Pitt in the making: Departments come and go with the times


Pitt academic departments are not eternal — they come and go with the times — even when those times mean war.

In 1869, four years after the Civil War, when the Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt’s previous moniker) was downtown at Ross and Diamond streets, among its seven departments was the Department of Military Science. That department took a decidedly practical turn in October 1917, when the fall semester found the renamed military science and tactics department’s students waiting to drill. But their military uniforms hadn’t arrived yet, and they were still waiting for rifles. At least, the Pittsburgh Daily Post assured, “No time will be lost in preparing the men for war duty if the necessity arises. The university is arranging for lockers and dressing rooms, which probably will be ready by the time the uniforms arrive.”

Just a few years earlier (1911-13), Pitt had established the Department of Mining Engineering (headed by a faculty member who also oversaw the University’s glee and mandolin clubs) and the Department of Industrial Research. The Daily Post noted that “the Department of Industrial Research is a comparatively new one in American colleges. In the University of Pittsburgh the work is done in cooperation with the industrial plants of the city” as well as Pitt’s biology, chemistry and engineering departments. Its earliest work involved devising a series of pamphlets that dealt with “the smoke nuisance and the efforts for its abatement,” as well as “the psychological aspect of smoke.” Pittsburgh’s air will be completely fixed any day now.

In 1922, the new Department of Religious Education got a chair of teacher training and Sunday school work thanks to a bequest from H.J. Heinz. The chair, John Albert Murphy, had been a Sunday school teacher and Presbyterian minister; he was also chair of the committee on religious education of the Allegheny County Sabbath School Association. The department’s courses, explained the Pittsburgh Daily Post, were “especially for officers and teachers of Sunday schools, and all who are connected with weekday religious schools, and especially … pastors, assistant pastors and church workers, who feel the need of courses covering religious education and social work.” Courses were offered “on the principles and methods of religious education, including storytelling, dramatization, workshop, aims and materials; and one on the social point of view in religion, character and education,” as well as a third one on “standards of weekday religious instruction, surveys, equipment, architecture, and the organization of the parish for effective living.”

In 1925, before the Department of Zoology split into more modern incarnations, it made the news when a trio of rabbits worth $1,500 — part of an experimental hutch — was stolen from the department’s lab on DeSoto at Terrace streets. Two city detectives who normally concentrated on Prohibition-related crimes were sent after the bunnies, but there was no word on whether the thieves were more or less elusive than bootleggers.

Pitt’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering followed the Wright Brothers’ first flight by only 30 years. One of its first five graduates showed off his invention to the Post-Gazette in 1933: a “tailless monoplane,” a kind of “flying wing” that he designed and which had already “stood up under wind tunnel tests.” He told the paper his interest in aviation dated back to grade school days, when he “used to toss folded bits of paper around the classroom.” He explained that “his model is a sport type rather than a military craft and development of this branch of aviation” has been rather slow lately. The aeronautical graduate was thus unemployed. “If he doesn’t get a job by fall,” he told the reporter, “he’s going back to school to continue his studies.”

In 1938, the new Department of Industrial Hygiene concentrated on industrial hazards, but had also developed an “artificial fever treatment of social and other diseases, some of which lead to types of insanity,” on the theory that fevers were the body’s natural defenses, so why not augment the process? The new machines were already being used in local hospitals, including those for the poor, and were developed with the help of the local research director of the American Society of Heating and Ventilation Engineers.

When old departments are nixed, or folded into new ones, sometimes there is an uproar, even among non-alumni. When Pitt’s Department of Geography fell off the face of the earth, after discussions about its demise in 1981, it inspired a letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette, complaining: “It seems ironic that the university can reportedly spend some $60,000 to furnish the hallways in the Forbes quadrangle building (now Posvar Hall) and yet can’t find the money to keep the geography department in it.”

The University’s Department of Journalism also was deleted a while ago. We’re not sure of the reasoning, but we couldn’t find any great stories about it in the local press. Apparently, it just wasn’t considered newsworthy anymore.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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