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From Land Surveying to Designing for Resiliency: A Brief Departmental History

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

At the time of its founding in 1842, Notre Dame’s curriculum emphasized Greek, Latin, philosophy and history, with little concern for math or science. But urbanization and industrialization in the post civil war period created a need for men trained in these disciplines.

Surveying course posed with their equipment.
Early surveying course posed with their equipment.
This was the time of westward expansion and the primacy of the railroads. Land surveyors, bridge builders, road and railroad designers were in high demand -- in fact at one point in time Father Sorin, himself, was the district supervisor of roads. Notre Dame’s curriculum broadened and evolved to meet the needs of the time. In 1863, the University Bulletin mentioned a partial course of study in Civil Engineering, making civil the oldest branch of engineering at the University and one of the earlier programs in the nation. It wasn’t until ten years later, however, that the University introduced a formal program in Civil Engineering, the first at a Catholic University. In 1875 Cassius M. Proctor of Elkhart, Indiana was the first graduate. The program included instruction in drawing, astronomy, hydraulics and the construction and design of roads and bridges. By 1895 students could also elect to take courses in railroad engineering and sanitary engineering, a precursor to environmental engineering which focused primarily on reducing waterborne diseases such as cholera.

Arthur Stace, the first professor of Civil Engineering.
Arthur Stace, the first professor of Civil Engineering.
From 1924 to World War II, enrollment increased and most years the department graduated between 8 and 18 students. In 1931 John F. Cushing, president of the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company and a 1906 graduate of the Department of Civil Engineering, donated $300,000 to the university, which led to the construction of Cushing Hall to house the College of Engineering. During this time the emphases of the Civil Engineering Department evolved to meet the needs of the time. Soil mechanics was added as an area of study and the department housed a lab with all of the tools to perform tests required by the American Association of State Highway Officials. The number of courses in structures and materials science increased as well.

During World War II, the number of graduates plummeted briefly, while the nation and university focused its attention abroad, but after the war the number of graduates soared. Throughout the 1950s, the American construction industry boomed. During this time the department's strengths were in structures, soil mechanics, and highway engineering.

In 1949 Joseph Chien-sheng Wu received the first Master of Science in Civil Engineering from Notre Dame and in 1964 the department introduced a PhD program.

A student conducting research in an early environmental health laboratory.
A student conducting research in an early environmental health laboratory.
The dawn of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation of programs in environmental engineering and environmental health engineering, which built on sanitary engineering, but focused more on industrial pollution and cleanup. The advent of the computer led to a course in computed methods in structural mechanics. By this time land surveying courses had faded away. Moreover the 1970s brought the first female students to the College of Engineering.

The 1980s led to a transition from faculty teaching the state of the art of engineering to defining the state of the art through an increased emphasis on research within the department. Since that time Notre Dame has been a bastion of engineering breakthroughs. Structures, water engineering and bioengineering were the primary areas of interest. In 1988 the University established the first endowed chair in Civil Engineering, memorializing Henry Massman, a 1928 graduate who was president of the Massman Construction Company of Kansas City, Missouri, for many years.

In 1991, the Department of Civil Engineering merged with the Department of Earth Sciences, formed in 1946 as the Department of Geology, to form a new combined Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences. This merger was central to the future direction of the department. The housing of those who study the earth’s systems together with those who design infrastructure, supply water, and manage our waste streams leads to a culture of designing with the earth’s natural systems, instead of against them. Department chair Joannes Westerink sees this merger as a pivotal moment in the department’s history, “We’re building infrastructure and maintaining infrastructure within this earth system. Enormous synergy and a direct connectivity is built by merging a broader set of disciplines into one department. And our department is at the forefront of that.” In 2012 in order to better represent their priorities, the department adopted its current name -- the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences.

John F. Kennedy speaking at an Engineering Honor Award in the 1970s.
John F. Kennedy speaking at an Engineering Honor Award in the 1970s.
The department has emerged from this long history as a leader in many important areas of research. Moreover its alumni have made significant contributions in teaching, research, civil service, military service and private industry. Seven graduates from the department have gone on to become National Academy of Engineering members, the highest honor in the field. This includes John F. Kennedy, a 1955 graduate, who significantly furthered the field of hydraulics, and who at 39 was one of the youngest people to ever be elected to the academy.

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences continues to reflect the needs of its time. And with current environmental trends in mind, CEEES faculty and students are involved in research related to infrastructure, natural hazards, earth systems, environment, water, and energy, all with an eye towards sustainability and resiliency.