“They threw the picked Prussian Guard divisions against us,” the young U.S. Army captain wrote in a letter to his brother from the front lines of World War I, and “they pounded us with artillery and machine-gun barrages till the very air seemed to be so filled with flying lead that there was not room for more. And they showered us with gas, so that our breathing apparatus became null and void.” The captain and his men were bombarded for eight hours in their trenches before receiving orders to attack. When the orders finally came, the battalion rose out of the trenches and charged toward the Germans. The enemy “had direct fire on us with artillery, and it was deadly. He enfiladed us from the flanks and from the left rear as we progressed, and when we reached our objective the battalion was reduced to 200 men under the command of a Lieutenant. The Major was wounded, I was wounded, and Capt. Ed. Leonard, Class of 1917, was dead.” Felled by his wound, the young captain looked around to see men “strewn over the battlefield.” Captain Joseph Sullivan, a former student and star football player at St. Ignatius College, recovered from his injuries, but he concluded his letter, “I’m sick of war, its havoc, its ruin and destruction.”
Science can be used for good or evil. Beginning with the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, many individuals attested to the practical and social benefits that flowed from scientific knowledge. Improvements in medicine, food production, manufacturing, communication, and navigation were some of the areas to which people justifiably pointed as benefitting from scientific breakthroughs. By the nineteenth century, however, science was also increasingly used for improving the technology of war. During the American Civil War, science brought about rapid developments in weaponry, and by World War I, science was creating horrible new weapons, including poison gas and flame throwers. In 1915, German forces used poisonous chlorine gas at the second battle of Ypres in France, its first use in a combat situation. Approximately 6,000 French troops died from poison gas within ten minutes of its deployment, primarily from asphyxiation and tissue damage to the lungs. Many more soldiers were blinded. Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid, and when combined with water, destroys moist tissues in the lungs and eyes. Soon both sides in the war were using chlorine and mustard gas (dichloroethyl sulfide). The Battle of Verdun on the Western Front, from February to July 1916, took 350,000 French lives and almost as many German lives, largely as a result of the new technologies of war, including tanks, long-range artillery, machine guns, flame throwers, and lethal gas. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the students and young alumni of the University of St. Ignatius who served in America’s armed forces often portrayed their overseas experiences in graphic detail. This depiction of life during the war frequently took the form of letters published in the Ignatian, such as the one from Captain Sullivan to his brother. The letters told of the devastated French countryside, trench warfare, artillery attacks, the use of poison gas, and the deaths of fellow human beings.
On May 12, 1918, St. Ignatius Church held a special ceremony to bless a service flag for those students and alumni of the University of St. Ignatius who were then fighting and dying in World War I. The nearly four-year-old church, on the corner of Fulton Street and Parker Avenue, had celebrated its first Mass on August 2, 1914, two days before the major powers of Europe began hostilities in what became the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that time. By April 1917, much of the rest of the world, including the United States, had been drawn into the war. Ultimately, 2 million Americans served in the military during World War I, including 380 students, alumni, and faculty members from the University of St. Ignatius. On November 11, 1918, an armistice ending World War I was signed by Germany and the Allies. The human losses from the war were almost beyond comprehension: nearly 10 million soldiers had died in combat, another 3 million men were missing and presumed dead, and millions of European civilians had died in the violence or from disease or starvation. A pernicious strain of influenza, the Spanish flu, began among the soldiers stationed at army bases in the American Midwest and soon spread to soldiers in combat in Europe. By the close of the war, the Spanish flu had infected the civilian population as well and become a worldwide epidemic. By 1920, the influenza epidemic had claimed nearly 20 million lives. In the United States alone, 500,000 perished, including approximately 3,500 citizens of San Francisco. Among the 112,432 American servicemen who lost their lives in World War I, half died of the influenza that swept through their military camps in Europe and the United States.
The two decades prior to the First World War witnessed an outpouring of scientific discoveries, although in the field of physics, those discoveries seemed at first to have mostly theoretical importance, far removed from war. In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, a German physicist, experimented with electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range referred to today as X-rays or Röntgen rays. This discovery was later applied to medicine and earned Röntgen the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. Two years later, French physicists Antoine Becquerel, Pierre Curie, and Marie Curie shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of radioactivity. In 1906, a British physicist, John Joseph Thomson, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the electron while investigating the properties of cathode rays. Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand physicist and chemist who lived in England, proved that radioactivity involved the transmutation from one chemical element to another and described radioactive half-life, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, developed the modern model of the atom as having a nucleus at the center and electrons in orbit around it, which he compared to the planets orbiting the sun. Bohr received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Max Planck, a German theoretical physicist who lost a son at the Battle of Verdun during World War I, originated the quantum theory of physics, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. Planck’s theory greatly enhanced the understanding of atomic and subatomic processes. Arguably the greatest German scientist of them all, Albert Einstein revolutionized conceptions of space and time with the publication of his work on the special theory of relativity in 1905, followed by his paper on the general theory of relativity in 1915. These theories became two of the pillars of modern physics. Einstein, who published more than 300 scientific papers during his lifetime, received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1933, he left Nazi Germany and joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
The science faculty and students at St. Ignatius College were well versed in many of the scientific discoveries of the era. Science professor Frederick Ruppert, S.J., for example, taught physics at the college and gave public lectures, starting in 1901, on topics such as “Discharges in Vacua, Radiant Matter, and Radium.” In the June 1922 issue of the Ignatian, Charles Mohun, a science student at St. Ignatius College, summarized much of the turn-of-the-century research on radioactivity, especially the pioneering work of Wilhelm Röntgen on X-rays, the research of Marie Curie on the element radium, and the application of this research to the medical field. In his article, titled “The Phenomena of Radio-Active Substances,” Mohun wrote:
The dawn of the Twentieth Century will probably always be considered a remarkable one in the history of scientific progress on account of the advances made in connection with the phenomena of radiation. Not only has there been a great extension of knowledge with regard to those types of radiation, allied to light, which enter into everyday experience, and which have been the object of inquiry for centuries, but in addition, entirely new kinds of rays have been discovered, and to account for them new conceptions have arisen, fresh fields of research have opened up, and problems, before deemed insoluble, have been brought within the range of direct experimental attack.
After describing the current uses of X-rays and radiation therapy in medicine, Mohun stressed the importance of using research on atomic theory and radiation only for peaceful purposes:
The secret of the atom and the controlling of its force is the problem science is attempting to solve, and one day when the answer is written, the whole course of human life will be so changed through the utilization of the new knowledge that past revolutions will appear of small consequence in comparison; for a power will be available in the world so mighty in its potentialities that no person would dare consider its use except for some constructive purpose.
More than 23 years after Mohun’s warning, the power obtained from knowledge of the atom was turned against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. The atomic bomb, which began from theoretical formulations in physics, morphed into a weapon with the potential to end all civilization and life on the planet.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian