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Newton Gaines, Cowboy Physicist

Professor Newton Gaines loved to entertain. The physicist serenaded his students with cowboy ballads from horseback. Each spring he donned a kilt and many-colored cap, the costume he selected for throwing boomerangs around the campus.

Professor Newton Gaines loved to entertain. The physicist serenaded his students with cowboy ballads from horseback. Each spring he donned a kilt and many-colored cap, the costume he selected for throwing boomerangs around the campus.

For its first quarter century, physics at TCU and Dr. Newton Gaines were synonymous. “It was not until 1924 that [the discipline] got its real opportunity for growth,” noted Dean Colby Hall in History of Texas Christian University. “That year came Professor Newton Gaines, with a sentiment in his soul also for art and Southwest folklore, who has devoted his time and zeal untiringly to building up physics at TCU.”

 In 1928, physics became a separate department offering a major, and Dr. Gaines became chairman, a position he held until his retirement in 1958.  “With diligence and dogged determination he has collected apparatus,” Dean Hall observed, “buying to the limit of the budget, securing more secondhand and remaking it, until the laboratory has become quite extensive.”

Dr. Charlotte LeMay ’40, who has endowed a scholarship named for Dr. Gaines, recalls his creativity and commitment to building a first-rate physics program.  “Because what little money there might be available for equipment — I emphasize might — went to purchase laboratory pieces for general physics, there was very little left over for demonstrations or lab equipment for other classes. Here is where his ingenuity shown brightest. In the stock room were many cardboard boxes, each labeled, which held all sorts of things. Unless you had seen them put together to demonstrate some principle of physics, you would have no idea what they could be used for. And often he was the only one who knew how to put them together, but they worked!

“Many people, some not directly associated with the campus, used his facilities. They came into the space, did their thing, waved to him, and went out again. As a precaution, he had marked everything that might have disappeared otherwise, with the words ‘Stolen from TCU.’ It was effective. As one of the gifts at his retirement luncheon, he received a very good, brand-new pocketknife, also marked ‘Stolen from TCU.’ He had a great laugh over that!”

A distinguished researcher, Dr. Gaines was the model of the teacher-scholar that persists at TCU to this day.  As Dean Hall observed, “Dr. Gaines, despite his heavy load of teaching, has produced as a scientist, having worked out a suggestion into practical application on the use of super-sonic sound waves in the treatment of bacteria.” A 1931 issue of Science News described one   experiment: “Audible sound waves, so high-pitched and so intense as to be best described as a ‘terrific squeak,’ have been used to kill bacteria by…Prof. Newton Gaines of Texas Christian University, physicist.” As a result of his work, Dr. Gaines held the patents for pasteurizing milk by using ultrasound.

But what made Newton Gaines most memorable was what Dean Hall described as that “sentiment in his soul also for art and Southwest folklore.” A longtime member of the Texas Folklore Society, Dr. Gaines served as its president in 1928.  “He was 100 percent Texan! He talked it, walked it and thought it,” comments Dr. LeMay. “Above all else, he loved to entertain an audience.

“He was an authority on working cowboy songs, the ones the cowboys sang to move the cattle such as ‘Get Along Little Doggie,’ and they were timed by the horse’s pace. Some songs were sung at night to bed the cattle down. Sometime before I met him, he had recorded songs on an old hill-and-dale quarter-inch thick record — I think it was an Edison Red Seal label.

“He took every legitimate opportunity to entertain his classes.  Every spring, usually in April, there would be an article in the Sunday Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Prof. Gaines, who would go out to a high point on campus and throw boomerangs. He was usually dressed in a kilt and wore a many-colored cap with a red topknot.  He was very good at throwing boomerangs.”

Dr. Gaines also held an appointment to the music faculty, where he taught the physics of music for two decades.  “This course was required of all students who majored in music,” Dr. LeMay remembers. “Prof. Gaines teased that some day he was going to give a course in the physics of dancing for ballerinas.

“There were numerous musical instruments stored in the physics department’s space.  There was even a piano, which was often played by the students except when Professor Gaines was ‘in his private office.’  Since his real office could not be closed off from sound, his ‘private office’ was indicated when he donned a bookkeeper’s green eyeshade.

“He was a dedicated teacher and gave of his time and energy to many people, both on and off campus. He was very much a pragmatist about all things and also believed in knowing as much as one could.

“With impossible amounts of hard work, the support of a charming wife, and the help and good will of his peers, Prof. Gaines made and improved a physics department in the middle of the worst depression this country has ever known.”