Mini-History of the Department of Microbiology at Washington State University


Bacteriology (Microbiology) as a formal course was first taught at the Washington Agricultural College and Experiment Station in Science (Pullman) in 1895 in the Department of Botany and Zoology, one of the original 10 departments. Although taught annually for several years thereafter, the course number, description, credit, and instructors changed frequently. In 1907, Botany and Zoology became separate departments, and the bacteriology course remained with Zoology. The laboratory portion was taught in Old Administration Hall, the first campus building now known as Thompson Hall. In 1899, the life sciences moved into the “new” Science hall which later became the Fine Arts Building and is now known as Morrow Hall. The bacteriology laboratory was located on the north-east end on the first floor. In 1911, two general bacteriology courses appeared in the catalog, indicating that bacteriology as a science flourished early on.

As more instructors trained in bacteriology were hired during the next seven years, no less than 13 new courses were added to the curriculum. This necessitated the cancellation of some, consolidation of others, and the renumbering of those retained with revised course descriptions, by 1920, many areas of bacteriology were covered including general, medical, sanitation and applied aspects. In 1918, two research courses appeared, one for undergraduates and on for graduate students.

In 1921, Dr.Victor Burke, a bacteriologist from Stanford University , was appointed assistant professor of bacteriology and largely through his efforts, the first B.S. degree in Bacteriology was awarded in 1922 (to Anna Julia Sterba) and the first M.S. degree in Bacteriology in 1923 (to Charles E. Skinner). At that time, bacteriology was still in the Department of Zoology.

In 1926, Burke became Professor of Bacteriology and was instrumental in forming the new Department of Bacteriology, becoming its first Head. The first Ph.D. degree awarded by the then State College of Washington went to LaVerne Barnes in Bacteriology in 1929.

The Department of Bacteriology continued to grow as more faculty were hired. In addition, a premedical technology option was established in 1934 with internship training at St. Luke’s Hospital in Spokane. The public health (sanitation) option, historically the first such training program in the U.S., Also grew, prompting the change in the department name to the Department of Bacteriology and Public Health in 1936. The following year, Bacteriology and Public Health, together with the departments of Botany and Zoology, moved into the second “new” Science Hall (currently known as Science Hall) , which was constructed to house the expanding life sciences.

Two new faculty members were appointed in 1944, who life Burke, provided continuity and stability to the department. These were Charles H. Drake and Elizabeth R. Hall (Recipient of the 1976 ASM Carski Distinguished Teaching Award).  Rovert E. Hungate was appointed in 1945, followed by Oliver Johnson in 1947 and Charles Skinner in 1948 (recipient of the first M.S. degree in Bacteriology in 1923) who succeeded Burke as Department Head. During the next decade, another well-known faculty member, Dr.Leon Campbell , Joined the department (1955). Both Hungate and Campbell left the institution in the late 1950s, with Hungate relocating to U.C. Davis and Campbell to case Western. Goth later served as president of ASM.

In 1959, the State College of Washington became Washington State University, and Jack Stokes was appointed department chair succeeding Charles Skinner who died from a stroke while returning from the 1957 ASM meeting in Detroit. Herb Nakata also joined the faculty in 1959 and later became the department’s fourth Chairmen, serving in this capacity from 1968 t0 1992.

During the 1960s, six new faculty members were hired with four continuing in the department until their retirements in the 1990s. These included Ron Hurlburt (1964, microbial physiologist), Louis Mallavia  (1965,medical microbial physiologist ), Kemet Spence (1968,mictrobial physiologist/geneticist), and Keith McIvor (1969, immunologist). The two that left were William McDonald (1963-1965, phage geneticist) and David Hinrichs (1968-1985, cellular immunologist).

Although Burke played and important role in emphasizing research, certain individuals were particularly instrument in enhancing research as a priority in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Initially, these included Hungate, Strokes, Spence, Hinrichs and Mallavia. The number of publications, research grand awards, graduate students recruited, and graduate degrees awarded increased significantly from the 1960s to the present time. Expansion in both undergraduate and graduate curricula and research training, together with similar changes in Botany, Zoology, and later Genetics and Cell Biology, resulted in the construction of Heald Hall (1962), Eastlick Hall (1977), and the renovation of Science Hall (1984) into modern research facilities. Significantly, all physically connected to each other and to the modern Owen Science and Engineering Library.

During the late 1960s and 1970s. significant growth and improvement occurred in the undergraduate programs, largely due to funds received from the Allied Health Professions Training Program coordinated by Nakata over period of about 10 years. More than $225,000 were received to augment the premedical technology and environmental health options. As a result, nearly 700 B.S. degrees were awarded in Bacteriology and Public Health during a 12-year period.

Also in 1970, the student unrest experience on college campuses throughout the U.S. triggered by the Vietnam and the bombing in Cambodia extended to Pullman. At WSU, however, the unrest was related more with institutional racism and resulted in boycotts, strikes, and bomb threats, along with the burning of Martin Stadium, supposedly by one of our bacteriology activists. For a time, this necessitated 24-hour patrolling of our buildings by faculty and graduate students. Bacteriology subsequently took leadership and invited state legislators, campus administrators, and interested faculty to a series of racial workshops. These led to the development of polices against racism and the establishment of the departmental Student Aid Fund. Initially supported by faculty and graduate students and later by alumni, this first department al fund assisted majors from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Subsequently, other fund were added over the years. For example, with the assistance of alum Mary Brown, the Elizabeth R. Hall Scholarship was established, and the first award presented to Joyce Hauthier in 1973. Later, the departmental development fund along with other scholarships. Fellowships, endowed, and loan funds were established to financially assist the department and its majors.  

In 1971, under the direction of ).H Johnson, the public health option was revised and renamed environmental health . This program was the first to be full accredited by the National Environmental Health Association.  Johnson retired in 1975 and was replaced by Jack Conway as the option coordinator. Hall retired in 1976, and McIvor become coordinator for the premedical technology option. Stokes retired in 1978 and Drake in 1981. Upon the resignation of Conway in 1981, a major institutional budget reduction terminated this FTE, resulting in the 1982 demise of the very successful environment health option.

From the mid-1970s to the 1990s, a number of new faculty members joined the department, most on Joint appointments with other units. These included John Paznokas (1976, medical microbiologist, with biology), Michael Kahn (1979, molecular geneticist, with genetics, later IBC) , William Rayburn (1979, Phycologists, with botany and biology), Nancy Magnuson (1986, molecular immunologist), Kathleen Postle (1986, molecular biologist, later with biochemistry), Kevin Bertrand (1987, molecular biologist, with biochemistry), Mary Sanchez-Lanier (1990, virologist, with WAMI), Luying Xun (1992, environmental molecular microbiologist, located at Battelle NW Labs), Luying Xun transferred to the pullman campus in 1997. Faculty members who left during this period included Willard Charnetsky (1976-1982), Jack Conway (1976-1981), Michael Thomoshow 91981-1986), and Linda Thomashow (1984, still a faculty associate in microbiology).

In 1985, the name of the unit was changed to Department of Microbiology and a more contemporary, revised curriculum that included molecular biology techniques, was offered by the younger faculty members. Nakata and McIvor retired in 1993. In 1992, Mallavia succeeded Nakata as the department’s fifth chairman and served until late 1997, when he was stricken with cancer. Mike Khan succeeded Mallavia as department chairmen and served until July 1, 1999, when the Department of Microbiology merged with Biochemistry, Genetics and Cell Biology to become the school of Molecular Biosciences in the College of Science.

During the period of 1926 to 1999, more than 1840 B.S. degrees, 190 M.S degrees, 125 Ph.D. degrees were awarded by the department. The faculty and Washington State University should be commended for the high-quality education and training they have proved graduate over the years. A significant proportion have gone on to graduate and professional schools and found careers in academia, medicine, industry and government positions. Historically graduates with B.S. degrees have enjoyed the ease with which they been able to qualify for laboratory positions in industry, government facilities, hospitals, research institutions, and in academia. Microbiology should be proud of the job well-done.

(Revised in March, 2001, by H.M. Nakata, Professor Emeritus). 

Washington State University