The City’s First Science Program

St. Ignatius Church and College in San Francisco as it appeared in 1863. The building was located on the south side of an unpaved Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, and the city’s first science classrooms and laboratories were installed on the first floor of this brick structure. The site is now home to Bloomingdale’s Department Store in the Westfield Shopping Centre. A bronze plaque at the main entrance to Bloomingdale’s marks this first location of St. Ignatius College. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

In the hands of skilled masons, the building rose brick-by-brick from the sand dunes on the south side of Market Street in the rapidly developing City of San Francisco. It was the fall of 1862, and St. Ignatius College, the city’s first institution of higher education, was erecting a permanent structure to replace the temporary wooden schoolhouse that had been its home since 1855, the year of its founding. In 1863, classrooms and laboratories on the ground floor of the newly completed three-story building were designated for the teaching of chemistry, marking the city’s first facilities for science instruction.

It was an auspicious beginning for the teaching of college-level science in San Francisco. The St. Ignatius College Catalogue of 1863–64 noted that “the chemical laboratory is furnished with all that is necessary for the most complicated manipulations and analysis.” The next year, the catalogue stated that “the department of mineralogy has been enriched by a well assorted collection of specimens,” to underpin a course in assaying associated with the teaching of inorganic chemistry. The course in assaying provided a useful skill for students who would be involved in the flourishing mining industry of Northern California and Nevada.

During the 1850s and 1860s, sand hills that dominated the San Francisco landscape were removed to make room for buildings and streets that formed the permanent neighborhoods of San Francisco. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Two experienced Jesuit professors taught the first chemistry classes at St. Ignatius College. Florentine Boudreaux, S.J., had taught chemistry for 15 years at the Jesuit College in St. Louis before he joined the faculty at St. Ignatius College in 1863. In addition to teaching, Fr. Boudreaux popularized science principles in public lectures and experiments, and in exhibitions given by his students. He was followed by Anthony Cichi, S.J., under whose direction the chemistry department significantly expanded. Fr. Cichi acquired the latest scientific apparatus for the department, including photographic equipment. He soon developed a reputation throughout California and Nevada as an outstanding chemist and mineralogist. In addition to teaching and research, he often consulted mining interests on the composition and value of ores, during this era of gold, silver, copper, and other mining activities in Northern California and Nevada.

During the decades immediately following the inauguration of the science program, commencement exercises at St. Ignatius College were often lengthy affairs, lasting two to three days and consisting of programs that featured Latin and Greek orations, plays, debates, music, and science lectures and demonstrations. The program for the 1863 commencement exercises lists “Experimental Illustrations in Chemistry” by the students in the graduating class, and the next year there were two more science demonstrations by graduating students: one on “Assaying and Smelting of Copper Ores” and the other on the “Properties of Oxygen.” The Daily Alta California, one of the city’s major newspapers, reported on these demonstrations on the first page of its July 1, 1864, issue:

The great basement hall of the college, large and spacious, was filled to its utmost capacity with the elite of the city and country, who constituted a most respectful audience. The exercises of the forenoon wound up with a most interesting lecture of the assaying of copper by A. O’Neill, in which he exhibited an admirable proficiency. This lecture was illustrated throughout by practical experiments in the whole process of assaying, smelting, and refining, and was highly interesting. In the evening, the closing lecture, by Francis Leonard, in which many nice and rare chemical experiments were made, showed a thorough knowledge of the nature and properties of the gases, acids, minerals, etc., and had a fine and entertaining effect. The College is provided with a complete set of apparatus, and nothing was wanting to illustrate the lecture throughout with practical experiments. —Daily Alta California

The Commencement Exercises of 1864, described in this program, featured classical orations, debates, and science lectures and experiments. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

St. Ignatius College drew upon its rich Jesuit heritage to begin a robust science program during its first decade. In 1930, after three moves and substantial growth, St. Ignatius College was renamed the University of San Francisco. In 2013, on the 150th anniversary of the creation of the city’s first science classrooms and laboratories, the University of San Francisco celebrates the opening of the John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, a state-of-the-art building in the geographical center of a city and a university named for St. Francis of Assisi.

Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian

One thought on “The City’s First Science Program

  1. Wonderful article!
    I am a grateful beneficiary of USF’s long heritage of Jesuit respect for scientific inquiry. Upon graduation in 1959 (the 100th USF Class) with a degree in physics, I was well prepared for PhD studies at St. Louis University and Argonne National Laboratory. My Jesuit education served me well through a long rewarding research, business, and teaching career. The new Center for Science and Innovation will ensure USF’s continued participation in scientific and technical inquiry. These days, I mainly apply physics to my golf game!

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