Materials Engineering Marks 50 Years

The School of Materials Engineering will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2009, recognizing a road well traveled and a future rich with possibility.

The school’s history, in reality, dates to 1923 when the first metallurgical course—ChE 105/106 (Principles of Metallurgy)—was offered in the chemical engineering curriculum by John L. Bray. The first graduate course in the subject debuted a year later. By 1935, metallurgy had been firmly embraced as a discipline in its own right and was recognized when the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering was founded and a BS in metallurgical engineering was approved.

In those days, and on through the 1940s, the subject was taught element by element: copper, zinc, lead, tin, silver, gold, aluminum, iron, and steel. “You studied the metallurgy of copper and then went on to the next chapter and the next element. Engineering principles and engineering practice of extractive and physical metallurgy were loosely connected,” says MSE Professor Emeritus Richard Grace (BSMetE ’51). In 1954, Grace became the school’s first faculty hire and was its head from 1965 to 1972.

Birth of the Division of Metallurgical Engineering
Materials engineering really came into its own at Purdue in 1954 with the arrival of Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr., hired from MIT to head the division of Metallurgical Engineering. Widely acknowledged as the founding father of Purdue’s School of Materials Engineering, Schuhmann brought a new outlook—a curriculum focused on the fundamental principles and engineering concepts needed to solve practical problems.

“For Schuhmann, it was not good enough to know how to make steel. You could get that from a handbook. The future engineer had to know how to solve problems that come up,” recalls Mysore Dayananda, who arrived at Purdue from India in 1958 and received his doctorate in 1965. Dayananda chose Purdue over MIT and Carnegie Mellon because he wanted to study with Schuhmann, internationally recognized as a master of thermodynamics. “He was the top expert in the art and science of teaching engineering principles,” says Dayananda, who joined the Purdue faculty upon completing his degree. “He emphasized problem solving in materials design and application and made us learn by introspection and self analysis. He really taught us to think.”

The School of MetE comes to life
In 1959, the Board of Trustees approved Purdue’s School of Metallurgical Engineering, with Schuhmann appointed as head. Over the years, the school’s name changed several times to reflect the evolving profile and focus of the discipline itself. In 1965, with Richard Grace as head, it became the School of Materials Science and Metallurgical Engineering. Finally, in 1973, with Robert Vest as newly appointed head, the current name was established—School of Materials Engineering.

From its foundations in metals, Materials Engineering has expanded to include the study of ceramics and polymers, with nanomaterials and biomaterials now emerging areas in the discipline.

Keeping pace
Periodic overhauls of the curriculum have kept Purdue’s materials program current with national education reform; major changes occurred in 1959 when ceramics and polymers were integrated into the undergraduate curriculum and in 1989 when the program was once again rebuilt to integrate all classes of materials. At that time, Purdue’s school was a frontrunner as institutions nationwide began introducing such changes.

“Over the years, our graduates were going out into jobs and being confronted by materials problems, not just metals. One day they would work with metals, the next with ceramics and polymers. For us not to address the needs of our students would have been foolish,” recalls Gerald Leidl, who received his doctorate from Purdue in 1960 and served as school head from 1978 to 1999. Leidl sat on national MSE education reform panels from 1985 to 1988.

What of the next 50 years? “I see the materials area interacting with all sorts of disciplines,” says Leidl. “There are a lot of opportunities there. When you learn to make something out of nothing, you won’t need us anymore.”