A History of the PLU Chemistry Department into the Early 1990's

By William Giddings, Professor Emeritus September 1995

Anders Ramstad

Anders Ramstad

The early history of chemistry at Pacific Lutheran, beginning in 1922, was chronicled by Professor Emeritus Anders Ramstad (right) in Recent Developments in Sciences, a collection of papers honoring Professor Robert C. Olsen in 1975. After Myron Ringstad had taught chemistry classes from 1922-1925 and a year passed with no chemistry courses offered, Dr. Ramstad became in 1926 the sole chemistry faculty member throughout the Depression and World War II until joined by Dr. Robert Olsen in 1947, when the Science Building (later named Ramstad Hall) was built.

Although many fine chemistry graduates from the early years went on to distinguished careers in universities, industry, and governmental agencies, more than two faculty became needed to offer a fully competitive undergraduate program. Dr. John Holum came in 1958 but stayed only one year; the modern department may be dated from the arrival of Dr. Charles Anderson in 1959. He recognized that instrumentation, faculty and student research, and curricular development required resources beyond those even potentially available from annual institutional budgets. With the help of other new faculty, successful grant proposals to the National Science Foundation and the Research Corporation brought instructional equipment and instrumentation to the department. National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Participation grants gave summer stipends to students and faculty, as well as supporting experimental costs.

Growth in number of departmental faculty accelerated as University enrollment increased and the chemistry curriculum developed. A fourth position was added upon Ramstad’s retirement in 1961, when Dr. Laurence Huestis and Frederick Swartz joined the faculty. A year later Dr. William Giddings replaced Schwartz. All four of the 1962 faculty remained until Olsen’s retirement in 1975, and the remaining three until Anderson’s retirement in 1991.

Growth continued in 1964 when Dr. Wayne Gildseth came to the department. When Gildseth left and Anderson became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1966, Dr. Frederick Tobiason and Dr. Donald Lee came; Lee left after one year and Dr. Burton Nesset replaced him. Further expansion was facilitated greatly through a major grant from the Research Corporation administered by Dean Anderson and co-authored by Dr. Sherman Nornes of the physics department. Under terms of the grant, Dr. Duane Catlett served from 1968-70, replaced by Dr. Duane Swank in 1970. These six faculty continued throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s until Anderson and Tobiason elected early retirement in 1991.

With Olsen’s retirement, Dr. Lawrence Layman came in 1974, leaving in 1978 and being replaced in 1979 by Dr. Sheri Tonn, currently department chair (ed.: at the time this history was written). Every tenured member has served as department chair at least once, Anderson as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Giddings and Swank as Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences, each returning to full-time teaching at the end of their terms. Each chair has made individual contributions to the program’s effectiveness. This combination of long tenure and sharing of responsibilities has fostered a remarkable collegiality within the department.

Of critical importance to the department’s effectiveness has been the sabbatical leave policy, giving substantial salary support every seventh year for off-campus study and research. Again every eligible member has taken advantage of these opportunities, often doing research at major universities leading to publications as well as developing new capabilities for teaching and research. During times of sabbatical and special leaves, the fresh ideas and enthusiasm of replacement faculty have enriched the department. The roster includes Drs. Phillip Ash, Robert Carlson, Timothy Kelly, William Klopfenstein, and Joseph Osborne. Bridging the categories of replacement and continuing faculty is Dr. Craig Fryhle, coming as a sabbatical replacement in 1986 and continuing through successful candidacy for tenure in 1992.

The decade of the 1960’s brought the department to maturity of staffing, curriculum, and instrumentation suitable to the times. The first research publications and project grants helped establish undergraduate research as an essential element in preparation of professional chemists. The Bachelor of Science degree was instituted, and American Chemical Society approval of the program was obtained in 1964. Remodeling of the third floor of Ramstad Hall gave piecemeal accommodation for new faculty and instrumentation by cannibalizing classrooms, restrooms, hallways and staircases. Planning for new science facilities began in earnest with a consultant’s report in 1966 stating: “The conclusion is inescapable. The University must plan a new building to house the Science Division.” However, the price tag and other institutional priorities led President Robert Mortvedt to place the sciences and music on “pinnacles of lonely hope” for new buildings in his address at the fall retreat in 1968. Hopes for federal funding at the time of President Eugene Wiegman’s accession were dashed by the disappearance of congressional support for university facility construction. The biology department, receiving the use of a remodeled World War II barracks, graciously relinquished for our use the second floor laboratory most often flooded by overflowing sinks in the organic chemistry laboratory above. A locker room in Memorial Gymnasium was converted to house research involving radiation, including Duane Swank’s X-ray crystallography equipment.

In 1973 the Commission on Academic Excellence reiterated to President Wiegman the need for a new facility; a building committee arrived at a need for doubling the then-current space to 116,000 square feet. By then three different chemistry B.S. degree tracks were available, one leading to ACS certification and the others providing emphasis in biochemistry or in chemical physics. General chemistry labs used infrared spectroscopy and pH meters, with gas chromatography and nuclear magnetic resonance routinely used by second-year organic chemistry students. Acting President Richard Jungkuntz allowed department chairs to present five-minute descriptions of their programs to the Board of Regents in 1974, including an impassioned plea for new facilities. In 1976 a new building committee reported on alternatives to President William Rieke, and the Faculty Affairs Committee gave highest priority to science among all campus needs.

Positive steps toward actually obtaining new facilities were finally accomplished in 1978, with a successful proposal to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust for a $105,000 grant to develop curricular directions for the future, then going on to determine concepts for the facilities needed to accomplish the vision. The entire science faculty took part in three workshops during the 1978-79 academic year, together with educational, architectural and industrial consultants. Released time for a faculty committee and project chair (William Giddings) was provided; the architectural firm (Broome, Oringdulph, O’Toole, Rudolf and Associates of Portland, OR) ultimately to design the building was selected.

Following the extensive final report of the planning project, a successful grant application yielded $1.5 million from the Murdock Trust to spearhead the $8.5 million campaign for the Rieke Science Center. Occupancy of the 88,000 square foot Rieke Science Center came during January, 1985, while Interim classes were in session. A few days after the dedication, spring semester classes and labs began in the new facility. Some of us still pinch ourselves every day when we come to work to be sure that we are not still dreaming, as we had for over 20 years before the building was a reality.

One unforeseen outcome of the Murdock Science Study Project was the decision by chemistry and physics to use an open laboratory construct and schedule to replace time-bound lab sections in separate rooms. Although custom designed written materials are needed to replace introductory comments to a captive lab section, and more responsibility for time management rests upon the student, the freedom of scheduling allows students to perform as efficiently and effectively as they can or care to. Faculty have a more interesting and challenging task to help students in four or five different courses, and teaching time is used much more efficiently than in separate lab sections. Adequate space has been available for all students, and the open surroundings are much more inviting. With students spread throughout the week, use of more elaborate equipment and instrumentation became possible even in large enrollment courses.

With a worthy facility to house program and instrumentation, a new level of sophistication in analytical instrumentation has been gained by combining university funding with gifts and grants from the National Science Foundation, private foundations, corporations and individuals. The move to the new building was celebrated with the acquisition of research grade Fourier transform infrared spectrometer with gas chromatographic interface, soon followed by mass selective detection gas chromatography and most recently by Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

A history of the chemistry department should be more than a history of Chemistry per se. The example was set by Professor Ramstad, who came to Pacific Lutheran College in 1925 as vice president, dean of men, purchasing agent, coach and founder of football and women’s basketball teams. In addition, he taught mathematics, science, religion and Norwegian. Besides holding administrative offices on occasion, current chemistry faculty have been members of virtually all major standing and ad hoc committees. From the initial design process for the Integrated Studies Program and for the Interim, chemistry has been represented almost continuously. The China exchange program with Chengdu University of Science and Technology was designed and initially administered by Dr. Charles Anderson and physicist Dr. K. T. Tang; three chemists have spent a semester there, two of them twice each, and many chemistry students have participated. Church and community activities are too numerous to list, ranging from advisory boards for health maintenance and mental health organizations; for air, water quality, and solid waste management; offices in professional societies and environmental organizations; articles in local newspapers as well as in scientific journals; talks at schools and community groups as well as papers presented at national and international scientific meetings; choral groups on and off campus. In these ways the ideals of liberal education are illustrated to our students and to the community.