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RG 30/17 - Albert Allen Wright (1846-1905)

Albert Allen WrightAlbert Allen Wright (1846-1905, A.B. 1865, A.M. 1868, B.D. 1870), geologist, naturalist, and educator, was born in Oberlin, Ohio, to William W. (1814-1883, A.B. 1840, Sem. 1843) and Susan Allen Wright (1821-1905, A.B. 1843) on April 27, 1846. Both his parents were graduates of Oberlin College, and his uncle, George Nelson Allen (1812-1877, A.B. 1838) was Oberlin’s first zoologist and professor of music. Wright began taking classes in the Oberlin College Preparatory Department in 1859, and entered the Collegiate Department in 1861 from which he earned the bachelor of arts degree in 1865. In 1867 Wright enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary. He left Union in 1868 and returned to Oberlin where he completed his study in the Oberlin Theological Department in 1870. He enrolled in the Columbia College School of Mines in 1873 and earned the Ph.B. in 1875.

Not uncommon for his day, Wright’s education was marked by several discontinuities. In 1864 he enlisted as a 100 day volunteer in Company K of the 150th Ohio National Guard. The company was comprised almost entirely of Oberlin College students. After completing his bachelors degree in 1865, he taught for two years in the Cleveland Institute. Upon completing his seminary studies Wright accepted the chair of Natural History at Berea College, teaching from 1870 to 1872. In 1872, prior to enrolling in Columbia College, he participated in the second geological survey of Ohio, making a report on the lake ridges of Lorain County.

In 1874 he was appointed professor of Geology and Natural History at Oberlin College. When Wright was appointed a faculty member at Oberlin College, he became the first member of the faculty who was born in Oberlin.

Wright represented perhaps the first modern scientific mind on the Oberlin faculty, and presided over a difficult transition of thought. Influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin on the theory of evolution, Wright prepared several articles and addresses on the subject. He also fostered the laboratory system of study for students in all scientific departments. His efforts established the foundation upon which several academic departments were later established. He also succeeded in expanding the College Museum, located in Spear Laboratory, through aggressive collection of natural history specimens, serving as curator of the museum from 1892 until his death in 1905.

Wright’s teaching attainments were nearly overshadowed by his effective administrative service to the College. In his obituary it was noted “with the exception of President [H.C.] King,” Wright “has been the best committeeman that the Oberlin faculty has seen for twenty-five years.” (Oberlin Review, April 13, 1905, pp. 414-415.) He applied the scientific method of investigation to issues facing the College, providing illuminating reports and demonstrating sound judgment. He served as registrar of the Faculty beginning in 1879, and was Registrar of the College during 1889-90. He served on the Prudential Committee, 1891-99, and was chairman of the Faculty from 1896 to 1898. After the resignation of President William Gay Ballantine (1848-1937) in 1896, Wright served for two years as acting president.

He accomplished a great deal outside of the College as well. In 1884 he was employed to make a report on the coal seams of Holmes County for the Ohio geological survey, and in 1893 authored a report on the “Ventral Armor of Dinichthys,” based upon a specimen preserved in the College Museum. His reports long remained the standard source of information on the above topics. Wright lobbied Ohio government officials to join other states in producing topographical surveys. Wright presented papers to the committees of three different legislatures before persuading the State of Ohio to inaugurate the first topographical survey.

To the Oberlin community Wright along with Judge John W. Steele (1835-1905) contributed valuable expertise to the waterworks board beginning with its establishment in 1887. Wright planned the Oberlin sewage system and is generally credited with saving the community enormous expense while providing a model system. He was also president of the Westwood Cemetery Association. A deeply religious man, Wright was an active participant in the Congregational church, filling in occasionally in the pulpit, and even playing the piano when called upon.

On September 21, 1874, he married Mary Lyon Bedortha (1846-1877), of Saratoga Springs, New York. The union produced one daughter, Helen Bedortha Wright (1876-1960, A.B. 1900). Following the death of his first wife in 1877, he did not remarry until August 18, 1891, when he wed Mary Pamela Benton Hill (1855-1940, Lit. 1879). Mary P.B. Hill served as assistant registrar from 1889 to 1891 and went on to serve as Custodian of the Olney Art Collection, 1908-18, and Curator of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1918-25. The second marriage produced one son, Norman Hill Wright, (1896-1981, A.B. 1918).

Professor Albert Allen Wright died April 2, 1905, following a sudden and acute case of peritonitis.

Sources Consulted

Hall, Lyman B., “Albert Allen Wright, 1846-1905,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol. I, No. 8, May 1905, pp. 205-208.

Wright, G. F., “Albert Allen Wright,” American Geologist, Vol. XXXVI, August 1905, pp. 64-68.

Alumni and Development Files (RG 28).

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