Hugh Hicks, dentist who ran light bulb museum, dies

Collection considered one of biggest, best in world

Hugh Hicks, dentist who owned light bulb museum, dies at 79

May 08, 2002|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. Hugh Francis Hicks, the dentist whose Mount Vernon Place office was home to what is thought to be the world's foremost collection of electric light bulbs, died yesterday of a heart attack at St. Joseph Medical Center. The Roland Park resident was 79.

His enthusiasm for glowing glass never exhausted, and through the years he amassed a collection that included a bulb from the original torch of the Statue of Liberty and headlamps from the Mercedes-Benz limousines of Nazi leaders Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.

Dr. Hicks regularly told visitors to his free, private museum that his was the only collection in the world containing an uninterrupted history of the light bulb, including 15 or 20 bulbs that Thomas Alva Edison probably held in his hands 122 years ago.

"In terms of numbers, his may very well be the largest collection in the world, certainly the largest collection any of us knew," said Harold D. Wallace, a specialist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. "He was the kind of guy who never met a light bulb he didn't like.

"There are greedy collectors, but Hugh was always a generous collector who donated objects to us and lent them freely," Mr. Wallace said.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Springlake Way in Homeland, he was the son of Dr. Hugh T. Hicks, a periodontist, and a descendant of Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks, Maryland governor from 1858 to 1862.

A 1941 graduate of City College, Dr. Hicks earned his bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1945. After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, he joined his father's practice in the Medical Arts Building in 1951.

Also a periodontist, he established his practice in a Mount Vernon Place townhouse in 1957 and never fully retired. At his death, he maintained an office and waiting room that overlooked the John Eager Howard statue and Stafford Apartments.

"I don't think there is a more beautiful place in the world to work," he told a reporter earlier this year.

An obsession begins

"My grandmother always told the story that he didn't want to play with toys when he was a baby, so she put a light bulb in his crib and he began playing with it," said a daughter, Frances Hicks Apollony of Homeland.

That was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with light bulbs that grew into a world-renowned collection of 75,000 bulbs. About 10,000 bulbs were labeled and on display in the basement museum of his dentist office at 717 Washington Place. A subcategory of the collection includes lighting fixtures, from sconces to street lights and chandeliers.

The museum opened in 1964 and drew more than 6,000 visitors annually. They benefited from hands-on tours from Dr. Hicks. Scholars, other collectors and fans from all over the world were among the visitors.

"They all come here to gasp in wonderment," said Dr. Hicks in a 1989 Evening Sun interview.

Like all collectors, Dr. Hicks had plenty of stories to accompany his acquisitions.

In a Paris subway tunnel in 1964, he noticed a series of 1920s-era tungsten bulbs along the wall. He didn't know that the bulbs were wired in series - when one was removed, they all went out.

So when he surreptitiously unscrewed and removed a bulb, the tunnel suddenly went dark. As a chorus of passengers screamed and howled in the background, he nervously tried to replace the bulb.

"But I couldn't get it back. So, you know me, I grabbed two more and took off," he said in the Evening Sun interview.

Pieces of the past

The largest bulb in his collection dates to 1926, is 4 feet high and requires 50,000 watts of electricity to glow. The most diminutive is a pin light that was produced in the 1960s and used in missile wiring. It is only visible under a microscope.

Other historical pieces include a 3-foot-long tubular bulb used during the 1930s to illuminate the ill-fated French liner Normandie; a dashboard light from the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945; an Edison bulb from the now-demolished Vanderbilt mansion in New York; and a 15-watt fluorescent bulb that illuminated the table on which the Japanese signed the surrender in World War II aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945.

"This is the only museum in the world that covers the whole history of the light bulb. And when we can teach the public, especially our schoolchildren, about the most important industrial development - the light bulb - then we are fulfilling our mission," Dr. Hicks told The Sun in 1999.

"Without the light bulb there would be no space travel, no air travel, no television and no electronic video games," he said.

Active in community

He was recalled as a cheerful, happy man, who enjoyed opera and served on the Baltimore Opera Company's board. He also had a deep appreciation of Baltimore's history and traditions. He opened his museum for First Thursday openings along Charles Street and for the annual December holiday lighting of the Washington Monument.

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