Department History

Excerpted from 

A Century of Excellence: Engineering at Northwestern, 1909-2009

Written by Jay Pridmore
Edited by Emily Ayshford and Tom Fredrickson

ii. Pioneers in Research, 1942-85 (Creation of the Department of Materials Science)

In the postwar period, J. Roscoe Miller, University president from 1949 to 1970, made a series of bold moves to expand and improve Northwestern through modern facilities and first-class research. He had important allies on the faculty, among them metallurgist Don Whitmore, who had arrived at Northwestern in 1948, a few months before Miller’s inauguration. Whitmore quickly earned the president’s blessing for an ambitious new effort for the School of Engineering: a department of materials science.

Working from his base in chemical engineering, Whitmore developed coursework in metallurgy and in 1953 formalized a new graduate department in that discipline — a development inspired in part by the example of the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, a main center for the Manhattan Project during World War II. More to the point, metallurgy reflected definite strengths at Northwestern —notably interdisciplinary relationships between chemical and civil engineering. In 1954 Whitmore convinced a former colleague at the University of Minnesota, Morris Fine, to move to Northwestern. He came with a range of experiences that included work on the Manhattan Project in Chicago and Los Alamos and later with Bell Labs in New Jersey. Fine was appointed chair of the new graduate department of metallurgy. Within a short period, new faculty members were appointed and the department broadened its mission to include ceramics, polymers, and electronic materials. This new profile inspired a new name, the Department of Materials Science, which was approved by the board of trustees in 1958. Thus Northwestern became home to the world’s first materials science department.

A related milestone was the creation of the Materials Research Center in 1960. Its reputation in materials science now established, Northwestern received funding from the U.S. government to create a center (one of three such sites in the nation) to promote interdisciplinary research. Distinguished faculty such as Jerome Cohen, an expert in X-ray diffraction, and Johannes Weertman, whose field was dislocation theory, and his wife Julia Weertman, an expert in the mechanical behavior of advanced materials, had recently joined the faculty and made important contributions to the center’s creation. In 1961 a new wing of the Technological Institute was completed, largely for this center. New equipment — such as an electron microscope — attracted researchers from departments from throughout the School of Engineering and the University and helped make the center a focus for collaborative research.

Learn more about the history of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern.

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