Resilience in Times of Crisis -- Lessons from Penn State History

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

This is the latest in a series of letters to Penn State’s Materials Community meant to provide discussion, concepts, and strategic thinking that could aid our preparedness during and after the COVID-19 crisis.  In this letter I consider examples of Penn State leaders and strategies within the physical sciences that successfully navigated several global crises. In doing so, they laid the foundations for our transition into a world-class university. It is my hope that we can all learn from these inspirational leaders and past crises as we navigate our way through current world challenges.

You may recall how during the Civil War this institution transitioned from The Pennsylvania Farmers High School into the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. Even through what was this nation’s greatest crisis, Lincoln had the foresight to found what would become the great Land Grant universities of the future. Crisis can be a time of opportunity.

Our first president, Evan Pugh (1859-1864), introduced a rigorous scientific education based on his chemistry training in Germany. After Pugh, the college lost its way and student enrollment fell. In that time the school’s name was again changed, to the Pennsylvania State College (1864). It was not until President George Atherton (1882 -1906) introduced a much broader educational experience, with liberal arts and engineering to complement agriculture and natural sciences, that student enrollment rebounded and a strong reputation as an undergraduate program began.

A visionary Chemistry faculty member, George Gilbert Pond (1888-1920), with broad experience with graduate studies in chemistry and mineralogy from Gottingen University, campaigned for new resources in scientific laboratory equipment, books and periodicals, and new buildings for teaching (1909) and laboratories (1917). Given the chemical, mining, and materials industry in Pennsylvania, chemistry majors were in high demand.  Our chemistry undergraduates were aggressively recruited for graduate school and industry in this period, much of it due to the high standards introduced by Pond. Pond Laboratory is named for him.

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, the trustees opened the campus to expand the military training of students. The war introduced the use of chemical weapons: chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas on the killing fields of Europe, due to Germany’s investment in chemical research. The importance of chemistry training was not lost on American scientists, though happily the Allies did not respond in kind.

In the following spring, the great influenza pandemic swept across the globe, killing more people than the four years of war. Nearly 675,000 Americans and 60,000 Pennsylvanians lost their lives, with Pennsylvania reporting the most deaths in the country. Reports show that the campus was not hit as badly as other areas, with just six student and six State College resident fatalities. Between 1918-1919, student activities were reduced, with football games cancelled and publication of the Collegian suspended.

Edwin Sparks was president during the twin crises of World War I and the great pandemic, and the strains of organizing the campus through these times eventually led to a nervous breakdown. Sparks’ successor, John M. Thomas, guided the institute to its next stage of development with the formation of the graduate school and development of the research mission of the school. He formed two important schools: the School of Chemistry and Physics, and the School of Mines and Metallurgy, attracting new visionary Deans who drove the recruiting of leading faculty who then developed major research identities.

One such star, George Wendt, (1924-1929) was appointed to lead the School of Chemistry and Physics. By the time he arrived, he already held major academic standing from his experiences at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. His short time spent in industry also led to a reorganization of industry-supported interdisciplinary research and the organization of the Division of Industrial Research, which raised industry support for graduate and senior undergraduate research. Wendt’s last contribution to the college was the recruitment of his successor, Frank Whitmore (Whitmore Lab) in 1927. Wendt created a culture of intellectual credibility to Penn State research.

Another notable hire in this time period was Wheeler P. Davey (Davey Lab), a top General Electric scientist who was appointed head of Physical Chemistry at a salary remarkable for the time at Penn State. During the Depression, when money was scarce, Davey built his own laboratory instruments, including X-ray tubes and modified Geiger counters mounted on a goniometer stage. With support from industry, Davey used X-ray diffraction techniques to identify phases in steel and Portland cement.

It was our tenth president, Ralph Hetzel (1925-1947), who guided the institution through the major series of crises that include the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, and World War II. His Dean appointments, the restructuring of the college, the faculty hires that led to new research opportunities, provided a culture and reputation that continues today. Think of his resilience and wisdom the next time you walk past the HUB (Hetzel Union Building).

By 1932, Pennsylvania had over 37% unemployment. For many students, travel to a residential campus was unaffordable. Hetzel recognized that lower tuition and the ability to live at home could make the difference for these students. Thus was born the system of distributed campuses we now know as the Commonwealth campuses. At the same time, faculty and staff established an Unemployment Relief Fund with over 90% of employees participating. Our current situation with massive unemployment and the turn to remote teaching is reminiscent of that time.

Edward Steidle, Dean of Mines and Metallurgy (1928-1953), also guided us through these crises. It was soon apparent that he was a major visionary for the modernization of the materials and mining field. In particular, he integrated education and research for a group of subfields branching from the mining industry, mineral engineering, fuel technologies, and mineral economics. He encouraged interactions in the field, partnerships with industries, and major laboratories for research and training purposes. Steidle Building bears his name.

Dean of the School of Chemistry and Physics Frank Whitmore (1929-1947) was a brilliant leader, in both recruiting critical faculty and acquiring necessary resources. A world-renowned researcher and academic in coordination metalloorganic chemistry, Whitmore wrote the first advanced organic textbook in English. Some of his academic hires included Merrill Fenske, Dorothy Quiggle, Joseph Simons, Russell Marker amongst others. He mentored the growth of Pauline Mack into an international scientific leader in the science of textiles and nutrition. These leaders and faculty built labs and processes that became of major importance in various ways to industry and to the federal government during the Depression. In those tough years of the Depression era, Penn State evolved into a nationally recognized research university that could be relied upon to produce major advances. Whitmore was a prodigious worker. In fact, it was commonly noted that the lights never went out in Whitmore’s lab. During the war, Whitmore, as chairman for the United States War Manpower Commission Committee on Chemists and Chemical Engineers, wrote over 7,000 letters requesting deferments for technical workers crucial to the war effort. His tireless labor took a toll on his health and he died in 1947 at age 59. People who know me well may have heard me speak of one of my English engineering heroes who also died young as a victim of overwork in the war effort. R.J. Mitchell invented the Spitfire fighter plane that helped win the Battle of Britain. Not all casualties of that war died on the battlefield. Rocky Whitmore truly had the heart of a Lion.

In the mid-1930’s as war in Europe loomed, Penn State leadership saw opportunities to recruit top scientists wanting to escape from Nazi Germany. Some of these faculty are highlighted in our Pioneers of Materials historical poster gallery. As the next crisis, a second world war, approached, Penn State transitioned to a tri-semester teaching schedule to accelerate graduation as students entered the draft. Two Penn State scientists were particularly important to the war effort. Pauline Mack began advising the army on calcium supplements for its soldiers. She also developed coatings on fabrics to enable flame retardant life preservers for the Navy. Joseph Simons’ crucial contribution, for good or ill, was in the processes necessary to purify uranium, which was necessary for the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. Simon’s organic fluorine chemistries are still employed in industry. Penn State also had developed technology that enabled purification of penicillin. By 1945, over 21 manufacturers in the U.S. were using Penn State faculty for consulting services. Also, in 1945, Eric Walker was able to bring the Ordnance Research Laboratory from Harvard to Penn State. This was the start of the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) that continues to drive research for national defense at high technology levels.

Now we have a new crisis to address, and it is helpful to be reminded that there have been inspired leaders who succeeded in other times of crisis. I firmly believe this generation of leaders can also be counted on to do the right thing for our university. I believe that all Penn Staters, inspired by our current leadership, are working very hard and wisely through this difficult time. Even in the early days of January and early February, Penn State had formed committees to deal with this crisis, and these continue to evolve. The leaders of the past that are discussed in this letter provide a compass to guide us in making difficult decisions. This is just the first part of the work that we will all have to do in the coming weeks, months, and possibly even years.

We are all familiar with Churchill’s famous speech to Britain about their time of crisis: “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning.”

Continue to be safe, develop resilience, and look for opportunities to serve. Be Penn State proud that our history makes us strong and resourceful. 

Yours Sincerely,

Clive Randall
Director, Materials Research Institute