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The Phipps Project


“Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, these are the conditions, now what happens next?”
― Richard Feynman


It started, as most love stories do, with a spark; with an encounter between a man and a woman. It happened in December 1918, just after the end of the Great War, in Norman, Oklahoma. Thomas Erwin Phipps had just been released from his wartime duty, serving as lieutenant of artillery at Camp Jackson, SC until the calling of Armistice, and was headed by train to his family home in Austin, Texas. He’d narrowly escaped being sent overseas, having fallen victim instead to the deadly pandemic of Spanish influenza which gripped the country and swept through his barracks that September.

And as was true for the country as a whole, Mr. Phipps had a life to get back to; plans deferred since the arrival of his draft notice a year previously. After spending the holidays with his family at Austin, he would resume his graduate studies in the emerging field of Physical Chemistry at UC Berkeley.

Mr. Phipps was 23 years old. He was a congenial man and a keen observer; never happier than when he had his hands dirty in the service of some experiment or another. He fearlessly pursued both knowledge and experience; his ideal laboratory being one with roots in both the libraries and the gardens of his youth.

On his way home to Austin, he decided to make a stopoff in order to pay a visit to his beloved sister Helen, herself doing graduate work in Spanish and Romance Languages at Oklahoma University. Helen was thirteen years his senior, yet the two shared a close relationship; cemented, in part, by the death of their mother in December, 1915. His visit to her in Norman marked the third anniversary.

Like most women attending University at the time, Helen Phipps lived in a private boarding house near the campus. She shared a room with Eleanor Morgan, also 23, an instructor of English literature and poetry. Ms. Morgan was in love with words and stories, deeply intelligent, highly independent. She possessed a rare mix of daring and refinement that expressed itself as balance and charm. She was a transplant from North Carolina; following in the path of her brother Lawrence, a professor of English who had likewise been drafted into service. She and Helen had, in the space of the previous semester, become close friends.

For Ms. Morgan and Mr. Phipps, theirs was a chance encounter, but the exchanges that they shared during that brief visit created a spark sufficient to kindle a beautiful correspondence; not beginning until the following winter, but ultimately resulting in boxes of letters, currently strewn about my office where I sit in the year 2016. To say that the letters contain a courtship is quite an understatement. Rather, they contain a world.



ErwinLabThomas Erwin Phipps, 1919, Berkeley, California.

I’ve had two or three wild ideas circulating around in my head the last few days. You’ve gotten used to my wild ideas and to their inevitable shipwreck by now, haven’t you, honey? I have a crazy desire to do impossible things, – that is, things that have been abandoned as impossible or improbable, – but for which I can see no reason for their ‘impossibility’. I don’t mean perpetual motion, dear, but some of the things I try probably have as little chance of working as has a perpetual motion machine. The fascinating thing is that I am blissfully unaware of the impossibility. Maybe I’ll tell you about one of these things. I’m sure I will, if it works.”  (from a letter dated April 23, 1923)



Doxie 0054

Eleanor Morgan, 1922, Columbus, Mississippi.

I never can see why all the poetry should be locked up in books, why a woman who appreciates Keats can fail to appreciate the fact that her house might be the more beautiful for a little care, or another who knows all about tone-color and can draw music from the hearts of us who only wish could play, can forget that she mustn’t wear a red hat with a pink blouse. I wish these girls could see something beautiful once before they leave college.” (from a letter dated January 16, 1921)