The Lost Key

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The Lost Key

Connecting Worlds, from 1923 to 2014


Elizabeth Hook, with contributions from Earl Blodgett, Daniel Golombek, and the Sigma Pi Sigma National Office

On Tuesday, April 2, 2012, the Sigma Pi Sigma National Office received a letter with no return address. Inside was a handwritten note (figure 1).

Figure 1

Taped to the piece of white paper was a Sigma Pi Sigma key (figure 2). But this important Sigma Pi Sigma insignia was clearly from the past. This key was old. It was not made from the same golden-colored alloy as the Sigma Pi Sigma insignia pins donned by new initiates. The metal was tarnished, and the sharp edges had been smoothed. The staff in the Sigma Pi Sigma National Office faced an interesting mystery. In an effort to discover the origin of the key and locate its owner, the text of the letter and a photo of the key were posted in the Sigma Pi Sigma and the Society of Physics Students social media channels.

Facebook and LinkedIn chatter prompted a search on eBay for Sigma Pi Sigma artifacts. The reports were that sometimes interesting historic Sigma Pi Sigma memorabilia could be found there, offered up for sale for interested collectors. We found this to be true. We found and purchased a photo showing attendees of the 1962 Sigma Pi Sigma Congress, an addition for our archive. Another key, similar to the one received, was also available for purchase. In the ad, the general description of the object included a note that the back of the key bore an engraved name and school. We purchased that key and hurried to remove the tape from our mystery key so that we could inspect its back.

Like the eBay key, our mystery key also had engraving (figure 3)! It read:

W M Mebane 26.

The “26” indicated one of two things: either W M Mebane was inducted in 1926, or his membership number was 26. In either case, the key certainly belonged to one of the first of the Sigma Pi Sigma members either at Davidson College (the first chapter) or Duke University (whose chapter was established in 1925). A quick look at the copy of the Davidson College Red Book1 kept in the National Office revealed the following entry on its second page (see figure 4 for the full page):

26     MEBANE, WM. Nelson, Jr.     ASST. PROF. MATH     Dec. 17, 1923 

The key anonymously mailed to us was most certainly the induction key given to the 26th member of Sigma Pi Sigma ever to be inducted. But who was William Nelson Mebane, Jr.?

Quips & Cranks

Davidson College’s yearbook, entitled Quips and Cranks, is publicly available online, along with other institutional documentation. The 1924 issue of Quips and Cranks lists the appointment of Dr. Mebane as acting professor of physics the year before (figure 5). It is possible that this is an error in the publication, because the 1923 induction record lists him as an assistant professor of mathematics. (See the page from the “Red Book” record.) We discovered that Mebane’s hometown was Dublin in Pulaski County, Virginia (some 265 miles southwest from where his Sigma Pi Sigma key was found). In 1918 he graduated from Davidson, where he played football and basketball. His entry as a member of the 1918 Senior Class (1918 Quips and Cranks, page 39) reflects on his love of physics: “If the celestial universe forgets to follow its orbit someday, just ask Mebane, and he’ll find a law in physics for it.”

Sigma Pi Sigma staff found contact information for a William Nelson Mebane IV and verified that he was likely a relative of Sigma Pi Sigma member number 26. An e-mail from him confirmed that he was the grandson of our key holder! The reply message provided a tantalizing clue about the career of William Mebane, Jr. His grandson wrote, “I knew him pretty well, but he died when I was young. I’m still using his tools and metal working equipment from the Manhattan Project!”

After sharing with Mr. Mebane that we had received his grandfather’s Sigma Pi Sigma key in the mail and would love to return it, Mr. Mebane was kind enough to share more about his grandfather. 

William Mebane, Jr.

William Mebane, Jr., was called into service from his position at Davidson College to work on a secret project in Manhattan. “During this time nobody really knew what he did, but, based on the mailing address of the lab in New York, we think he worked on part of the machinery for the detonating device on the atomic bomb—he probably didn’t even know,” his grandson commented. Davidson’s 1945 Quips and Cranks lists him as associate professor of mathematics on leave. Could he have been at one of the labs as stated by his grandson? The archives of the Manhattan Project housed at Columbia University include a folder with documents with his name. Although the contents are restricted, Columbia’s university archivist could confirm only that he did work for the National Defense Research Committee (the organization that managed the secret research that, among other projects, developed the atomic bomb), but not where or what he did. Mebane returned to Davidson after the war.

Four Generations

It turns out that there are four generations of men named William Nelson Mebane, and all four attended Davidson College for various periods of time. William Nelson Mebane, Sr., returned to Davidson at the age of 98 to complete his degree. Science also seems to run in their blood. The afore-mentioned grandson, Bill Mebane, is a marine biologist who founded the Sustainable Aquaculture Initiative (SAI) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The initiative promotes sustainable fish farming to feed families in Haiti.

Returning the Key

William Mebane’s key returned to its alma mater when Sigma Pi Sigma Director Dr. Toni Sauncy presented it to the Davidson College chapter at its 2014 induction ceremony.

Both Mebane’s key and the one purchased on eBay are fascinating pieces of Sigma Pi Sigma history and proof that history can emerge in the most unlikely places. Our past as an honor society is rich and full of stories and connections. Tied together by a common interest in physics, Sigma Pi Sigma’s members are diverse and have contributed substantially to a wide variety of spheres. As we celebrate this induction season and welcome hundreds of new members into our society this spring, let us also remember and thank the many great individuals who have brought us to where we are today.

As the custodians of the society and its traditions, we at the Sigma Pi Sigma National Office are always eager to learn more about those individuals. We must express our gratitude to the anonymous sharp-eyed person who started this whodunit story by spotting the key and sending it to us! And to all our readers: if you happen to come across a piece of Sigma Pi Sigma’s past, send us a note! You never know where it might lead . . . 


1Each Sigma Pi Sigma chapter keeps a historic record of all its members in a book with red covers (the “Red Book”). Each new member signs the chapter book at the induction ceremony. The National Office keeps a copy of each Red Book in which staff members enter the information as submitted by the chapters.

Continue the investigation!

See SAI’s website.

Peruse Davidson’s Quips and Cranks.

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