Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: The Postwar Science Faculty

The flat-footed common fly may not appear to most people to be the most exciting creature in the universe, but for University of San Francisco biology professor Edward Kessel, the insect was at the core of his research and captured the imaginations of his post-World War II science students and professional colleagues. By 1950, Kessel was the world’s leading expert on that species of fly (known scientifically as Platypezidae). Kessel’s interest in biology was sparked by the years he spent in subtropical Africa as the child of missionary parents. He captured birds in his parent’s mulberry orchard and frogs in a nearby swamp, kept a baby monkey as a pet, dug out three-inch-long queen termites and cooked them for dinner, and witnessed cobra-like snakes called black mambas invade the family farm and kill oxen with a single bite. At age ten, he won first prize in a South African contest for his cultivation of silkworms. In 1925, he received his bachelor’s in agriculture from the University of California, Berkeley, after publishing his first entomological article, “Silk Culture in California.” He later received his master of science and his doctorate in entomology from the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation was titled “The Embryology of Fleas,” and it was later published by the Smithsonian Institute. Kessel began his career at USF in 1930 and retired in 1974 after 44 years of teaching and research. In 1955, he received a special USF faculty silver jubilarian award for his 25 years of distinguished “classroom teaching, scholarship, research and publication.” During his career, he was the author of approximately 100 scientific publications and edited USF’s Wasmann Journal of Biology and the Proceedings of the California Academy of Science. For more than 30 years, he was associated with the California Academy of Sciences, where he edited more than 370 technical papers and served as associate curator of insects. During the course of his career, he contributed 23,167 insect specimens to the Academy, including 78 new species, 15 new genera, and two new subfamilies. With grants from the National Science Foundation, Kessel studied the flat-footed common fly in every state of the union except for Hawaii (where the species did not exist), and throughout Canada. Kessel was also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, and president of the Pacific Coast Academy of Sciences. His legacy continues at USF, which annually bestows the Edward L. Kessel Award on an undergraduate student with high potential for a professional career in the biological sciences.

Edward Kessel, professor of biology 1930 to 1974

Edward Kessel was a professor of biology at USF from 1930 to 1974. In addition to his award-winning teaching, he published some 100 scientific papers, edited hundreds of technical papers, served as associate curator of insects at the California Academy of Sciences, and became the world’s leading expert on the flat-footed common fly. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

In the realm of physiological chemistry, few books of any era surpassed the impact of Harold Harper’s Physiological Chemistry (later Harper’s Biochemistry). In the late 1950s, his book went through 23 editions and was published in 26 languages. Harper was born in San Francisco, earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of San Francisco in 1933, pursued graduate work in biochemistry, and completed a doctorate at the University of Southern California in 1941. He taught biology, chemistry, and biochemistry at USF from 1941 to 1953 and was a member of the California Academy of the Sciences. Harper collaborated with his USF colleagues Arthur Furst and Howard Graham to develop modified amino acids resembling the amino acids in normal tissues; the goal of this research was to discover an amino acid compound that, when absorbed by cancer cells, would block their further growth. In 1950, Harper and another biology faculty colleague, William Hovanitz, received a research grant from the American Cancer Society to study the amino acid composition of chromosome protein in normal and cancerous tissues. In 1953, Harper joined the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, where he continued his research on the biochemistry of amino acid metabolism. At UCSF, he taught physiology and biochemistry to graduate students and was named the first dean of the UCSF graduate division, a position he held for 20 years.

Harold Harper (right), professor of Biology

In this 1951 photo, Harold Harper (on the right), professor of biology at USF, demonstrates some of his research to Marco Hellman, president of the San Francisco County branch of the American Cancer Society, which had recently funded Dr. Harper’s cancer research. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

The mammals of North America—bats, otters, rabbits, sea lions, and many other animals—practically walked, swam, or flew off the pages of the numerous books published by Robert Orr, USF professor of biology. Orr was born in San Francisco, and he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco in 1929. He earned his master’s and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, writing his dissertation on the natural history of the rabbits of California. He taught at USF from 1942 to 1964, and the field trips he organized for his students were the stuff of legend. He was an outstanding natural historian, with an encyclopedic knowledge of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. He was also an expert on trees, plants, wild flowers, mushrooms, and fungi. He published approximately 260 scientific and popular articles and 13 books. His book Vertebrate Zoology went through five editions and was the touchstone for generations of students studying the natural history of vertebrate animals. He was also active in conservation causes, and fought to preserve the sea otters of California. His academic honors were many, and he was a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, and a winner of the California Academy of Sciences Fellow’s Medal. In 1976, he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of San Francisco, recognizing his long and distinguished career in teaching. He also served as president of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Society of Mammalogists. While teaching at USF, Orr curated the ornithological and mammalogy collection of the California Academy of Sciences, and under his direction, the Academy developed one of the largest collections of marine mammals in North America. After leaving USF in 1964, Orr became associate director of the California Academy of Sciences.

Robert Orr, professor of Biology 1942 to 1964

Robert Orr taught biology at USF from 1942 to 1964, and he became a highly respected natural historian with a special expertise in North American mammals. He authored approximately 260 scientific and popular articles and 13 books. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Other notable science faculty members who welcomed former servicemen and others into their classes in the years immediately after World War II included Francis Filice, Karl Waider, William Hovanitz, and Alexis Mei, S.J. Francis Filice, who taught biology at USF from 1947 to 1975, obtained his bachelor’s from USF in 1943, followed by his master’s and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. Assisted by grants from the California Department of Fish and Game, the Water Pollution and Control Board, and the Society of Sigma Xi, Dr. Filice studied and published numerous papers on the effects of the introduction of waste materials into the San Francisco Bay. Karl Waider, a 1930 graduate of USF, taught physics at his alma mater from 1930 to 1971. He chaired the physics department and organized a new major in electronic physics in 1955. A member of the Mathematics Association of America, Professor Waider was principally interested in the fields of electricity and electronics and conducted considerable research in both areas. William Hovanitz, a USF biology professor from 1949 to 1956, published more than 130 scientific papers in his specializations, which included genetics and butterflies. In 1950, he and two of his undergraduate students embarked on a six-week trip to Canada’s Northwest Territory, funded by the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, to gather insects native to the region and determine which insects were threats to agriculture or human health. Alexis Mei, S.J., who served as dean of the College of Sciences during the postwar years, taught physics from 1942 to 1957 and was an authority on seismology. He oversaw three seismographs on the USF campus and studied the amplitudes of P waves to shed light on the internal structure of the Earth’s crust and its relationship to earthquakes.

Francis Filice, professor of Biology 1947 to 1975

Francis Filice taught biology at USF from 1947 to 1975, and among other topics, he studied the effects of waste materials on life in the San Francisco Bay. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Alexis Mei, S.J., first postwar dean of the College of Sciences

Alexis Mei, S.J., was the first postwar dean of the College of Sciences, taught physics, and was a recognized authority on seismology. He used three seismographs on the USF campus to study earthquakes. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Arthur Furst (standing), one of the most distinguished professors in USF history.

Arthur Furst (standing) was one of the most distinguished professors in USF history. He taught chemistry for 34 years, published more than 300 scholarly articles and three books, held offices in several professional societies, won numerous teaching and research awards, founded the USF Institute for Chemical Biology, secured millions of dollars in federal grants, and became the world’s foremost authority on toxicology. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES

Among the stellar science faculty who began their careers at USF during World War II or shortly thereafter, Arthur Furst was perhaps the most accomplished of them all. Born in 1914, Furst was four years old when he lost his parents to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. He was raised by relatives and at orphanages until he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where he earned his associate art’s degree in psychology and chemistry while holding down several part-time jobs. He later received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), followed by a doctorate in chemistry from Stanford University. During World War II, he taught chemistry at City College of San Francisco; the University of California, Berkeley; and San Francisco State College. Furst taught chemistry at USF in 1944 and from 1947 to 1981, for which he was awarded a distinguished teaching award in 1973. He also taught pharmacology at Stanford University. During his illustrious career, Dr. Furst published more than 300 articles in professional and scholarly journals; wrote three books (Chemistry of Chelation in Cancer, Toxicologist as Expert Witness, and 151Myths in Everyday Science), and was working on a fourth book at the time of his death. He served on seven editorial boards; was a member, fellow, or president of 17 professional societies; and received numerous awards for his work, which was used by research centers worldwide. Before the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute were established, Dr. Furst became one of the first scientists in the world to develop an effective chemotherapy drug that could be given orally to fight cancer. He also conducted pioneering studies on the role of metals in causing and treating cancer. His discoveries firmly established him as the world’s foremost authority on toxicology and cancer, and he was a founding member of the American College of Toxicology. He also conducted innovative research on brain chemistry, nutritional disorders, environmental problems, and many other topics. Dr. Furst helped develop the USF master’s degree in chemistry and brought millions of federal dollars to USF through his research, which helped fund the construction of the Harney Science Center in 1965. He founded USF’s Institute of Chemical Biology in 1961 and involved USF students and colleagues in all aspects of his research. Many of his scientific papers were co-authored with students, who often went on to become university professors, researchers, and medical doctors. Dr. Furst served as dean of the USF graduate division for four years and retired as Distinguished University Professor Emeritus. He remained active in research and publishing long after his “retirement,” and he continued to bring USF national and international acclaim because of his innovative work. He also supervised graduate students and consulted on toxicology and other subjects for various industries and government agencies until his death in 2005. Dr. Furst endowed awards for outstanding research at USF and UCLA, as well as supporting an annual ethics lecture at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. At USF, Furst also established an annual student loan fund and three memorial funds for students in the names of his wife and family. In 1981, USF awarded him an honorary doctorate of science. Every year, a plaque and a monetary award are given in his name to a science faulty member, alumna, or alumnus “in recognition of outstanding research advancing science for the betterment of humanity.” On the third level of the new John Lo Schiavo, S.J., Center for Science and Innovation, the Arthur Furst Lab is used by today’s students and faculty, assuring the legacy of a great scientist.


The immediate postwar years at USF are detailed in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., pages 189–196. Notes on faculty members who began their careers at USF in the postwar era appear in numerous publications, including the USF Monday Bulletin of June 20, 1988, page 1, and the University of San Francisco Magazine, fall 2002, in an article by Mira Schwirtz, pages 16–23. Information on Edward Kessel can be found in Search: Scientists Who Serve God by Walter R. Hearn, and in the following issues of the USF Alumnus: September 1950, page 7; March 1951, page 11; summer 1955, page 16; October 1957, page 4; December 1956, page 5; April 1958, page 9. A biography of Harold A. Harper appears on the UCSF website. He is also noted in the following issues of the USF Alumnus: July 1949, page 11; August 1949, page 7; December 1949, page 7; January 1950, page 7; September 1951, page 5; June 1956, page 6; February–March 1962, page 13. A Memorial of Robert T. Orr can be found at Searchable Ornithological Research Archive; his obituary appears in The New York Times; his publications are listed in California Academy of Science Archives; and he was mentioned in the following issues of the USF Alumnus: July 1958, page 9; February–March 1964, page 11; July 1949, page 7. Publications of William Hovanitz can be found in The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. An article about him appeared in the June 1950 issue of the USF Alumnus, page 7. A Memoriam of Arthur Furst can be found at The Academy of Toxicological Sciences.His curriculum vitae is in the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. His bibliography can be found at Shelfari. Angie Davis’ article, “Furst Aid in the Fight Against Cancer,” appeared in the University of San Francisco Magazine, fall 2001, pages 12–17.

Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian
(415) 422-2846

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