Questions of ‘what if’ continue to mark life of 19th century Jesuit



CHARLESTON — Almost a century and a half after his death, the life of Jesuit Father James Wallace continues to fascinate researchers and scholars.

Early this year, diocesan archivist Mary Giles was notified by officials at Georgetown University that the school was in possession of 250 historical documents that rightfully belonged in Charleston.

Upon retrieving the letters, Giles set about to inventory and catalogue the material, over half of which dealt with Father Wallace.

Ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus in 1815, Father Wallace had originally entered the order in 1807.

He came to South Carolina in 1818 with Father Benedict Fenwick, president of Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., for duties in the Holy City. Father Wallace was chosen by Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore and Father Fenwick to introduce needed reforms at St. Mary Church, which at the time was in virtual schism.

Father Wallace stayed in the Lowcountry for two years until accepting a position at Columbia College, later named South Carolina College before becoming the University of South Carolina, where he remained until 1834.

Colin Bennett, Ph.D., assistant dean for mathematics and research at USC, has spent much time in Charleston this summer doing his own research on Wallace, continuing historical work which began in the late ’80s as a prelude to writing a history of USC’s Math Department for the school’s bicentennial.

“The history of the department featured some interesting characters. I’d read some of the history of Wallace at the university which called him ‘very odd and very ordinary.’ I found him to be anything but,” said Bennett.

Born in Kilkenny, Ireland, Wallace joined the faculty of Georgetown College at the age of 18 and taught mathematics, chemistry, and physics. He then became a teacher at the New York Literary Institute in 1809.

In 1812, Wallace authored A New Treatist on the Use of Globes and Practical Astronomy, which served as the primary textbook on astronomy until the 1840s.

“He wrote an astronomy textbook aimed at a reasonably high level. He had the reputation as the best astronomer in the country. He was even invited to Rome to head up Vatican observatory,” Bennett said. “He was a distinguished scientist for the period. He was not appreciated at the time for what he did.”

While in the capital city, Wallace contributed scientific articles to Southern Review and for Stephen Elliott, a leading South Carolina naturalist.

“Wallace was very interested in what was going on in Europe. His articles are fascinating to look at. He was one of the budding young talents in the United States,” Bennett added. “He described steam engines first-hand for Southern Review. He called them the wave of the future and advocated their use, along with canals.” The USC dean has also uncovered documents that the Jesuit priest had submitted a patent to then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams for a steam engine of his own.

In 1818, Wallace’s reputation as a mathematician prompted officials in the Department of State to consult him on the calculation of the exact boundary between the United States and Canada as determined by the Treaty of Ghent. Bennett explained that Wallace used astronomy to determine the border of the two countries for the treaty.

“There are lots of surveying applications. His vision is up in the stars. He writes to the astronomer royal in Britain and to major mathematicians of the time, such as those at Harvard,” said Bennett

After Wallace departed the Columbia school in 1834, his replacement was not as stellar, according to Bennett, who said, “[Wallace] is responsible for building the institution. Some of the success for South Carolina College has to be laid at his door. It would have been a time of great opportunity. I wonder what would have happened with Wallace if he had stayed on the job.”

Bennett described how everything he knows about Wallace has come out of these recently discovered documents, which also raise a number of questions. “He is involved with a far greater number of people than I knew, and I still don’t know much about his life in Ireland.” To possibly come up with some answers, students that passed through the classes of the former Jesuit cleric are also being researched.

While Bennett originally planned to author a history of the Mathematics Department at USC, Wallace and the emerging South Carolina College have proven easier to write about.

“They are not as well known as they could be. These are stories waiting to be told. It would be a shame for these papers not to be used,” he said. “Wallace was one of the standouts of the 19th century. He is an important figure in the development of science in the United States.”