Friday, August 15, 2008

H. O. Murfee and Albert Einstein

Elsa and Albert Einstein in Europe.

A young Hopson Owen Murfee, c. 1905.

Beginning in 1931 and continuing through 1939, Hopson Owen Murfee, in retirement from his home in Prattville, Alabama, pursued a running correspondence with Dr. Albert Einstein, world-renowned physicist and formulator of the theory of relativity. COL Murfee, a scientist himself, was the second president of Marion Military Institute (1905-1918) and the son of our founder and first president, COL James T. Murfee (1887-1905). H. O. Murfee’s letters were sent first to the University of Berlin in Germany, then to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and finally to Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein spent the bulk of his years in America.

Initially, H. O. Murfee wanted Dr. Einstein to write an article for his proposed book, Thought and Style: Science and Culture. When Einstein politely declined the offer, Murfee asked if he could reprint Einstein’s Introduction to Newton’s Optics in his work. This request Einstein granted, as he granted at least one more reprint later.

Here is Dr. Einstein’s letter (in German) to H. O. Murfee on August 8, 1931, granting Murfee permission to reprint his Introduction to Newton’s Optics.

And here is Murfee’s letter of thanks, dated August 24, 1931.

H. O. Murfee’s main focus, however, was toward convincing Dr. Einstein to visit Alabama and Marion Institute and to tour other exceptional educational institutions in the state including the University of Alabama, Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), and Tuskegee Institute. Retired and something of an invalid, H.O. Murfee wanted Dr. and Mrs. (Elsa) Einstein to visit he and his wife, Queenie (Mary McQueen Smith), in their “country home” on a 10,000-acre plantation near Prattville, Alabama.

Here is Elsa Einstein’s response (in English) to Murfee’s continued invitations to visit Alabama, dated February 7, 1933.

Dr. Einstein’s response throughout the years of Murfee’s correspondence (1931-1939) was one of polite refusal to come to Alabama. H. O. Murfee mounted an all-out campaign to persuade Einstein to come to the state in 1935; letters – prompted by Murfee - were sent to Dr. Einstein from the governor of Alabama, the presidents of Alabama, Auburn, and Tuskegee, the Jewish Rabbi in Montgomery, and from various other Alabama notables, all to no avail. (Murfee mounted similar campaigns to get other notables to visit Alabama; he succeeded at one point in getting Eleanor Roosevelt to have lunch in his Prattville home while traveling to give a speech in Montgomery in 1939).

Here is the invitation of Governor Bibb Graves of Alabama for the Einsteins to visit Alabama and the Murfees, dated December 23, 1935.

It appears that Dr. Albert Einstein never visited Alabama. To add to the “myth and fable” category of Marion Military Institute lore, a tale of a special “Einstein Science Curriculum” at MMI appears to have been just that, a tale. I have found nothing to date regarding same.

Here is a recent humorous billboard about Dr. Albert Einstein from the folks at The Foundation for a Better Life.

By the way, H. O. Murfee worked on compiling Thought and Style: Science and Culture for many years but it was never completed for publication.