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Home > Press > World’s first materials science and engineering department turns 50

World’s first materials science and engineering department turns 50

October 17, 2005

The fields of chemistry, physics and biology have been around for hundreds of years, but this month a young upstart in academia -- materials science and engineering -- turns 50. The field became an academic discipline in 1955 when faculty at Northwestern University, recognizing the importance of studying the science and technology of all materials, not just metals, conceived the world’s first materials science and engineering department.

To celebrate the department’s 50th anniversary and important advances in the field, the University’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science will hold a two-day symposium Oct. 27 and 28 in Hardin Hall, Rebecca Crown Center, 633 Clark St., Evanston campus.

The symposium will focus on the role played by the department and the University in the development of the field of materials science and engineering as well as highlight current frontiers and future initiatives, including developing materials that can be used to make quantum computation a reality; fuel cells that promise cleaner, more efficient energy sources; and life-enhancing and life-saving biomaterials.

“We were the first such department, and our approach to research and teaching -- one that stressed concepts that applied to all materials -- was quite novel,” said Peter W. Voorhees, Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and chair of the department, which continues to define the field. “The processing-structure-properties paradigm, for example, can be used to design both concrete and biomaterials. Today this approach, which we first brought to an academic department decades ago, has become the standard for the field.”

The symposium will feature distinguished scholars, including Northwestern faculty and alumni, who first will provide a historical overview of materials science and engineering and then will examine some of the field’s most important subdisciplines, including metals, ceramics, biomaterials, polymers and electronic, optical and magnetic materials.

Northwestern alumnus Stephen Sass, professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, will present the keynote address, “The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon,” at a special banquet Oct. 27.

Other symposium speakers include Morris E. Fine, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University and first chair of the department; Richard H. Friend, University of Cambridge; and Northwestern alumni Teruaki Aoki, Sony Corporation; Anne M. Mayes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lyle H. Schwartz, U.S. Air Force Office of Science Research (retired); and Joshua J. Jacobs, M.D., Rush Medical College.

In 1955, when departments of metallurgy or ceramics were the norm at universities across the country, Northwestern established a graduate department of metallurgy with one student and three faculty members (one being Morris Fine, recruited by department founder Don Whitmore from Bell Labs). At this time, the semiconductor industry was growing rapidly and physical ceramics had emerged as a field of its own. Observing this, Fine, together with his colleagues, felt that the focus of the fledgling department needed to be broadened from metals to encompass the study of a wide range of materials. With this foresight, Fine, who was then department chair, began the effort to change the name to the graduate department of materials science, which officially occurred in 1959.

The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) in 1960 selected Northwestern as one of three universities to participate in ARPA’s Interdisciplinary Materials Laboratory Program for collaborative work by materials scientists, physicists and chemists. This established the Materials Research Center (MRC), bringing more laboratory space, research equipment and faculty, and the department of materials science grew dramatically in the following years. The faculty increased from six to 14, and the number of graduate students tripled. Department interests expanded into polymers, ceramics and solid state electrochemistry, and have continued to expand over the decades. Faculty research interests now also include composites, molecular self-assembly and thin films, to name just a few.

The department added the words “and engineering” to its name in the 1960s to become the department of materials science and engineering. The undergraduate degree program was approved in 1972.

Collaboration has been a hallmark of the department’s research activities. Almost all of the faculty have had, at one time or another, joint programs with other faculty in other engineering departments, as well as in chemistry, physics and the Feinberg School of Medicine. Collaborative research has been fostered by the MRC as well as other interdisciplinary centers including the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science and the International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Currently Northwestern’s department of materials science and engineering has more than 30 full-time and affiliated faculty, 50 postdoctoral researchers, 140 graduate students and 76 undergraduate students. Since 1992, the department has been housed in William A. and Gayle K. Cook Hall, which provides approximately 60,000 square feet of materials-related space. According to U.S. News & World Report, the graduate program is ranked second in the country and the undergraduate program is ranked third.

For more information on the symposium, including a complete schedule, visit or call (847) 491-3537.


Megan Fellman
(847) 491-3115

Copyright © Northwestern University

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