Doc as Match-Maker: The Beauty and Romance of a High-Speed Photograph

by Carol T. West

August 9, 2010

Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft (1938)

The EDC website asks, “Has Doc’s work and philosophy affected
your life?”

My answer: “Doc’s work more than ‘affected’ my life. I owe the
existence of my life to one particular work of Doc Edgerton.”

It is not a story of miraculous medicine via stroboscope photography;
it is a romantic tale of two young MIT scientists in the late 1930’s
/early 1940’s.

In fall 1939, Pauline Morrow entered the Ph.D. program in physics at
MIT. Contrary to modern assumptions and era-specific statistics, she
didn’t feel hampered by gender. However, the sophisticated northeast
was intimidating to a young woman who had grown up home-schooled in
rural Mexico, the daughter of missionary parents.

In an early physics class, students were shown a print of Doc
Edgerton’s “Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft” and were given a problem
to solve based on it. Pauline was totally mystified by the photo; her
sheltered upbringing had never introduced her to the sport of golf and
she had no idea where to start on the problem. Pauline asked her
landlady if she knew anything about the game of golf. The landlady
regretted that she knew little about the sport, but volunteered she
had noticed a bag of golf clubs in the closet of another tenant and
suggested they ask him.

So Pauline and the landlady knocked on the door of the room rented by
James M. Austin, a recent émigré from New Zealand who was completing
his doctoral work in meteorology at MIT. While James professed
willingness to help, and pulled out clubs and balls trying to explain
the Densmore Shute photo, little knowledge transfer occurred. Pauline
couldn’t understand James’ “New Zealand English” and was too
shy to say so.

After politely thanking James for “all his help,” Pauline left.
The problem based on Edgerton’s Densmore Shute Bends the Shaft was
the only physics problem Pauline failed in her graduate studies at

But she had captured the eye of James and he persisted in teaching
her both the game of golf and “New Zealand English,” but most of
all, he persisted in courting her. Pauline and James were married in
1941, the year James was appointed to the meteorology faculty at MIT.

Doc Edgerton greatly enjoyed the romantic and humorous story of how
his new young colleague in meteorology at MIT met his bride-to-be as a
result of the Densmore Shute photo. He presented the couple with an
inscribed copy. They framed it and it is the only item continuously
displayed (for almost three-quarters of a century) in all their homes
from a small apartment in Cambridge, MA to a small house in Concord,
MA to a large colonial home in Concord to a condo to now a retirement
living facility in Florida.

James passed away in 2000, but Pauline will turn 94 this year and the
photo is a focal point of her apartment that engages the interest of
her visitors and the older of her five great-grandchildren. Each time
she relates the story, the legend of Doc Edgerton’s photography is
passed along to a younger generation.

Dr. James M. Austin was a member of the MIT meteorology faculty from
1941 until his retirement in 1983. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom
for his D-Day forecasting work in WWII and he was a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, noted for his seminal modeling
of the meteorology of air pollution. He was the first director of
MIT’s Summer Session, holding that position from 1956-83.

Dr. Pauline M. Austin applied her physics expertise to the critical
field of radar tracking technology in WWII. After the war, her
interests turned to weather applications and she has been recognized
by the American Meteorological Society as a pioneer in the tracking of
severe storms by radar. She served as Director of MIT’s Weather
Radar Project for 25 years prior to her retirement in 1980.

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