would act surprised.
The late Vernon “Dan” McGrew ’49 described in In the Various Branches of Useful Knowledge the College’s effort to build talented science faculty in the early part of the 20th century. Marietta College’s seventh president, George Wheeler Hinman (1913-18), had been in talks with the budding young scientist in an attempt to bring him to Marietta.
“A reputation for educational quality was being enhanced by the building of a notable science faculty,” McGrew wrote. “Beginning with the arrival of Harla Ray Eggleston (biology) in 1915, soon followed by Ellis L. Krause (chemistry), Thomas D. Phillips (physics) and Ralph W. Whipple (geology), the science faculty became a productive, inspiring learning source for young people being attracted by the accelerating opportunities in the world of science.”
The biology department at Marietta consisted of only 18 students when Eggleston joined the faculty in 1915. Hailing from Walton, N.Y., he earned his undergraduate degree from Hamilton Men’s College and his graduate degree from Harvard University. As a student, he was a track star and set the two-mile record for the state. After graduation, he joined the faculty at Buena Vista College in Iowa, also serving as the institution’s athletic director.
The hiring of Eggleston and his peers marked a significant change in the sciences at Marietta. As an Emeritus Professor of Biology, Eggleston wrote a brief history of the department for the College’s alumni magazine in May 1964. Biology courses that had previously been removed from the college catalog, such as comparative anatomy, histology, embryology, botany and evolution, were restored at this time, while specialized courses in entomology were canceled, though the introductory course was still offered. Upon learning that Eggleston had minored in geology at Hamilton, that course was shifted from the chemistry department to the biology department.
“I smile when I think of the factors that influenced my coming to Marietta, the major one being that President Hinman promised to get rid of all the girls within three years and make Marietta College a Hamilton of the Midwest,” Eggleston reflected in a feature about the history of the College’s biology department. The feature, which was actually a portion of a lecture that he gave to the College’s chapter of national biology honorary society, Beta Beta Beta, was published in May 1964 in the pages of The Marietta Alumnus. “At that time, I was strongly against coeducation; but Hinman left less than three years after I arrived—and I was left with the young ladies. Many of our women turned out to be outstanding majors in biology, perhaps even in greater numbers than the men. At any rate, I soon lost my anti-coeducation complex.”
The first biology major under Eggleston became a lifelong friend to the professor, as well as the 12th president of Marietta College—Dr. W. Bay Irvine. In The Marietta Alumnus, Eggleston recounted, with humor, some of the struggles he faced as a young professor. Because his budget was tight during the early years, Eggleston offered to pay his students $1 for every alley cat they could catch. The cats were euthanized and dissected in his Comparative Anatomy class. A group of Nu Phi fraternity brothers, one of whom was a young Bay Irvine, showed up with six well-groomed cats. Because he was suspicious of their actions, Eggleston caged three of the cats.
Later that day, as the class convened for lab, the Marietta Chief of Police entered the room and served Eggleston with a warrant that charged him with receiving stolen property. A local woman, whom Eggleston refers to as a “spinster,” reported four of her cats as being stolen. Luckily, three of the cats were safely caged. Unfortunately, the fourth was in the process of being dissected.
“I was almost certain my career at MC was finished,” Eggleston wrote. “Approaching President Hinman with fear and trembling, I informed him that I was in a jam with the law. I remember well the roar of laughter that followed my explanation of the situation. He gave me his assurance that he would provide me with any legal help I might need. Luckily, the spinster, with three of her cats back, did not press charges—although she never spoke to me from that day on.”
Despite tight budgets and the hijinks of students, Eggleston proved to be a solid professor whose talents in the classroom translated into gaining the reputation of having nearly every pre-med student he recommended gaining acceptance into at least one medical school.
His demanding yet dedicated teaching style inspired many students, as well as inspired them to honor their former professor. In 1958, one of his former students, Dr. William R. Murchie, who was the head of the biology department at Flint College of the University of Michigan, identified a new species of earthworm and named it after Eggleston. The Diplocardia egglestoni was identified in the fall 1958 issue of The Ohio Journal of Science. An amoeba also bears his name. He often joked when asked about his accomplishments that he was “godfather to an earthworm…but at least I’m coming up in the world. The last thing I had named for me was an amoeba.”
The manner in which he taught his students—expecting their attention and best effort while, consequently, treating them with much regard—was clearly illustrated during exam time. Initially serving his students snacks during finals, his exams in Histology became so demanding that snacks evolved into full meals. An article in The Marietta Times quelling rumors of his retirement in 1950 mentioned the exams:
“Prof. Eggleston was the instigator of the eight-hour dinner exam in histology. He buys the dinner. ‘It was OK 33 years ago when there were only eight in the class…but now there are usually at least 25 and they want everything from soup to nuts.’ ”
In addition to being the head of the biology department, Eggleston also found himself in a new role as the community’s water system was considered in very bad shape in 1918. He joined the Marietta City Waterworks Department and the City Board of Health, helping to upgrade the system. During World War II, he also allayed the fears of citizens concerned about their water supply.
The Dec. 19, 1941, issue of The Olio, described Eggleston’s involvement in protecting the water. “The war is brought closer to home as Professor Eggleston reports that the municipal water works is now surrounded by guards. He is now required [as city bacteriologist] to make more frequent tests of water purity, a defense against saboteurs.”
McGrew wrote, “Before Pearl Harbor, the idea of saboteurs trying to poison the water supply in relatively isolated Marietta, Ohio, would have seemed ludicrous. But not long after that awful Sunday morning in Hawaii. No longer could townspeople and college students feel remote and secure from the world’s hostilities. The war, the preparation for it, the fighting of it seemed less removed from the placid pursuit of scholarship.”
During the war, many faculty members taught specialized skills to soldiers in training. Eggleston taught first aid.
By 1960, after teaching full time for 45 years, Eggleston announced his retirement. Though he would keep an office at Marietta and continue his research on freshwater bivalve mollusks, a topic on which he was an expert, Prof officially stopped teaching. That spring, he was conferred an honorary degree from Marietta.
Dean Merrill Patterson wrote the citation, which acknowledged his contributions, as well as the contributions made by Eggleston’s wife, Mildred.
“Your fine wife Mildred has been a help and an inspiration in the many services you have performed not only for the city of Marietta as bacteriologist, but for your myriads of your grateful students as well. No greater love hath a scientist than to name one of his discoveries after a beloved teacher. This has happened to you twice,” Patterson wrote.
In the fall of 1965, the Board of Trustees announced the College planned to honor the longtime professor by naming the biology department the Harla Ray Eggleston Department of Biology. Within two weeks, the beloved professor died. His wife died the following May.
On June 4, 1967, during the celebration of the new Selby Science Center, the College also celebrated the naming of the new biology department. Tom Eggleston, one of the Prof’s and Mildred’s two sons (the other son’s name is Arthur), addressed the crowd of about 500 people.
“To the faculty, trustees and alumni of Marietta College, on behalf of the entire Eggleston family, let me say we deeply and sincerely appreciate this tribute which you have made possible.”
News of Eggleston’s death was spread throughout Ohio newspapers and garnered an Op-Ed in The Marietta Times.
“His great interest, of course, was teaching,” the editor wrote. “And through his teaching were sparked numerous successful careers in medicine and biology. He contributed to his field of science directly, also through his personal research projects. In addition, college and city owe “Prof” Eggleston a great deal for Marietta’s pure water supply. On a more or less emergency basis in 1918, the young ‘prof’ took a ‘moonlighting’ job with the city waterworks department. It soon became one of his personal resolutions that Marietta was going to have a safe, adequate water supply.”
The editorial acknowledged that the College had recently honored the long-time professor by making its biology department his namesake, and urged the city to posthumously bestow him the honor of naming the water treatment facility after him as well.
Within a few days of the editorial’s publishing, a letter to the editor appeared in the paper from Dr. Richard Wenzel, of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Wenzel first met Eggleston as a child and later became one of his students.
“He was a true scientist and scholar, a dedicated and talented teacher and always a gentleman,” Wenzel wrote. “He gave of himself in full measure to Marietta College and Marietta completely unselfishly. He will be so fondly and well remembered by so many.”