Early Days of the Department of Biological Sciences at Michigan Tech

by James D. Spain
Written Spring 2012

After some 40 years as strictly a mining school, the Board of Control of Michigan College of Mines, in 1926, decided to add several new degree programs: B.S. in Chemistry, B.S. in Biology, and B.S. in General Engineering. They also decided to change the name of the college to Michigan College of Mining and Technology. Most of these plans were accepted by the State Legislature, but the formation of a biology department was to wait an additional 36 years before fruition.

This is not to say that biological courses were not taught on campus. In 1936 the Forestry Department was established under U. J. Noblet, so that by 1960, “forestry” courses included three terms of botany, two terms of zoology, plant physiology, plant ecology, entomology, and ornithology. Meanwhile, the Chemistry Department had initiated a program in Medical Technology under the direction of Dr. Charles San Clemente, so that by 1960, “chemistry” courses included: three terms of microbiology, two terms of comparative anatomy, and courses in embryology, histology, micro-technique and biochemistry. In 1952, Dr. San Clemente left Michigan Tech to join the faculty of Michigan State University, where he finished out his career. He was replaced by Dr. Ira Horton, who assumed the responsibilities for the Medical Technology program.

For a few years prior to 1962, at least two faculty members had been agitating for a separate Department of Biology at Michigan Tech. The two leaders of this activity were Robert Brown, who had been teaching botany courses in the Forestry Department and Ira Horton, in the Chemistry Department. As with many such proposals, the main deterrent was lack of funds and limited interest by administrators. In 1961, the Forestry Department accreditation was jeopardized by the lack of an “independent biology department”. This caused an immediate change in the attitude of both the Forestry Department, led by Gene Hesterberg, and the University Administration, which was led at that time by Dr. J. R. Van Pelt, President, and Dr. Frank Kerekes, Dean of Faculty. It was decided to form a committee to study the feasibility of setting up such a department. This committee consisted of Robert Brown and Gene Hesterberg, representing Forestry and Ed Williams and Ira Horton, representing Chemistry. James Spain was selected to chair the committee; although he was not expected to join the department, he did have a post-graduate background in the biological sciences.

The committee met a number of times and quickly concluded that plans for a separate department should move ahead as rapidly as possible, as it was clear that the Forestry Department could no longer have responsibility for teaching basic biology courses. It was determined that because of the university mission statement, the goal of the department should be to stress more technological aspects of biology, particularly biophysics and biochemistry, which were just becoming recognized as key elements in the future of biology. To emphasize this distinction, “Department of Biological Sciences” was selected as the name for the new unit.

The next order of business was to determine just who would make up the faculty of the new department. It was already clear that Bob Brown, Ira Horton and Ken Kraft, a zoologist teaching in Forestry, would join. Jim Spain was included to provide expertise in the area of biochemistry. The final member selected was Bob Janke, of the Physics Department, who wished to transfer to the department although he would need to obtain a leave of absence to obtain a Ph.D. in biology. Thus, we had five positions with which to start the department. The recommendations were submitted to the Dean of Faculty and the President. These were accepted by the administration and recommendations were submitted to the Board of Control, for their approval. As Jim Spain had been successful as chairman of the committee, and was actively engaged in funded research in bio-science (cancer research) at the time, he was appointed department head.

As soon as the department was approved, the four active department faculty began working on the curriculum for the BS Degree in Biological Sciences. The department was also responsible for the BS Degree in Medical Technology, but this was to continue with no immediate change. For the Biological Sciences Degree, they designed a strong program in physical sciences, with one year of general chemistry, two or three quarters of organic chemistry, one year of physics and one year of math through the Calculus. Although this was a departure from the biology degrees offered by the great majority of universities at that time, there was little contention within the department as Bob Brown had a chemical engineering undergraduate degree, Ira Horton had worked several years under a curriculum that was strongly influenced by chemistry and Jim Spain’s background was in biochemistry.

In the biology area, we planned to require one year of general biology, at least one additional year in either botany or zoology, followed by microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry. Electives included such things as comparative anatomy, animal physiology, plant physiology, histology, entomology and ornithology, to fill out the requirements in botany or zoology. When we completed the curriculum design, we were all reasonably satisfied that it was very strong compared to those at other universities. In fact, years later we were amazed to see biology curricula from highly respected schools that were significantly weaker than the one we designed, particularly in the basic science and math area.

It was obvious that we were going to have to scramble to cover all these classes. However, not all had to be taught each year, the number of students during the initial years was going to be small, and the courses were based on the quarter system existing at that time. Having made our plans, we began ordering the supplies that we would need and developed a plan for recruitment of the replacement for Bob Janke, who had already left on his first year leave of absence to begin studies at the University of Colorado. We decided that we needed someone else to teach in the general biology area, as well as provide help in botany. Other important jobs during that summer were student recruitment, publicity, finalizing new course approval, etc. There are dozens of such similar tasks that am existing department does routinely; however, we were initially pretty much on our own, lacking even a secretary. At the time it was all new, but we were having a lot of fun planning it out and getting it done.

College Avenue 1965
Hubbell Hall
Hubbell School Bldg
Koenig Hall

The problem of where we were to be located was, of course, a major one. However, a new building was being constructed to house the physics and math departments, so they would shortly be moving out of Hubbell Hall, the original building that had been constructed in 1890 to house the Michigan College of Mines. This was a substantial building made of Jacobsville Sandstone, so there was talk that we might be able to move there permanently. During the fall of 1962, we started with Bob Brown and Ken Kraft still having offices and classrooms in Hubbell School (the old Forestry Building) and Ira Horton and Jim Spain still having offices in Koenig Hall (the old Chemistry Building). Sometime during the fall, Fred Erbisch, a Ph.D. botanist-lichenologist from the University of Michigan came to interview for a position. He was a very happy-go-lucky guy, who drove up from Ann Arbor and spent the night at Spain’s house. Everybody in the department seemed to like him, so he was hired to fill Bob Janke’s position for the following fall.

After a year or so in our original locations, Physics and Math moved to their new building and we were able to move into Hubbell Hall. We did this with essentially no reconstruction, using the old Physics Department lab benches, etc. We worked for some time on plans for modifying Hubbell Hall for our departmental needs, including laboratory equipment, etc. However, early one morning, Michigan Tech President Ray Smith toured Hubbell Hall with Senator Gar Lane, Chair of the Appropriations Committee for the State Legislature. Shortly after this tour, we heard that the legislature was not going to spend any more money repairing “Old Hubbell Hall”. Instead, Michigan Tech was to receive funds to construct a new Chemistry-Biological Sciences Building. So, from that point on, we began planing to move into a new building, where we would occupy about one and a third floors.

Hubbell Hall
Hubbell School razed
Hubbell Hall demolished
New Chem-BioSci Bldg

The amount of space that we had been allotted in the new building was based on the number of students that had been projected, based on a linear extrapolation of the initial numbers of students enrolled in the department. This was unfortunate, because the space was already too small for us by the time we moved into the building. Our enrollments had grown exponentially. Nationwide, engineering enrollments were declining and biology-related curricula were booming. In part, this was due to the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The irony of our situation was that Ken Kraft had chaired a year-long seminar devoted to review of this book. It was an excellent seminar, as it provided an early focus for the department. Unfortunately, we did not appreciate the implications as they pertained to Michigan Tech’s enrollment projections. In addition, we had pulled out all the stops when it came to student recruitment. We sent letters to all high schools in the Upper Peninsula, and all recent graduates in either medical technology or chemistry, telling them about the biological sciences program and the pending masters degree program. We also did everything that we could to sell the university recruiters on our program; and perhaps most effective, we had developed NSF summer institutes for high school science teachers. The key person in writing proposals for summer institutes was Bob Brown, although all of us were involved in one way or another.

[As a result of the increases in enrollments and staffing of BioSciences, the department very shortly moved into offices and labs on several floors of the newly-constructed ME-EM builings.]

ME-EM construction begins

A year or so after the department was established, we were assigned a secretary, Anita Farrell. She deserves special mention for her immense help in keeping all the departmental functions organized and active.

A couple of years after the department was formed, Ira Horton retired and we received permission to replace him with someone to teach anatomy and physiology. The University acted positively on the application received from Robert C. Stones, who had received his Ph.D. from Purdue University. He was actively engaged in research on circadian rhythms of bats and hibernation. He employed some really innovative techniques to study bat temperature control; in particular, he invented a calorimeter that was extremely sensitive to minute changes in temperature.

Since one of the reasons that Spain was made department head was because of the research that he had been doing in the area of chemical carcinogenesis, he tried as much as possible to continue this while he was department head. For these and other reasons as soon as possible, the faculty put together a proposal to launch a masters degree program in biological sciences. This was approved in 1965 and in the fall of that year they had identified six candidates for the Masters program in Biological Sciences, all working in various areas of research. This was aided by the fact that Dr. Carl Moyer, Director of Research for the University, was housed on the second floor of our building.

In 1968, after six years as department head, Jim Spain decided to return to full-time teaching and research. Jack Slater, from the University of California-Berkeley, was brought in to assume the headship. However, Dr. Slater did not live up to expectations and was relieved of his position after two years. He was replaced by Dr. Bob Stones, who had demonstrated excellent leadership qualities within the department.

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