Sciences take off at post-war Florida State
By John S. Cole
FSU Communications Group
It was the beginning of a new era.
World War II had ended with the Allies victorious, Hitler dead and Japan
soundly defeated by a new, frighteningly powerful weapon of science.
With an atomic flash, the world became suddenly aware that science could
unlock the door either to humanity's survival or to its ultimate destruction.
But whichever door it opened, science was definitely the key to the future.
The epiphany was not lost on the administration of the former Florida
State College for Women. Charged in 1947 with building a coeducational university
from the foundation of a nationally recognized women's liberal arts college,
then-president Doak Campbell energetically went about turning what he called
"a splendid undergraduate college" into "a university in
fact," complete with first class graduate programs.
The first step, he decided, was to build new departments and add faculty,
particularly in the sciences. FSU, from its days as Florida State College
for Women, already offered master's de-grees in many science fields including
phys-ics, chemistry, biology, geology and astron-omy. But the war effort
in the 1940s diverted resources from science programs nationwide, and FSCW
was no exception.
"We were not intended to be a research institution before World
War II," said retired chemistry professor Kitty Hoffman. "The
emphasis was directed strongly toward teaching." By 1945, she said,
the chemistry department had been reduced to five instructors. Only three
of them held doctorate degrees.
After the war, however, the federal government began efforts to bolster
university science programs through grants and stipends, and in 1947, FSCW
was granted university status as co-educational FSU to help meet the growing
demand placed on the state university system by returning soldiers.
Eager to take advantage of FSU's new status, and to build on it, administrators
launched a nationwide search for talent led by the new dean of arts and
sciences, Edwin R. Walker. Walker and a handful of new department heads
drew hundreds of young doctoral students fresh from the nation's top graduate
"They came from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Harvard,"
said Dr. Steve Edwards, dean of the faculties at FSU. "They made their
reputations here, and they stayed here."
The vigor and academic brilliance of the youthful scientists, many of
whom were hired in 1949 and would later be known as the forty-niners, provided
just the right spark for FSU's fledgling program.
Within its first 50 years, the program would bring to FSU a nuclear reactor,
a supercomputer, the nation's premier magnetic research laboratory and millions
of dollars in research grants.
Four of FSU's five faculty Nobel Laureates have been scientists. And
many of the faculty hired fresh out of graduate school would go on to be
inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, no small feat for the faculty
of a university so "young."
"I think we've done very well," said Dr. Joseph Lanutti, FSU's
vice president of academic affairs. "There is a substantial research-intensive
university here, and the magnet lab is just the next little improvement,
the next step."
The first major step came in 1960, with the installation of an EN model
Tandem Van de Graaf nuclear accelerator. The accelerator has since been
The nuclear science program, started in 1957, was the first of its kind
in the Southeast, making FSU the only university in the deep south with
a major experimental nuclear science facility, according to a report reviewing
nuclear labs supported by the National Science Foundation.
"(The reactor) put FSU on the map for a while," Lanutti said.
"Supercomputers put us on the map too for a while." But FSU's
acquisition of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory was the major
The National Science Foundation awarded the lab to FSU and its partners,
the University of Florida and New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory
in 1990. In doing so, the NSF bypassed the prestigious Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, which had been favored to win the lab.
It was a risky gamble, according to David A. Sanchez, then the foundation's
assistant director. "On scientific merits, if you want to put a magnetic
lab up tomorrow you'd clearly give it to MIT," he said, " but
which one has the potential in the long run for being a really top-notch
facility? Florida State."
The decision promised to revolutionize Florida's role in high technology
and placed FSU square at the forefront of a brand new field of research.
"This makes us world class," said State University Chancellor
Charles Reed. "It's one of the best things ever to happen to the state
Despite the leaps and bounds of the past half century, however, FSU has
a long way to go to reach its ultimate goals, Lanutti said. "We're
not Berkeley, or MIT or places like that yet, and we won't be unless we
keep pushing," he said. "We have to keep developing."