Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: The Golden Age for Science

Bishop James Healy of Portland, Maine, led a long procession of students, faculty, alumni, and civic leaders from Van Ness Avenue through the halls of the new St. Ignatius College. It was the morning of Monday, February 1, 1880, and the bishop was blessing all of the new classrooms, the college hall, the library, the laboratories, the scientific equipment, the museum, and even the corridors. The procession returned to Van Ness Avenue, and the students formed lines, four deep, down Hayes Street, around the corner, and up Van Ness. They then marched into St. Ignatius Church for a Mass, attended by almost 4,000 people. Celebrating the Mass was Bishop Healy, assisted by Aloysius Varsi, S.J., Superior of the Jesuits of California and a former mathematics and physics professor at St. Ignatius College. Following the Mass, and probably to their great delight, the students were given the next day off as a holiday.

St. Ignatius Church and College on October 15, 1905, the day the institution celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding in San Francisco. The school occupied this location from 1880 to 1906, during which its science and other programs flourished. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES The new St. Ignatius Church and College stood on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Hayes Street, the current location of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. The building occupied a full city block and was diagonally opposite City Hall. This was the third St. Ignatius Church and College in downtown San Francisco. The first small church and school on Market Street, built in 1855, soon proved too small, and in 1862, a three-story building was erected on the same location, adjacent to the original buildings, to accommodate an increase in school enrollment and burgeoning membership in the church. During the 1870s, further enrollment growth at St. Ignatius College and rising property taxes on Market Street precipitated a search by the Jesuits for a new home for the church and college in San Francisco. The new institution built by the Jesuits on Van Ness Avenue later came to be known as “Old St. Ignatius” by the alumni of the early twentieth century, and the period from 1880 to 1906 was often referred to as the institution’s Golden Age.

San Francisco City Hall form 1877 to 1897

San Francisco City Hall as it appeared from 1877 to 1897. It was diagonally opposite St. Ignatius Church and College after the institution moved to the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Hayes Street in 1880.

St. Ignatius College opened its doors at its new location to 650 students, accompanied by rave reviews in the local press, including in the San Francisco Post and the San Francisco Call. The institution was described as having “scientific laboratories and departments” as “thoroughly equipped as money can make them” and a library that contained “the cream of knowledge on all necessary subjects.” The attached church was described as “most magnificent” and could hold up to 4,000 people. A writer for the local Journal of Commerce commented on the college’s outstanding library, laboratories, and scientific programs in specific areas, such as ore assaying, a legacy of the Gold Rush era. The writer noted that this branch of science “is a great study in itself and, by practical example and by tests, it is made interesting and instructive.” The article stated that, overall, “as a preparatory school for the future chemist, physician, or mining expert, the facilities of St. Ignatius College are unsurpassed in the city.” During the school’s Golden Age, the press continually referred to the science laboratories (then often called “cabinets”) as the best in the western United States. In addition to teaching students about science, the Jesuit faculty of that era brought the latest scientific information to the citizens of San Francisco through public lectures, experiments, and demonstrations, just as Fr. Joseph Neri had done in the 1870s with his famous lectures on electricity. From 1880 to 1906, these well-received public lectures included “Wireless Telegraphy” by Fr. Nicholas Bell, “Explosives” by Fr. Henry Woods, and “Discharges in Vacua, Radiant Matter and Radium” by Fr. Frederick Ruppert.

St. Ignatius Chemisty Lab in 1890

St. Ignatius College students had access to state-of-the-art scientific equipment during the institution’s Golden Age, as shown in this chemistry lab in 1890.

By 1885, the St. Ignatius College catalog listed 840 students and a faculty composed of sixteen Jesuits and nine laymen. The school was divided into three major divisions: preparatory (equivalent to today’s sixth, seventh, and eighth grades), academic (high school), and the college. As the student body grew, efforts were made to cultivate the involvement of former students in their alma mater. In July 1880, the institution’s eighth president, Robert Kenna, S.J., took office and promptly pushed for the development of an alumni association, which began the next year. By 1900, St. Ignatius College had a national academic reputation; its science programs, theater productions, and debating societies were well-known throughout the Bay Area; and many of its graduates had become leaders in law, government, business, and religion. In 1903, the college added a new gymnasium, described in the press as the best in the city. The church and college became a center for educational and cultural life in San Francisco, and in October 1905, St. Ignatius College celebrated its Golden Jubilee, marking 50 years of educational excellence and service to the community.

St. Ignatius College offered a wide range of educational opportunities for its students and the surrounding community during its Golden Age. The St. Ignatius College Catalog of 1893–94 provided an overview of the curriculum of the school and its educational philosophy, including one of the institution’s main goals: “to impart such training as will not only render the student intimately conversant with the social and scientific questions that nowadays agitate the world, but also enable him to excel in any subsequent pursuit, whether professional or commercial.” The curriculum still emphasized courses such as Latin, Greek, religious instruction, literature, mathematics, history, and elocution, but science also played a major role in the students’ education. The college catalog noted:

The Scientific Department contains lecture rooms for Physics and Chemistry; a Chemical laboratory and an extensive Cabinet of Physics; rooms for qualitative and quantitative Analysis; Engine rooms with Magneto-Electric machines, Battery rooms, rooms for preparations, balances, spectroscopic studies, and other scientific experiments and investigations; Museums of Mineralogy, Geology and collections of natural objects and curiosities of different kinds; and it is furnished with a very large and choice collection of Philosophical and Chemical Apparatus ordered from the best constructors of Europe and America, and with all that is necessary for Lecture demonstrations and experiments for private study, and the most complete and delicate chemical analysis and manipulations. By frequent additions of whatever can be supplied by the best modern inventions, both at home and abroad, this Department has attained a very high degree of completeness and efficiency well calculated to afford advanced students a most valuable opportunity of acquiring a thorough scientific training and education..

Physics labs in 1889

Physics labs or “cabinets” were a mainstay of the science program at St. Ignatius College during its Golden Age, as depicted in this 1889 photo.

During its Golden Age, the college library’s collection continued to expand to meet students’ increasingly diverse academic needs, including in the sciences. By 1900, the college library, founded in 1857 with a handful of books, had grown to 30,686 volumes, many of which were rare and extremely valuable. The library also had a collection of 7,927 journals and pamphlets. These holdings were supplemented by another 3,000 books belonging to the church and contributed by the Ladies Sodality of St. Ignatius Church, a women’s lay society for religious and fundraising activities.

By 1900, at the height of the school’s Golden Age, the St. Ignatius College library held more than 30,000 books and nearly 8,000 journals, making it one of the best college libraries in the western United States. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES The period from 1880 to 1906 marked the second major phase in the institution’s history, following the first phase of its development on Market Street from 1855 to 1880. Today at the University of San Francisco, the institution’s students and faculty greatly benefit from the educational foundation built by their predecessors during the Golden Age.


Events surrounding the institution’s move from Market Street to Van Ness Avenue, and the Golden Age of St. Ignatius College, are described in The First Half Century: St. Ignatius Church and College by Joseph Riordan, S.J., pages 215–243 and pages 306–315, and in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., pages 43–71. The quote from the Journal of Commerce appears on page 56 of Fr. McGloin’s book. The St. Ignatius College catalogs of the era were supplied by Michael Kotlanger, S.J., university archivist.

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