The Intellectual Crossroads

The Nanoscience High-Performance Computing Facility at Argonne National Laboratory (Image: ANL CC by/sa)

By William MullenIn 1890, William Rainey Harper was a devout, respected 34-year-old Baptist biblical scholar who transplanted himself from America’s eastern seaboard to Chicago. Though he was undeniably smart and ambitious, his specialty in ancient Semitic languages hardly suggested that over the next 16 years he would in large measure establish and define an entire nation’s scientific research agenda.

The authorWilliam Mullen is a Pultizer Prize-winning journalist who recently retired after reporting and writing for the Chicago Tribune for 45 years.

And his work in no small measure inspired changes in other Chicago institutions — laying the groundwork for the brawling, hog-butchering, blue-collar factory town of the 19th century to evolve into a formidable, world-class center for scientific and intellectual creativity. Today thousands of scientists and scholars, working with $2 billion in annual government and private research funding, ply their trade at local institutions with international renown, like Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, University of Chicago, Northwestern, DePaul and Loyola Universities, University of Illinois at Chicago, the Field Museum and the Illinois Medical District.

Plenty of breakthrough science and scholarship was done in the U.S. in the 19th century, but generally as individual, entrepreneurial undertakings. In Europe, research had become more concentrated and efficient with the rise of research universities and institutes that encouraged scientists and scholars with salaries, funding, and places to do their work.

In 1890 Harper began plans for a European-style research university in Chicago. He enlisted the backing of the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller, another devout Baptist. Rockefeller, who had in mind to bankroll a small, conventional Baptist college, initially donated $600,000 for Harper’s school.

Chicago was not exactly an academic hothouse in 1890, though it was a place of wonderment to much of the world, having grown from a muddy frontier outpost of 30,000 souls in 1850 to a bustling metropolis of 1.1 million four decades years later. Its streets were lined with the world’s first skyscrapers. Its raucous sidewalks were filled with dreamers, visionaries, opportunists, and fast-buck artists from all corners of the globe. Though quiet, scholarly and pious, Harper fit right in this boisterous scene, with his outsized ambition and determination to found a great institution.

Swift Hall at the University of Chicago (Image: Zenobia Gonsalves CC by/nc/sa)

Harper soon talked Rockefeller out of the idea of a Baptist school and into the idea of a secular institution devoted to the increase of knowledge through rigorous, scholarly research. Eventually Rockefeller would donate $80 million for the University of Chicago and would tell friends it was the best money he ever invested. Rockefeller’s wealth allowed Harper to build the finest facilities, but it also allowed him to raid the faculties of the best institutions in the U.S. and Europe, enraging academic leaders everywhere by luring away their top people at double their salaries.

“Harper attracted major talent and created a stronger research focus than any other institution in the country,” said Terry Nichols Clark, a sociologist at the university, outlining its historic role in establishing research standards.

The Harper Memorial Library at University of Chicago (Image: Justin Kern CC by/nc/sa)

After Harper’s school opened in 1892, research became a much bigger component of the mission of major institutions all over the nation. In Chicago, Northwestern and Loyola Universities had been educating Chicago’s leaders and professionals for decades before Harper’s arrival, and they became powerful research centers, too.

Northwestern, which now spends half a billion dollars on research annually, is at least the equal of the University of Chicago. Early in the 20th century, Northwestern transformed dentistry to a science-based discipline. Since then the university has won distinction for its work in pharmaceuticals, biomedicine, materials science, engineering, media and business. Loyola, the nation’s largest Jesuit university, is strong in health sciences and biomedical research.

DePaul University, organized in 1898 and now the nation’s largest Catholic University, is known internationally for its work in computer network security, international human rights law and environmental science. The city’s biggest public university, the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a major research player in pharmaceuticals, community health, biology and biomedicine, genetics and anthropology.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Innovation Center hosted the first City Camp, a meeting of urban planners, hackers and futurists. (Image: Jonathan Eyler-Werve CC-by)

The University of Chicago itself has done pioneering research in many fields, including social sciences, economics, archeology, paleontology, physics, astrophysics, medicine and law. During World War II its Hyde Park campus was home of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project, producing the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction, leading to construction of the first atomic bomb. After the war, the project’s gathering of geniuses spurred construction of two giant federal research centers employing thousands of scientists in Chicago’s western suburbs, Argonne and Fermilab.

The final stop for the Automotive X-Prize finalists was the Advanced Powertrain Research Facility at Argonne National Laboratory, which had testing facilities needed to verify performance claims. (Image: ANL CC by/nc/sa)

Those two institutions work collaboratively with area research universities and have rewarded the world with countless scientific triumphs. Fermilab, exploring the fundamental nature of matter and energy, most famously found the elusive “Top Quark” in 1995. It is a leading center in the investigaton of dark matter and dark energy and runs a remote operations and analysis center directing the work of 1,000 American scientists at Switzerland’s CERN accelerator. Argonne has 3,000 employees, a third of them with PhDs, plying basic and applied science in molecular and nuclear engineering, alternative energy research, environmental science and anti-terrorism detection systems.

The rich research traditions in the city also nurtured other notable area research centers. A consortium of hospitals and schools gathered on the city’s West Side, now known as the Illinois Medical District, early in the last century led the national fight against dangerous patent medicines and for rigorous therapeutic standards of drug descriptions, as well as the invention of the blood bank. Now it is a dynamo in inventive medical procedures, pharmaceuticals, and magnetic medical imaging.

The Field Museum (Image: CC by/nc/sa)

The Field Museum, with one of the five biggest natural history collections in the world, has its own faculty of 80 PhDs doing research on every continent in geology, anthropology and biology, and is a major force in establishing protected wilderness areas.

A number of other, smaller institutions in the region also do important research, though they are perhaps not quite as well known. Among them are the Adler Planetarium, which has one of the biggest and most valuable collections of historic astronomical instruments in the world and is a leader in science and space education; and the Newberry Library, with extensive holdings in medieval literature and music, Native American collections, maps and the history of printing.

The Erickson Institute is a leader in research and treatment of early childhood developmental issues. The Chicago Academy of Sciences is a repository of early Chicago native flora and fauna; the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is its teaching and learning center. The Chicago History Museum is a nationally important repository of Midwestern history and artifacts. Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden are both important plant research centers.

These large and small institutions, and the community of scholars they comprise, are the engines of the city’s future, said Terry Nichols Clark. They have inherited Harper’s legacy, which Clark calls an “ethos of creativity,” an ethos that will be crucial in keeping the region a vital economic engine as its old smokestack industries continue to wither away. They represent “the new critical foundation for the city as we move into a knowledge-driven economy,” he said.

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