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The Bitters (1962-1965)

Francis Bitter, Ashdown's 2nd Housemaster
Francis Bitter,
Ashdown's 2nd Housemaster

Francis and Katherine Bitter served as housemasters of Ashdown from 1962 to 1965, succeeding the original housemaster, Dr. Avery Ashdown.

One of the world’s leading authorities on magnetism, Francis Bitter (1902-1967) became fascinated with magnets while performing his graduate studies at Columbia University, eventually earning his doctorate in 1928. After postdoctoral studies with fellow physicists Robert Millikan at the California Institute of Technology and Peter Kapitza at Cambridge University, Dr. Bitter eventually joined MIT as an associate professor in the Department of Mining and Metallurgy. While at MIT, Dr. Bitter worked on designs for a high field magnet, eventually succeeding with the Bitter magnet, a water-cooled solenoid magnet capable of sustaining a field of 100,000 gauss. He was also instrumental in the creation in 1938 of the magnet laboratory which would eventually bear his name, the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory, located at 150 Albany Street.

During World War II, Dr. Bitter left MIT to work with the Naval Bureau of Ordinance in England where he developed methods to degauss British ships so as to make them impervious to German magnetic mines. He eventually reached the rank of Commander before returning to MIT’s Department of Physics, becoming a full professor in 1951. In 1960 he joined the Department of Geology and Geophysics and presided over the completion of the National Magnet Laboratory. In 1962, when MIT relieved Dr. Ashdown of his post as housemaster of Ashdown House (then still Graduate House), Dr. Bitter and his wife Katherine were chosen to take over the role.

Throughout their tenure, the Bitters oversaw numerous changes in the social makeup and student governance of the House. The Bitters and the Graduate House Executive Committee (the precursor to the Ashdown House Executive Committee) were often at odds as to how best to administer to the House’s graduate population, often times leading to a divided House. Some of the major changes during this period included: the House becoming co-ed, the House being renamed Ashdown House, AHEC meetings becoming public and the House constitution being amended to redefine the role of housemaster as a friend, and not a leader, of the community.

Citing poor health, Dr. Bitter and his wife stepped down from their post as housemasters in 1965 and were succeeded by Frederick Fassett, MIT’s Dean of Residence. While much may be said about the strained relationship between the Bitters (particularly Katherine) and the House’s student leadership, it should be noted that the Bitters oversaw one of the greatest transitional periods in House history. Not only did the Bitters have to succeed the only housemaster the House had ever known, but they also had to contend with changing social attitudes and a GHEC which was resistant to their new way of doing things. In the end, the Bitters legacy included a more open student government and greater resident involvement in the House.

The above information contains information gathered from personal interviews, MIT Tech articles, the MIT Museum Collections and MIT webpages.

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