In October 1955, the University of San Francisco, the oldest institution of higher education in the city, celebrated a special birthday: one century had passed since the institution’s founding. St. Ignatius Academy, the antecedent of USF, first opened its doors on Market Street on October 15, 1855, though the first science courses (in chemistry) were not offered until 1863 at the renamed St. Ignatius College. In the fall of 1954, John Connolly, S.J., the newly appointed president of USF, had established an advisory committee to plan a series of celebratory events to be held in October 1955. Other regularly scheduled and special university events during 1955 and 1956 were adapted to the centennial celebration.
The anniversary year celebrations began with a centennial graduation on Sunday, June 11, 1955, at which 313 students received their degrees. The graduation exercises were held in the War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness Avenue. On October 10, 1955, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a resolution honoring USF’s centennial milestone and noting that the institution had “spread the fame of San Francisco throughout the world by the activities of its students and graduates in the fields of sports, law, medicine, military science, and religion.” The local press also highlighted the USF centennial celebration. The San Francisco Chronicle published a feature article on the history of St. Ignatius College on Market Street. “A Catholic institution in a heavily Catholic city, USF has always had its own traditions, its campus lore,” the article stated, but “last week, a century after its founding, USF was still on the move with an expansion program on the boards.” Several religious services also marked the centennial week in October 1955. The centennial week came to a close on Sunday, October 16, with a Mass in St. Ignatius Church presided over by San Francisco Archbishop John Mitty. Francis Corkery, S.J., president of Gonzaga University, gave the sermon at the Mass, during which he noted that the university’s first century had been “a story of vision, courage, zeal, and sacrifice. It is written where all may read: in the souls of men and in the fabulous story of the civic and spiritual growth of this great metropolis.”
The centennial celebration continued with the dedication of Phelan Hall on the USF campus on October 23. The seven-story building, with accommodations for 386 students and a dining room capable of holding 1,000 (the dining hall is now McLaren 250, 251, and 252), was the institution’s first student residence hall. At the dedication ceremony, Fr. Connolly gave a short dedication speech, and William O’Brien, class of 1924, gave the main address. On February 1, 1956, a centennial banquet was held at the Fairmont Hotel. The 1,500 attendees heard addresses by Charles Sweigert, class of 1897, George Christopher, mayor of San Francisco, and Goodwin Knight, governor of California. Governor Knight paid tribute to the Jesuits of San Francisco. “This is a centennial of men rather than of mortar,” the governor said, “and the happiest note is struck when we think of the men who have taught and who have been taught within the walls of this university.”
In concert with the University of San Francisco as a whole, its science programs had also grown since the first chemistry classes were held at St. Ignatius College in 1863. By the fall of 1956, there were 252 undergraduate and graduate students majoring in the sciences at USF, out of a total student enrollment of 3,623. In the College of Science, undergraduate majors were offered in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics, and graduate degrees were offered in biology and chemistry. In addition, science students could participate in several student clubs and organizations that focused on the sciences. One such organization was the Wasmann Society, founded in 1936 by Professor Edward Kessel, biology department chair, to further the interests of students in the biological sciences. Eric Wasmann, S.J., for whom the society was named, was an Austrian Jesuit who became an accomplished entomologist. The society sponsored field trips to science-related locations, such as the Academy of Sciences and the Irwin Memorial Blood Bank, hosted lectures by prominent speakers, and screened scientific films. By 1955, the society had become national in scope, had active alumni, and was regularly publishing The Wasmann Journal of Biology. From its first issue in 1937 to its last issue in the early 1970s, biology students served as the journal’s editors, with Professor Kessel as managing editor. The articles were based on original research and were written by professors, graduate students, and researchers from all over the world. The journal’s special focus was on the natural history of invertebrates, mainly insects; vertebrates; and plants. Many articles also covered the native flora and fauna of California and the ecological landscape of the state.
As it had since 1923, the Bio-Chem Club continued throughout the 1950s to offer USF science students opportunities to network with professionals in the scientific community, including physicians, dentists, and other healthcare professionals. The Bio-Chem Club also sponsored field trips, lectures by science professors, and opportunities to meet non-academic professionals in science-related industries. By 1955, many non-science majors at USF had enrolled in the Bio-Chem Club to learn more about the sciences. Many students in the Bio-Chem Club went on to medical, dental, or pharmacy schools and ultimately became successful healthcare professionals.
The science programs at USF in the mid-1950s laid claim to ideal scientific training through direct personal attention from outstanding professors and opportunities provided to students to experience the practical applications of the theories and experiments developed in the classroom in medical, business, and industrial settings. All students, even freshmen, were taught by regular full-time faculty, rather than teaching assistants, and the average faculty-to-student ratio was one to nine. Faculty research was often conducted with the full involvement of students, and USF had eighteen laboratories crowded into the Liberal Arts Building devoted to student and faculty work, complete with the latest equipment of the era, including an electron microscope.
Pre-professional training and advice remained available to undergraduate students, as it had since the 1920s, for those wishing to prepare for careers in medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy. Students planning to enter the teaching profession upon completion of their undergraduate work could continue for their fifth year in natural and life sciences, qualifying for a California teaching credential. USF science graduates of the era went into other fields as well. Graduates in biology found careers in forestry, oceanography, medical bacteriology, dietetics, laboratory technology, and public health. Chemistry graduates successfully pursued careers in medical chemistry, medical sales, and industrial chemistry, including the testing and analysis of raw materials and production control. Students with a bachelor’s in mathematics became insurance actuaries, industrial mathematicians, and construction engineers. Graduates of the physics program followed various professional paths in electronics, communications, acoustics, meteorology, and industrial physics. Due in part to the many opportunities afforded to students to engage in scientific research alongside their professors, many undergraduate students pursued advanced graduate study at top-ranked universities throughout the world.
By the mid-1950s, many of the science professors at USF had established national and international reputations in their fields, as well as being outstanding teachers. As noted in Vignette #21, biology professor Edward Kessel already had an international reputation by 1955 and was known as the world’s leading expert on the flat-footed fly. Robert Orr, another biology professor, had published hundreds of scientific papers on the mammals of North America, and his book Vertebrate Zoology was already a classic in the field. Biology professor Francis Filice was publishing pioneering research on the effects of introducing waste materials into the San Francisco Bay, and his colleague William Hovanitz had published more than 130 scientific papers by 1956 about genetics and butterflies. Alexis Mei, S.J., professor of physics and dean of the college, was an international authority on seismology. In chemistry, Mel Gorman received a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1954, with three National Science Foundation Grants soon to follow, and published scores of articles on topics including the history of chemistry. Chemistry professor Arthur Furst’s growing body of publications, which ultimately ran to more than 300 articles and three books, was cementing his legacy as one of the leading researchers in the world on the development of chemotherapy drugs, toxicology, brain chemistry, and related topics.
The USF centennial year of 1955–1956 closed with commencement exercises held on June 10, 1956 in the War Memorial Opera House. During the ceremonies, student valedictorian William O’Brien focused his speech on the history of USF, symbolized by the bell in the campanile of St. Ignatius Church, which had rung at every location occupied by the institution since 1862. The bell was one of the few artifacts that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906 that destroyed St. Ignatius Church and College, having been pulled out of the church’s rubble and ashes weeks after the fire. Mr. O’Brien concluded his speech: “So ring out old fire bell, ring out ‘San Francisco.’ Ring out over windy Ignatian Heights, ring out over those gleaming towers that seem to float in another world. Ring out victory and laugh at the ashes out of which you grew mighty.”
The University of San Francisco had indeed grown mighty since its humble beginning as a small one-room schoolhouse, initially enrolling three students and occupying less than an acre of land amidst the sand dunes of an undeveloped Market Street. In the fall semester of 1956, USF boasted its highest enrollment up to that date, with more than 3,600 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees. The 22-acre campus was in the middle of a major building campaign, having recently witnessed the completion of Gleeson Library and Phelan Hall; a new gymnasium would soon be under construction, and plans were underway for a new science building. Several new academic programs had been launched successfully in the past decade (including graduate degrees in biology and chemistry); accreditation agencies gave USF high marks; the national championship basketball teams of 1955 and 1956 brought the school international visibility; and many USF professors, including in the sciences, had established national and international reputations in their disciplines. The legacy of the institution’s first century held great promise for the second century.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian