He was an early citizen scientist, astronomer, botanist, poet and pastor. William G. Colgrove enriched his life with a near-endless cycle of professional pursuits and hobbies, from preaching and poetry to building educational astronomy models and designing children’s toys for fun.
Though he was a lifelong presence at Western, starting as a student, later becoming a lecturer and fixture in multiple departments, Colgrove has until now represented a mostly hidden slice of university – and London – history. Luckily, he kept track of the history himself.
Thanks to a team of Western researchers, Colgrove’s own story – captured in the pages of a personal scrapbook, part diary, part highlight reel, chronicling his life from his birth in 1872 to his death in 1958 – has been preserved digitally and made public.
“The Colgrove family came to the Cronyn Observatory for its 75th anniversary. They said, ‘By the way, we have this 800-page scrapbook of his life.’ It wasn’t much more than a mention, but for me, that was electrifying. I thought ‘what an incredible thing.’ This was an autobiographical scrapbook,” Mark Tovey, a Western history professor and curator of the Cronyn Observatory, said of its first mention.
“The hairs went up on the back of my head. I thought, would there be a way to use this rich resource to tell his life story?”
Enter Noah Churchill-Baird, MLIS‘23.
For months he scanned and organized the contents of Colgrove’s scrapbook, digitally preserving it in the defining project of a co-operative placement that married Churchill-Baird’s passions for historical research with his skills in librarianship.
He worked at Western Libraries – his top choice for a co-op position through his master’s of library and information science (MLIS) program – taking on the bulk of the work to digitize the story and publish it online through Scholarship @ Western, along with support from Arielle VanderSchans and Courtney Waugh, library colleagues specializing in research and scholarly communication. The project, delayed amid COVID-19, was waiting for the right opportunity and resources to give it new life.
Mapping the life of William Colgrove
Churchill-Baird read through a lifetime of achievements and ideas, each delicate page showing a new hand-drawn blueprint or newspaper clipping. He turned the scrapbook into a multimedia guide illustrating the highlights of Colgrove’s journey for those who weren’t interested in perusing the 800-page digital file, using ArcGIS StoryMaps to bring the story alive.
“It does a great job of showcasing the great visuals and little nuggets of history you can find throughout his manuscript.”
The digital storytelling tool was even shown at the Ontario Science Centre during a presentation about Colgrove’s life and impact.
Churchill-Baird described him as a figure with a web of connections across Western’s campus
So, why does Colgrove’s story matter?
He looms large because of the way he connected ordinary people to the academic research happening on campus, and science in general, according to those who know his history.
Whether as an astronomy lecturer, an assistant in the geology department or a taxonomist who donated hundreds of specimens to the herbarium – not to mention informal curator at the Cronyn Observatory – Colgrove threw himself into learning more about the world around him and sharing it with others.
In addition to his scrapbook, entitled A Place in the Sun: and Poems by One Who Tried Inspite of the Clouds, he also published a collection of poetry and an astronomy reference book called A Ready Reference Handbook of the Solar System: A Concise Summary of Over 1,000 Interesting Items and Deductions.
His thesis on philosophy, The Nature of Moral Law, was the first thesis to be granted at Western in 1909.
He taught university summer schools for teachers. He brought the Dresden Meteorite to the observatory, which continues to delight and inspire in a new home at Western. Colgrove also went on to develop astronomical models in the 1930s, perhaps his best-known contribution.
Astronomical models a key achievement
The models were sold from a catalogue to teachers, space enthusiasts and others interested in educational space materials. There are models of the inner and outer solar systems, an earth, sun and moon system, and wire-threaded star system models. They’ve lasted decades, some still in use at the observatory, others in museums around the world. Researchers are on the hunt to track down more of Colgrove’s collection that stood the test of time.
“He achieved national recognition for these models,” Tovey said.
“There’s very little else out there like this. To this day, we have not been able to recognize a similar figure who created so many astronomical teaching models and thought so hard about putting them together such that they are still working more than 80 years later.”
Children and visitors to the Cronyn Observatory’s free public nights – open every Saturday through the summer months – still see and learn from some of Colgrove’s models. There are also efforts underway at Western to recreate his models using 3D printers.
Modern-day learners and teachers can take inspiration from Colgrove, who smoothly “bridged those different worlds,” connecting Londoners off-campus with the scientific work in motion at the university, Tovey said.
The scrapbook even recounts Colgrove’s invitation to community members to come to his home and view a comet.
“The richness of these stories really lends to a much more authentic and vibrant experience of learning about astronomy, or the history of London, or Colgrove’s history. Having those deep connections and anecdotes lend to the power,” Churchill-Baird said of the scrapbook and the digital elements.
‘The gift that keeps on giving’
It was never just about space for Colgrove, who was a man of many interests.
He was a pastor. He drew up blueprints for his own inventions, from hair clippers to children’s toys. He railed against the tobacco industry, a personal passion that led him to proclaim he was “widely known as the antagonist of the tobacco habit.” He founded the London Sculptor’s Guild and even won awards for his watercolour paintings.
“There’s this balance of art and science that’s really quite beautiful,” Waugh, a Western Libraries research and scholarly communication librarian, said of the scrapbook.
“I think that’s what people experience when they go to Cronyn Observatory – that wonder of science and it is, in its own way, an art. I know that I feel very moved whenever I go to a place like an observatory. Making that connection is kind of cool. Colgrove was very intelligent but also just a curious person.”
There are so many more secret slices of history to uncover through Colgrove’s story. Some of the departments in which he worked weren’t even aware of his contributions until the scrapbook was digitized and shared.
“What this project showcases is the power and the potential of partnerships on campus. There are really great stories that aren’t yet told,” Churchill-Baird said.
He and Tovey are trying to track down the whereabouts of Colgrove’s other astronomical models, including six he is believed to have donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
They’re hooked on his history, and its future potential.
“The possibilities this manuscript presents really will be the gift that keeps on giving,” Tovey said.
“It’s an invitation to academic departments everywhere to re-examine their collections and see what, to them, is exciting at their university – these are the fabrics of the scientific stories of Canada.”