1915-1940 History | Zoology | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Agriculture, Life and Physical Sciences


Here are some glimpses of the life sciences for the 25-year period from 1915 through 1940 at Southern Illinois Normal College (now known as SIUC), with an emphasis on changes in the curriculum and the faculty who served the department.

The story of the life science curriculum in this period was generally one of refinement and specialization. In 1913, agriculture became an independent program; John Gilbert remained as Head of the Department of Biology. In Fall 1915, there were three biology faculty (George French, John Gilbert, and Mary Steagall). A total of 14 courses were listed for the department; five of these were of the general or introductory nature and nine were more specialized. The specialized courses included physiology, entomology, ornithology, apiculture, embryology, bacteriology, and four courses in advanced botany. In 1920, a course was added on natural history; although, for decades, it was ably covered within the courses taught by George Hazen French. Many of these offerings remain as part of our current curriculum, although the content has greatly expanded. The course offerings of the 1920s included subject matter that is now covered in four separate departments at SIUC: Microbiology, Physiology, Plant Biology, and Zoology. We should note that the primary purpose of the school was the preparation of teachers for the primary and secondary schools of the region and state. Thus, the focus of the curriculum and the content of individual courses were designed to prepare people to teach the subject matter. In 1943, the name was changed to Southern Illinois Normal University (and four years later to Southern Illinois University). Generally, it was not until after World War II that the purpose of the university expanded and advanced degree programs were added.

One of the pivotal events for what we now know as the Department of Zoology occurred in 1926 when the life science curriculum and administration were split into three departments, Botany, Physiology and Health Education, and Zoology. The 1920s became a period of expansion in the number of faculty and course offerings. In 1920, all of the biology curriculum involved 15 courses, but by 1929 there were 32 different courses offered across the three departments, with 16 of those in zoology. The Department of Zoology faculty for 1929 consisted of three individuals, all women. Most notable of these was Mary Minerva Steagall. She had received her doctorate from the University of Chicago and joined the faculty at Southern in 1908. Mary Steagall was a remarkably versatile person; she taught Latin and mathematics in addition to her duties in zoology, which included a long stint as department head (1921-1938). The other faculty in zoology by the late 1920s were Hilda A. Stein, who would remain on the faculty for 33 years, and Martha H. Scott, who had obtained her M. S. degree from the University of Chicago and who served Botany as well as Zoology with her teaching skills.

By 1932, the curriculum in zoology had expanded to 19 courses. Among the additions were two that are noteworthy. The first was a course in economic zoology; this was the forerunner of what became our fisheries and wildlife biology laboratories in the 1950s. The course focused on practical issues in the southern Illinois region, but also included field trips to zoological parks. A course on the history of biology used what was then a relatively new book on the subject by Erik Nordenskiold. No scholar has been able to write a comparable history in the past 60 years and thus the History of Biology remains the text of choice for courses on the background of our discipline. As the end of the decade approached, the Department of Zoology curriculum contained 22 courses. New additions during the 1930s involved offerings in animal ecology, parasitology, and advanced courses in histology and ornithology. These latter two subdisciplines were obviously of sufficient interest to students to provide the basis for establishing advanced courses on a regular basis. The retirement of Mary Steagall in 1938 left the department with a faculty consisting of Hilda Stein, Martha Scott (who was part-time in Zoology), and Willard Gersbacher. Dr. Gersbacher had obtained his bachelor's degree from SINC, taught in the 1929-1930 school year for the Botany Department, then went to the University of Illinois to earn a doctoral degree. He returned to Southern in 1936 to join the Department of Zoology and in 1938 became department head. Zoology undergraduate students served as lab instructors in the basic courses.

In a 2002 letter to Zoology, Dorothy Lill Larson (B.Ed, SINU, 1942; M.S., U. Wisconsin, 1945; M.D., U. Illinois Chicago, 1949) fondly remembered being Miss Stein's lab teaching assistant for two years, earning $10 per quarter; the pay helped offset her $17.50 college registration expense for the quarter -- which covered tuition, book rental, and activity fee. She further recalled, "...Zoology had three rooms on the first floor [of the Science Building] and one room on the third floor where genetics and histology classes were held. On the first floor, the center room was where most lectures were given and where the Zoology seminar met every 2 weeks. Dr. Gersbacher and Miss Scott each had a small closet-like office. Miss Stein's 'office' was a desk in the lab used for field biology." In those days, the entire, small, well-kept campus of Southern consisted of Old Main surrounded by seven other buildings -- Anthony Hall, the Gymnasium, Wheeler Library, Science, and three buildings named after early campus presidents, i.e., Shryock, Allyn, and Parkinson.