Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: The Chemistry Professor

The young man was a brilliant chemistry student. He was so talented that his university’s Chemistry Department hired him immediately after he received his bachelor’s degree to teach the same courses he had just completed as a student. He eventually went on to get his doctorate in chemistry, but in 1931, the year he received his bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of San Francisco, Charles “Mel” Gorman began a 46-year teaching career at his alma mater. Gorman was born in San Francisco in 1910, attended public elementary schools, and graduated from St. Ignatius High School before pursuing his undergraduate education at USF. He earned a master’s in science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1939, and a doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University in 1946. His dissertation title was “Thermodynamic Properties of Tin Compounds in Aqueous Solution.” While working on his graduate degrees, Gorman taught chemistry at USF, moving through the ranks to become an associate professor in 1946 and a full professor five years later. In 1937, he helped develop a master’s degree program in chemistry, one of USF’s first three master’s programs (the others were in biology and history), and he taught in that graduate program. 

In addition to stellar teaching and research, Professor Gorman was active in professional organizations. In 1950, he gave a presentation, “Isotopes in the Chemistry Curriculum,” to the educational group of the American Chemical Society; in 1951, he was named by the Western College Association to represent the association’s committee on college accreditation; and in 1968, he was elected chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of History of Chemistry. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the History of Science Society, and several other professional organizations. Gorman published more than 100 articles in scholarly journals on topics related to his discipline, including on the history of chemistry. He received a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1954 and was awarded a National Science Foundation Faculty Fellowship for the summers of 1958, 1959, and 1960. In 1967, Professor Gorman received the university’s first annual distinguished teaching award, and in 1984, he was named alumnus of the year by USF’s Health Professions Society. He continued to teach until his retirement in 1977, and as professor emeritus, he conducted research until his death in 1987. His legacy continues at the University of San Francisco, and at commencement every year, the Mel Gorman Award is presented to the graduating chemistry major with the best academic record in recognition of superior scientific scholarship. 

V18.1 Mel Gorman

Mel Gorman received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from USF in 1931, and later earned a master’s degree in science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University. Professor Gorman conducted research, published extensively, taught chemistry at USF for 46 years, and in 1967, received USF’s first distinguished teaching award. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

During the 1930s, Gorman’s colleagues in chemistry included James Conlan, S.J., founder of the Biochemical Club at St. Ignatius College, William Maroney, Clark Egan, and several others who taught a wide range of chemistry classes, including general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, quantitative analysis, physical chemistry, chemical technology, and biological chemistry. Biology professors during the decade included Edward Kessel, who was a world-renowned expert on the flat-footed common fly, George Haley, and other biologists. They taught a spectrum of courses: general biology, botany, zoology, bacteriology, epidemiology, physiology, vertebrate embryology, comparative anatomy, parasitology, genetics, and medical entomology. The Geology Department offered courses in physical geology, historical geology, minerals and rocks, and economic geology, taught by Thomas Saunders, S.J., and Roderick Chisholm. Fr. Saunders also taught mathematics, along with Michael Quinlan and Karl Waider. The math courses ranged from college algebra to differential equations and advanced calculus, and included specialized courses in the mathematics of investments, analytical mechanics, and theory of equations. Physics courses covered general physics, analytic mechanics, advanced electricity and magnetism, optics, and heat. A course in modern physics included such cutting-edge topics for the 1930s as the “electron, proton, thermionic emission, the photoelectric effect, radiation and atomic structure, X-rays, radioactivity, radioactive disintegrations, and nuclear structure.” Physics courses were taught by Robert Chisholm, Karl Waider, and Alexis Mei, S.J., who became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences after World War II.

V18.2 USF as it appeared in the 1930s

The University of San Francisco as it appeared in the 1930s. The science labs were in the basement of the university’s only academic structure, the Liberal Arts Building. A corner of the faculty residence (Welch Hall) can be seen between the Liberal Arts Building and St. Ignatius Church. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Notwithstanding USF’s outstanding science faculty during the Great Depression, the absence of funds for needed academic improvements weighed heavily on the sciences and on the university as a whole. Harold Ring, S.J., the president of USF from 1934 to 1938, wrote a letter to the alumni in 1936, stating:

Our students and faculty must carry on their work under the difficulties of restricted library, laboratory, and class room space. The rich endowments of many of our sister private and public institutions have encouraged us to think that we too shall some day emerge from our present difficulties and be able to offer our students adequate library, laboratory, and gymnasium facilities. The present endowment of USF consists solely of the endowment of man; that is, the religious teachers who give their services without other compensation than their sustenance and the lay teachers who carry on so efficiently in the face of so many sacrifices.

In 1939, as the nation and the university finally began to emerge from the Great Depression, there was a glimmer of hope that the fortunes of USF might improve. Soon, however, the world would be plunged into a world war that would further test the institution “in the face of so many sacrifices,” economic and human.

In July 1938, William J. Dunne, S.J., became the 20th president of the University of San Francisco, a position he held for 16 years. Fr. Dunne’s presidency, the longest in the history of the institution, was inextricably intertwined with international events. The same year he became president, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, took over a third of Czechoslovakia, and instigated the Kristalnacht “riots,” during which Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues in Germany were looted and burned, and 30,000 Jews, the first of 6 million from throughout Europe, were sent to concentration camps. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began in Europe. In Asia, Japan continued its territorial expansion, begun in 1931 with its occupation of Manchuria. By 1937, Japan had seized Shanghai, Peking, Tietsin, and Nanking. During 1938 and 1939, Japanese troops took over Shansi Province, Canton, and Hankow. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), united with his former enemies the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, to fight the Japanese invaders. Ultimately, the war in Europe and in Asia involved the United States and dramatically affected the students, faculty, and administrators of USF.

V18.3 William Dunne S.J.

William Dunne, S.J., 20th president of the University of San Francisco, served in that capacity longer than any other man. During his administration, from 1938 to 1954, USF successfully adapted to worldwide economic depression and war, accommodated to a postwar upsurge in enrollment, witnessed a major building campaign, and launched a host of new academic programs, including master’s degrees in chemistry and biology. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

As war was breaking out in Europe and Asia, the citizens of San Francisco were preparing for a world’s fair to celebrate the building of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. The Golden Gate International Exposition opened on February 18, 1939 on Treasure Island, the largest manmade island in the world. Ironically, the theme for the exposition was “Peace in the Pacific.” Like its forerunner, the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 was held during the first months of war in Europe. The exposition featured halls and temples patterned on Cambodian, Malaysian, and ancient Mayan and Incan structures; a 400-foot Tower of the Sun topped by a gilded rising phoenix; a statue of the goddess Pacifica, complete with cascading fountains; an art exhibit of European masters valued at $40 million; and a carnival area with Ferris wheels, roller coasters, assorted entertainment venues, and exhibits.

V18.4 Golden Gate International Exposition

The Golden Gate International Exposition was held on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay from 1939 to 1940. In the center of the exposition, shown in this photo, was the 400-foot Tower of the Sun. On October 14, 1939, as part of “USF Day,” the USF School Band gave a concert next to this tower. SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

October 14, 1939 was designated by the exposition organizers as “USF Day.” On that day, approximately 2,500 USF students, staff, and alumni, as well as thousands of visitors, attended the festivities on Treasure Island. The actual events honoring USF began at 2:00 p.m., when the school band, “resplendent in their new Dons uniforms,” marched onto the island and gave a concert next to the Tower of the Sun. This was followed by a second concert put on by the USF Glee Club in the San Francisco Building. In the evening, USF students staged a rally and variety show, illuminated by colored lights. Next on the agenda was a fireworks display, followed by a dance in the California Building and a midnight bonfire. The Golden Gate International Exposition closed for the first time on October 29, 1939, and the international visitors to the fair returned to what had become in many cases their war-ravaged countries. The fair reopened on May 25, 1940, and closed for the last time on September 29, 1940. By then, France had fallen to the Germans, and Japanese forces had begun to occupy French Indochina.  The world, the nation, and USF were entering the inferno.


The life of Mel Gorman is covered in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., page 274; in Mel Gorman’s dissertation abstract, “Thermodynamic Properties of Tin Compounds in Aqueous Solution,” Abstracts of Dissertations, Stanford University Bulletin, Vol. XXII, 1946–47, page 64; in various documents, including press releases, award notices, and articles, supplied by Kim Summerhays, USF professor of chemistry; and in several issues of the USF Alumnus (January 1950, page 7; June 1950, page 10; March 1951, page 7; February 1952, page 11; June 1956, page 6; December 1956, page 6; April 1957, page 7; and October 1957, page 6). The science and math curriculum at USF during the 1930s is detailed in USF’s general catalogs of that decade, and especially useful were the catalogs of 1937–1938, 1938–1939, and 1939–1940, furnished by Michael Kotlanger, S.J., USF’s archivist. Events leading up to World War II are described in most standard texts on United States history, such as The United States: An Experiment in Democracy, by Avery Craven and Walter Johnson, pages 783-802. A summary of the Golden Gate International Exposition appears in Fire and Gold: The San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, pages 155 and 156. “USF Day” at the exposition is described in the Foghorn, May 10, 1961, page 11.

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

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