Innovators of the Past

By Jamie Timbrell ‘06

While science at Willamette continues to grow in many ways, there is one obvious complementary lesson: there’s a lot of history and innovation already behind these programs. Here is a brief summary of a few memorable people and milestones.

Science at Willamette got its character in 1908 when Morton Peck, who at the time possessed the most complete collection of Northwest plants in existence, founded the biology department. Peck, with a master’s degree from Cornell College in hand and fresh off his honeymoon with his new wife Jessie Grant, had one other colleague in the sciences at the time: Florian von Eschen, a professor of chemistry and physics. Today, by our count, there are 35 faculty members in the departments of biology, chemistry, physics, exercise science, environmental and earth science, and archaeology; other departments, like psychology, also help define science at Willamette now.

Professor Peck retired in 1941, but he was able to pass the mantle onto Cecil Monk, a zoologist who taught at Willamette from 1927 until he retired in 1968 as department chair. Monk pursued marine research at Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island, and was instrumental in founding the Oregon Academy of Science. In 1947, Monk took a two-year leave of absence from Willamette, at the request of the U.S. Department of State and the Venezuelan government, to set up a biology department at the University of Venezuela in Caracas.

Then Martha Springer arrived. After graduating from Stanford, she was the next to join the science department in 1947, teaching introductory biology courses. Memorably, she taught classes of 60 students and had every student over to her house (typically in groups of six or so) for a book report and desert session. She did this until she retired in 1981. Additionally, she often took groups of 120 students to the Oregon coast for field trips. The Martha Springer Botanical Garden, behind the Sparks Athletic Center, now provides an outdoor classroom for students in her memory. “I had heard of her before I met her,” Professor Emeritus Grant Thorsett said of Springer. “She was a phenomenal faculty member.”

Donald Breakey increased the staff of the biology department to three when he joined in 1954. Breakey had received a biology degree from Willamette in 1950 before returning to teach. He was an expert on small mammals and once had a colony of nearly 1,200 mice on campus for a coat-color genetics study. He was also instrumental in developing the Malheur Field Station in southeast Oregon. Despite his numerous academic achievements, Breakey might be best known for a few minutes on the morning of December 7, 1941. He was on watch duty at the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked and was the first to sound the alarm calling the admiral up.

Later, Breakey worked with geology Professor Harry Rorman in the early 1970s to develop Willamette’s first post-session course — which, until 2005, took students to Hawaii for four weeks after graduation every two to three years. Rorman had come to Willamette in 1971 as a retired naval commander with a master in geology to found the earth sciences department.

Libby Yocum came in 1955 with master’s degree research on high-altitude experiments — and her well-known husband, “Buzz.” She began to teach part-time in 1961, taking the lead on biology labs and later lecturing in biology and nutrition as a full-time instructor. She and her husband promoted international friendships, leading student trips to Asia and alumni trips to Europe.

Grant Thorsett joined the faculty in 1967 as the fourth person in the biology department. Thorsett, a PhD graduate from Yale University, was the first faculty with a molecular-science background. Thorsett’s arrival represented a shift in the department away from fieldwork and classical descriptive biology and toward a focus on the applications of biology — a trend consistent with the field as a whole. Thorsett taught Willamette’s first biochemistry course and its first molecular genetics course. He also took over a bacteria course Martha Springer had taught for many years.
After 31 years at Willamette, Thorsett retired in 2008 at the same time as Scott Hawke, who had joined the staff four years after Thorsett in 1971. Hawke, an animal physiologist, had served as director of Willamette’s Science Collaborative Research Program (SCRP). The program began in 1996 with funding from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and, since 1999, has been funded by an endowment from the Mary Stuart Rogers Foundation. The program provides grants to science students and faculty to go beyond the classroom and work on research projects over the summer with stipends up to $4,000.

Over the years, the focus of Willamette’s science departments—including several that are not listed here and with help from numerous other faculty members—has gradually widened to include both teaching and research as a valuable and complementary part of the learning process. The depth and visibility of science at the university continues to increase.