Taft’s “cheat sheet” – the portrait of Stephen Moulton Babcock

This week I finally got to Madison to locate the bronze plaque of Dr. Stephen Moulton Babcock that Taft sculpted in 1934.  It is located in the east entryway to the original Biochemistry Building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Who was Dr. Babcock?  I certainly have to ask after looking at his charming portrait.  One thing that is common among all of Taft’s portrait busts and plaques is the absence of any clue to the person’s profession (apart from the descriptive words, of course — and in this case, the words aren’t that much help).  There are never any props!  So to the internet I went, and what a story I found!  Most of the information that follows is taken pretty much verbatim from a 2007 website celebrating the 75-year history of Babcock House on the UW-M campus, http://www.babcockhouse.org.

Babcock graduated from Tufts College in 1866 and received a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1879.  After working as a teacher and chemist in New York, he joined the staff of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he was professor of agricultural chemistry from 1887 to 1913 and remained for the next 43 years. He was also chief chemist of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station.

Upon his arrival Babcock immediately began experimenting with what would become his most famous work, measuring the butterfat content of milk.  (Milk production in the U.S. increased 900% in 30 years in large part because of the Babcock Test and the stock breeding data it gave for establishing the development of the five major dairy breeds.) But his work didn’t end after his invention of the butterfat test. In 1903, he developed and perfected the “cold storage” method of curing cheese. Later, his “hidden hunger” experiments on the nutritional needs of cattle, or simply, feeding cattle solely one type of grain, paved the way for the science of nutrition and the discoveries of Vitamins A and D by McCollum and Steenbock, respectively. Finally, Babcock perfected an apparatus using Pasteur’s procedures for a complete pasteurization of milk.

In other words, Babcock’s discoveries essentially allowed for the modernization of Wisconsin’s dairy industry.  As of the 2007 article, the Wisconsin dairy industry contributed $20.6 billion dollars to the state economy and directly employed 160,000 people, in large part allowing a recent 7th place ranking nationwide for Wisconsin’s state economy.

Interestingly, Babcock felt that he should derive no personal gain from his butterfat testing device — his most famous invention — and no patent was taken out. He also refused to take a cent for anything else he did that might benefit humanity.

(Online articles tantalizingly mentioned the “Babcock hollyhock” – at one point named as Madison’s official flower.  According to the following image, I’m assuming that he obtained seeds in Israel, brought them to Madison, propagated them, and gave them to his friends.  An incomplete story still waiting for a conclusion!)

 The website article went on to describe Babcock’s personality.  He was an avid fan of UW sports and attended every home football, basketball, and baseball game during his tenure at Madison, armed with bags of peanuts or popcorn. He hated the newly invented telephone and refused to have one in his home or office.  When the university demanded he install one in his office, he left it off the hook until reprimanded.  After that, he just didn’t hear it when it rang….

His nickname was “The Laughing Saint of Science.”  His obituary in the Milwaukee Journal (July 2, 1931) read:  “When he first came to Wisconsin his laboratory was on the fourth floor of old South hall, and Dean Henry of the college of agriculture had his office on the first floor. Babcock’s laugh so disturbed Henry on the first floor that the latter sought to have Babcock hold his mirth within bounds. But Henry found that could not be done and, like a sensible man, he soon learned to enjoy himself by entering into the true spirit of Babcock’s jovial nature.”

In my book I reprinted an article Taft wrote in 1899 entitled “Dreams and Death Masks,” in which he complains of having to recreate a person’s personality in his sculpture after the person is dead.  “A ghastly [death] mask, a retouched photograph or two and a necktie may be all that is left, but a ‘speaking likeness’ is required,” he said. (p.14)

Taft was commissioned to sculpt a plaque to honor Babcock in 1934, but Babcock had died in 1931 (at the age of 87).  So to create Babcock’s plaque Taft was faced with the same old challenge – creating a likeness without a living model.  To Taft’s advantage was the fact that Babcock’s discoveries had generated a great deal of publicity.  The University of Wisconsin archives (now online and called the “Wisconsin Electronic Reader” – http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/WIReader/Images) have posted several photos that Taft could have referred to. Here are a couple:

I doubt Taft would have had many excuses to visit Madison.  Is it possible that Babcock might have visited the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, being only 80 miles straight south?  Babcock had finally purchased a car at the age of 78, and he and his wife loved to explore country roads.  We’ll never know.
One possible connection could have been Thomas Chamberlin, who was president of the university in the late 1880s.  He had been influential in convincing Babcock to come to Madison in 1887.  Taft also crafted a bust of Chamberlin, but this was done in 1915, after Chamberlin had left his post as president in 1892 and taken the job of head of the Dept. of Geology at the University of Chicago.  Chamberlin was very much alive when Taft created his bust; it is located in Rosenwald Hall on the University of Chicago campus.  Here’s a picture of Chamberlin with Babcock and Dean Henry, plus a photo of Chamberlin’s bust.  Could Chamberlin have introduced Taft to Babcock at some point?

But then online I found a copy of Stephen Moulton Babcock, man of science: a memorial to him in observance of the centenary of his birth, published by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in 1943 (http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.SMBabcock).  The frontispiece photo of Babcock is identical to Taft’s image, except that it has been flipped horizontally!

Thanks to the nameless photographer who captured such a thoughtful and sensitive image – it must have made Taft’s assignment a great deal easier!