Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: Outer Space, Computers, and Chemical Biology

The chirps came from outer space and were detected by radio station receivers and other devices around the world. The noise, in the key of A minor, lasted three-tenths of a second; this was followed by a pause of equal length, and then by another three-tenths of a second of chirping. The strange sound pattern was repeated continuously throughout the night of October 4, 1957, and for several weeks thereafter. It came from a transmitter aboard a Soviet satellite, soon known to the world as Sputnik. It was possible to see Sputnik with the naked eye as it raced across the sky at 18,000 miles per hour in the early morning and late evening, when the sun was still close enough to the horizon to illuminate the satellite. It was about the size of a beach ball, silver in color, and weighed 184 pounds. A month later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II, a satellite with a much heavier payload that carried a dog named Laika, who became the first casualty of the space program when Sputnik II overheated and failed to detach from its booster.

The Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite

Launched on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite revolutionized science, education, and computer technology throughout the world, and it had an immediate impact on political developments in the United States. NASA

The launch of Sputnik had an enormous impact on the political, scientific, and educational history of the United States and the world. Many Americans were shocked and disturbed by Sputnik’s launch, coming as it did in the midst of the Cold War. If the Soviet Union had the capability to launch Sputnik, some people asked, could not they also launch nuclear missiles to rain down on the United States? Sputnik ushered in a crisis of confidence in United States technology, the military, and the nation’s political and educational systems. The Soviet Union’s satellite forced the U.S. to place a new national priority on science research, and in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created to address this need. The agency initially converted military missiles into launch vehicles for the space race with the Soviet Union. The National Science Foundation (NSF), started in 1950, had a relatively small budget until Sputnik’s launch. For the 1959 fiscal year, Congress increased the NSF budget to $134 million, almost $100 million more than the previous year. By 1968, the NSF budget had grown to $500 million, and today the NSF budget is about $7 billion. This federal agency now funds approximately 20 percent of basic research conducted by the nation’s universities. On the political front, Sputnik created a perception of weakness, complacency, and “a missile gap” on the part of the United States, all of which worked to the advantage of John F. Kennedy over Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Among other issues, the Democrats emphasized the missile gap and the role of the Republican Eisenhower–Nixon administration in creating it. Kennedy won the election in November 1960 by a narrow margin.

On January 31, 1958, after several launch-pad disasters and aborted flights, the United States successfully launched Explorer I, a satellite carrying a small scientific payload that discovered the magnetic radiation belts around earth. The radiation belts were named after the mission’s principal investigator, James Van Allen. For the next several years, the United States and the Soviet Union competed in sending increasingly heavy spacecraft into orbit. Another startling Soviet triumph came in April 1961, when the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin was hurled into orbit aboard a small spacecraft and returned safely to the ground after circling the earth. In May 1961, Alan Shepard made the first American space flight of approximately 300 miles, and nine months later, John Glenn became the first American sent into orbit, safely completing three circuits around the globe. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy told Congress that he intended the nation to reach “the goal before the end of this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon.” On July 20, 1969, nearly six years after Kennedy’s assassination, the United States achieved that goal when the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 11 took Neil Armstrong and his crew to the Moon. The space race was over, and the United States claimed victory.

The Russian space station Mir

The Russian space station Mir was equipped with one of USF professor Eugene Benton’s many devices for detecting radiation in outer space. Dr. Benton taught physics at USF from 1969 to 2012. NASA

Two months after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, a young physicist by the name of Eugene Benton began his career at the University of San Francisco, a tenure that was intertwined with the space program. Professor Benton became internationally known for his pioneering experiments on the detection of radiation in outer space and from earth-bound particle accelerators. Beginning in the 1970s, his experimental devices were on every manned and unmanned NASA mission, including on the Apollo series spacecraft. From 1986 to 2001, he also led joint U.S.–Russian experiments on the effects of long-term space radiation on humans aboard the Russian space station Mir. In 1998, Benton provided NASA with detectors to monitor the crew’s exposure to radiation on the flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, a crew which included Senator John Glenn. Over the course of his career, Dr. Benton obtained several large NASA grants to support his research, received numerous awards for his work, published a host of scholarly papers, and was invited to lecture at professional conferences throughout the world. Like most USF professors then and now, Dr. Benton involved his students, as well as faculty and staff, in all aspects of his experiments and research, and he twice received the university’s distinguished research award. Benton taught physics and conducted research at USF until his retirement in 2012. USF physics professors whose careers also began in the 1960s, and who were colleagues of Benton, included Clifton Albergotti, who taught from 1964 until 1999, when he retired as professor emeritus of physics, and Philip Applebaum, whose USF career spanned the years 1961 to 1994 and was followed by retirement as assistant professor emeritus of physics.

USF physics professor Eugene Benton

USF physics professor Eugene Benton (on the right) worked directly with many USF students (including Jerry Whalen, on the left) on his physics experiments, including those concerning the detection of radiation in outer space and on earth. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

The complex calculations required for the space program would scarcely have been possible without the earlier development of giant computers capable of rapidly solving intricate mathematical problems. First used on a limited basis during World War II, and improved during the 1950s, giant computers like UNIVAC captivated television audiences in the 1950s and 1960s by predicting election results on the basis of high-speed statistical sampling and analysis of early returns. Other uses for the first large computers were found in businesses and on university campuses, where they facilitated research in the sciences and in many other disciplines as well. The enormous size of the first computers, which often filled the entire floor of an office building, ultimately led to the development of microelectronics, the technology that underpins today’s personal computers and handheld communication devices. In many respects, the Internet also owes its development to the accelerated pace of applied research catalyzed by the space program.

At the University of San Francisco, the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science was initiated in 1966 under the leadership of physics professor James Haag. The first curriculum emphasized systems and applications programming, business and data processing, numerical analysis, computer logic, computer-assisted instruction, and various programming languages. By 1970, the year the academic computer science program was organized into a full academic department, it was serving 57 students in the computer science major as well as other students in the College of Arts and Sciences, in the School of Business Administration, and in the School of Nursing. Students had access to a newly installed state-of-the-art computer, the RCA Spectra 70. In May 1970, 10 USF students received B.S. degrees in computer science, one of the first groups of students in the United States to be awarded bachelor’s degrees in the field.

Mainframe computer—the RCA Spectra 70

In 1966, USF began to offer a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and four years later, 10 USF students were among the first in the United States to be awarded B.S. degrees in computer science. By 1970, USF also had a new state-of-the-art mainframe computer—the RCA Spectra 70. It required special air conditioning, filled several rooms in the Harney Science Center, and had one megabyte of internal memory. Students used the computer for various projects, including assisting the San Francisco School Board in reassigning public school students to reduce school segregation. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Allan Cruse began his teaching career in computer science and mathematics at USF in 1966, soon after the university acquired its first mainframe computer, a UNIVAC 90/60. Professor Cruse pursued numerous research interests, including systems for microcomputers and processor virtualization, before he retired in 2010 as professor emeritus of computer science and mathematics. He also co-authored a book, Lectures on Freshman Calculus: An Intuitive Exposition of the Basic Techniques for Calculating with Derivatives and Integrals, with Millianne Granberg (later Millianne Lehmann).

Prof. Allan Cruse

Allan Cruse taught computer science and mathematics at USF for 44 years, retiring in 2010 as professor emeritus of computer science and mathematics. In addition to superb teaching, Dr. Cruse pursued research in numerous computer-related areas and co-wrote a book on freshman calculus. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Millianne Lehmann began her teaching career at USF in 1966 and retired as a professor emerita of mathematics in 2004. During her career, she authored Lectures on Freshman Calculus: An Intuitive Exposition of the Basic Techniques for Calculating with Derivatives and Integrals, with Allan Cruse, and Statistical Explorations with Excel, with USF mathematics professor Paul Zeitz. Lehmann was the first woman to chair the USF math department, the first woman to be tenured in the department, and one of the first full-time female mathematics professors at USF, following Sister Mary Clare, Sister Mary Consuela, Sister Mary Grace, Sister Mary Gregory, Sister Mary Clarice, and Pauline Olson, women who began teaching mathematics at USF between 1962 and 1965. None of these individuals attained the rank of tenured full professor, however, nor taught as long as Millianne Lehmann.

Panel titled “From Classroom to Career: Success Stories of Women in Science and Technology.”

On April 17, 2010, Millianne Lehmann (on the far left) returned to USF to serve on a panel titled “From Classroom to Career: Success Stories of Women in Science and Technology.” A large audience of university and high school students heard about career opportunities for women in science, mathematics, and technology. Pictured next to Millianne Lehmann are, from left to right, Margaret Tempero, USF alumna and deputy director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF; USF trustee Teresa Win; USF president Stephen Privett, S.J.; and Marjorie Balazs, USF alumna and founder and CEO of the Balazs Analytical Laboratories in the Silicon Valley. BRANDON BROWN

The Institute of Chemical Biology, another USF science achievement of the 1960s, was founded by the internationally respected science professor Arthur Furst in 1961 (see Vignette #21). The institute soon attained national and international acclaim for its cutting-edge research in areas that included the causes of cancer, toxicology, and the environment. More than 230 scientific publications and technical reports were generated during the next two decades by USF science faculty, typically with the assistance of undergraduate and graduate students, who were frequently cited as co-authors of the work. Over the years, many of the students who worked on projects in the institute went on to become university professors, researchers, and medical doctors. The research of the institute was supported over the next two decades by millions of dollars from government contracts and grants, and from gifts from private foundations and corporations.

Contemporaries of Arthur Furst in chemistry and biology who began their careers at USF in the late 1950s or 1960s included Robert Seiwald, Robert Schooley, Thomas Gruhn, and Lucy Treagan. Seiwald began teaching at USF in 1957 and retired as professor emeritus of chemistry in 1989. He helped discover that antigens (bacteria and viruses) can be identified through the synthesis of fluorescein isothiocyanate, better known as FITC, and that correct antibodies can be released to help stop the antigens from spreading, an important discovery in the search for a cure for AIDS. FITC also proved to be a reliable test for syphilis, and when used in conjunction with RITC (rhodamine isothiocyanate) could also help diagnose leukemia and lymphoma. In 1995, Professor Seiwald was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Robert Schooley was a USF associate professor of biology from 1963 to 1999, before retiring as a professor emeritus of biology, and Thomas Gruhn, who received the university’s distinguished teaching award in 1984, taught chemistry from 1967 until 2006, when he retired as professor emeritus of chemistry. Lucy Treagan, who taught biology from 1962 until 1987, retired as professor emerita of biology and was one of the first female full-time biology professors at USF, along with Eola Woolley, Sister Mary David, Sister Mary Dolores, Sister Mary Monica, Sister Mary Florentine, and Berta Kessel.

The private gifts and federal funding brought in by Professor Furst, Professor Benton, and other USF science professors helped support the construction of a desperately needed new science facility, the Harney Science Center, completed in 1965. Three years later, the College of Science merged with the College of Liberal Arts to become the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Harney Science Center Construction

The Harney Science Center, made possible by a gift from Pauline and Charles Harney (a former USF Regent), other private gifts, and federal grants, was one of the many USF buildings completed during the presidency of Charles Dullea, S.J., from 1963 to 1969. In this 1965 photo, members of a construction crew are reviewing blueprints for the building, which soon housed desperately needed science laboratories, classrooms, and faculty and administrative offices. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Charles Harney, a renowned San Francisco industrialist, built many Northern California highways and freeways, and his company constructed numerous San Francisco buildings and other structures, including Candlestick Park. Harney was also a Regent of the University of San Francisco, and he became one of the university’s main benefactors, contributing heavily to various building and athletic funds. The main altar and marble sanctuary of St. Ignatius Church, for example, were gifts from Charles Harney and his wife, Pauline. Their efforts also played a large part in the construction of the USF War Memorial Gymnasium in 1958. The Harney Science Center, completed in 1965, commemorates the generosity of Charles Harney, who died in 1961. Until the fall of 2013, with the opening of the John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation, the Harney Science Center contained all of the science classrooms, science labs, science faculty offices, and main administrative offices of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Harney Science Center still houses the science faculty offices and their labs, as well as the college’s main administrative offices. By contrast, the new Lo Schiavo Science Center, which is connected to the Harney Science Center on every floor level, contains 11 teaching labs, 6 classrooms, and state-of-the-art science equipment for student use. In tours of this new science facility, Christopher Brooks, the current associate dean for the sciences, refers to the new Lo Schiavo Center as the “cathedral” and the older Harney Science Center as the “cloister.” Given his support for Catholic educational causes, Charles Harney would perhaps be pleased by this comparison.


The first space programs in the United States and the Soviet Union are recounted in Since 1900 by Oscar Barck, Jr. and Nelson Blake, pages 763–764. The history and development of the first computers are described in Fire in the Valley by Paul Berger and Michael Swaine, pages 3–10. Professor Eugene Benton’s research and awards have been highlighted frequently throughout the last two decades in numerous issues of the USFnews, the USF community newsletter. Extensive articles appeared on 2/13/95, 2/26/96, and 10/15/96. An overview of the development of academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences during the 1960s can be found in the USF Report for the Accreditation Committees of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, October 1970, pages 3–145. The general catalogs of the University of San Francisco during the 1960s were also useful in understanding the sciences during that decade. The early 1960s at USF, including developments in the College of Arts and Sciences, are detailed in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., pages 252–283.

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