Life was good for the students of the University of St. Ignatius during the fall semester of 1915. Students from the College of Engineering, established in 1912, attended the International Engineering Congress, held in San Francisco’s Civic Center Auditorium. Students from the College of Law, also founded in 1912, prepared for a moot court competition against other schools. Science students wrote papers that appeared in the Ignatian, the school’s literary magazine, on topics such as “The Purification of Drinking Water,” “A Chemist’s Chronicle,” and the scientific exhibits at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. The Exposition, which opened in San Francisco in 1915, celebrated the rebirth of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire and the completion of the Panama Canal in 1912. Harry Flood, a science student at the University of St. Ignatius who wrote about the Exposition, was impressed by the Palaces of Mines, Machinery, and Liberal Arts and Education, which his class visited with their professor. One exhibit described by Flood traced the chemical and technological history of steel production. In the agriculture building of the Exhibition, there was an exhibit of adulterated foods that included specimens of diseased meat and parasites, as well as information about the proper preparation of food. Another exhibit focused on mines, including the storage and use of underground blasting materials, and showcased the latest technology for rescuing trapped miners. Mr. Flood noted, “The work of the rescue crew, protected by oxygen-helmets was a novel demonstration. Their first aid methods we thought very practical for football players as well as miners and they will be put in practice, very probably, more often on the side lines than in the mines some of us hope to own later.”
During the fall semester of 1915, the university’s debating societies were also active, with more than forty students enrolled in the Philalethic Debating Society. The Senior Philhistorian Debating Society spent a portion of the semester preparing for a series of debates with the University of Santa Clara. The University of St. Ignatius orchestra and band performed a number of pieces for the San Francisco community. In athletics, the varsity rugby team became the “undisputed champions” of San Francisco, securing victories over teams from the Olympic Club, the College of the Pacific, and other Bay Area institutions.
There were also school picnics during the fall of 1915, vividly reported by the Ignatian. During one such picnic, a “happy crowd of boys motored down the peninsula bound for Woodside, that enchanting spot nestled among the foothills of Redwood City. Football, baseball, swimming and racing were the order of the day. It was a tired but happy crowd of boys that returned up the peninsula that evening under the glow of a rich Indian-summer sunset.” In less than two years, however, many of the university’s students would find such idyllic picnics, along with the other activities of college life, replaced by trenches, barbed wire, artillery, machine guns, mud, and death on the Western Front of Europe.
As the young men of the University of St. Ignatius pursued their academic and co-curricular lives in the fall semester of 1915, little did they know that by the summer of 1917, hundreds of them would be joining thousands of other Americans at war in Europe. The students and young alumni of the University of St. Ignatius, mostly first- and second-generation Europeans, would find themselves fighting alongside or against other young men, also of European ancestry, in the bloodiest war in human history up to that time. The university itself would experience a significant drop in enrollment due to the military draft and the call for volunteers. After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 and the Selective Service bill was passed by Congress in May of that year, the number of students at the university who were 18 years of age or older declined to less than 100. During the First World War, the University of St. Ignatius established a federally sponsored army-training program on campus, a precedent for the army-training program during World War II. In student debates and publications, the institution would for the first time consider issues of war and peace on an international scale, and tragically, ten young men from the University of St. Ignatius would not return from the “War to End All Wars.”
By early June 1917, more than 9 million American men had registered with local officials whom the War Department authorized to supervise the draft. Before the war ended in November 1918, almost 3 million men had been inducted into the army. An additional 2 million Americans volunteered for the various armed services. Nearly 400 students or recent graduates from the University of St. Ignatius volunteered or were drafted to serve in one of the branches of the military. In August 1918, the president of the university, Patrick Foote, S.J., announced that the United States Commissioner of Education had requested that as many young men as possible stay in college to receive government-supervised military training and qualify as officers. This announcement effectively stopped the decline in the institution’s enrollment. On September 6, 1918, students were informed that the University of St. Ignatius had been accepted as a unit in the national Students Army Training Corps.
The University of St. Ignatius College of Engineering, which started in 1912 with 29 students, was affected dramatically by World War I, as was the entire university. Michael O’Shaughnessy, educated at the Royal University of Dublin, was the College’s founding dean. He also taught classes and served as San Francisco’s City Engineer. He was joined on the college’s faculty by Alfred R. Clearly, professor of civil engineering; Cyril Williams, Jr., Edgar O. McCann, and John E. Pope, lecturers on civil engineering; and William E. McCann, professor of drafting and graphics. In the fall of 1916, Francis B. Lessmann also joined the faculty of the College of Engineering. Lessmann had won numerous science awards while a student at the University of St. Ignatius, where he received his bachelor’s degree in engineering and his master’s degree. In the October 1916 Ignatian, the editor commented, “We are acquainted with Professor Lessmann and are inclined to believe all that has been said about him in this regard, as his genius and efficiency have often manifested themselves on various occasions in the past.” Like many of the university’s students, faculty, and alumni, Francis Lessmann served in the First World War.
The courses in the College of Engineering emphasized field experience as well as rigorous in-class work. Engineering students perfected their surveying skills at Lake Merced, courtesy of the Spring Valley Water Company, which permitted the university’s students use of its property. Students studied gas production at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company plant in Potrero. The classes also “spent many enjoyable and profitable hours on the foggy and frigid slopes of Lone Mountain” surveying and locating meridians. In February 1913, the manager of Pacific Gas and Electric gave a lecture to the university’s engineering students on the topic of “Hydro-Electric Development in the Sierras,” during which he discussed the first small hydro-electric plant that “the company has begun amid the snow-clad mountain peaks to furnish light and power to homes and industries established along its ever-widening circuit.” The students studied mineralogy, geology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, topography, and drawing. They spent hours mapping and surveying, and they mastered the use of the level, compass, transit, and plane table. The February 1917 issue of the Ignatian waxed eloquent about the engineering students of the University of St. Ignatius:
The engineers have cheerfully spent many long hours burning the “midnight oil” and drinking from the “fountain of knowledge,” as they fully realize that the successful engineer of today cannot be a self-made man in the original sense, but must be a man of college training, which in turn must be laid upon a firm foundation whose matrix is mathematics and whose aggregate is the sciences.
Despite its promising beginning, the College of Engineering was a victim of World War I, and closed its doors in 1918 when enrollment at the University of St. Ignatius, and in its College of Engineering, dropped precipitously as many students and faculty left for the war, some never to return. With the university’s overall decline in student enrollment, and with the closing of its College of Engineering, the school’s leadership could no longer justify using the term university in its title, and in 1918 it resumed its old name, St. Ignatius College. It would be another 12 years before the term university was restored. In 1930, at the urging of various alumni groups, St. Ignatius College was renamed the University of San Francisco.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian