University of Iowa faculty visit the Van Allen House

Union photo by Ashley Duong

University of Iowa faculty toured the Van Allen House in Mt. Pleasant on Oct. 24. Dr. James Van Allen taught at the university from 1951 to 1985.
Union photo by Ashley Duong University of Iowa faculty toured the Van Allen House in Mt. Pleasant on Oct. 24. Dr. James Van Allen taught at the university from 1951 to 1985.

MT. PLEASANT — Faculty from the University of Iowa visited Mt. Pleasant to tour the Van Allen House and celebrate the memory of world-renowned scientist James Van Allen.

The Henry County Heritage Trust hosted University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, Executive Vice President Montse Fuentes, Senior Vice President Rob Lehnertz and Physics and Astronomy Department professors Steven Spangler and David Miles on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Iowa Wesleyan University President Christine Plunkett and University Provost DeWayne Frazier also took part in the tour, alongside various board members of the Henry County Heritage Trust including David Van Allen, nephew of James.

Dr. James Van Allen, who grew up in Mt. Pleasant and graduated from Iowa Wesleyan, later went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, where he taught from 1951 to 1985. Van Allen is known for having discovered radiation belts, which are zones of charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field. Because of his discovery, the belts are known as the Van Allen radiation belts.

Board member Pat White lead the visitors through the museum to several exhibits with items collected from the Van Allen family, highlighting that James, alongside his three brothers, all became distinguished and successful individuals in their respective fields.

Professor Steven Spangler, who grew up in Swedesburg, recalled hearing about James Van Allen when he was growing up. Spangler also remembered purchasing books about space from Mt. Pleasant and receiving a telescope from his parents at the age of 12 that really kicked off his interest in astronomy. Although Spangler notes that Van Allen didn’t necessarily directly influence his decision to study science, it was confidence boosting to know “someone who comes from Iowa can attain great things.”

“That was one of the things that you heard in the late 60s, that Van Allen came from Mt. Pleasant. That was well known,” he added.

Ultimately, it was the excitement and rapid developments and discoveries made by the space programs of the late 60s that inspired Spangler to go into physics and astronomy

“I lived out on a farm so it was dark at night and … it was easy to look at stars,” Spangler said.

Spangler began his higher education career at the University of Iowa in 1968, at which time James Van Allen taught the introductory astronomy course to undergraduate students. Speaking on why he felt it was important not only to remember scientists for their scientific achievements, Spangler said, “Being a scientist myself, what I think people are interested in how these individuals lived as humans, how did they relate to other people, whether they had families and things like that. So I think that people are interested in that and not justs what they accomplished.”

“Professor Van Allen is a great example of someone who had a well-rounded life. He really touched the lives of lots and lots of people through his teaching at Iowa through the years and being a mentor and helping to support and promote the careers of lots of other people that have gone on,” Spangler concluded.

The professor also noted that The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) “is really dominated by the graduates of the University of Iowa,” and that Van Allen “provided the structure” to allow the university’s heavy involvement with the program.

Iowa Wesleyan President Plunkett noted that before the tour, she had not been aware of the history of the Van Allen family, but was incredibly excited to learn about distinguished alums.

“It’s amazing, specifically relative to Iowa Wesleyan University to see these graduates coming out because there were others … outside of Van Allen that were IW graduates. It’s moving to see the history of all of it,” Plunkett said.