History of UC Berkeley

Research: Expanding the boundaries of knowledge

Lick Observatory
Lick Observatory

From the beginning, UC has conducted serious research to benefit the State of California and expand human knowledge. The appointment of distinguished natural scientists Joseph and John Le Conte to the original faculty signaled an early commitment to research at the fledgling institution. In 1874 Eugene Hilgard arrived as professor of agriculture to build that program on a solid scientific basis. Faculty botanists, zoologists, biologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists fanned out to document and study the American West, while engineers and chemists pursued important research.

The 1888 opening of Lick Observatory, on the summit of Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose, gave UC the largest telescope in the world at the time and a prominent place in astronomical sciences, while private donors funded research expeditions to study the ancient civilizations of Peru and Egypt. By the early 20th century, the Berkeley campus was a rising star in research circles, despite uncertainty about funding.


Pioneering botanist Willis Linn Jepson, collecting plant specimens in the Sierra Nevada, 1911
Pioneering botanist Willis Linn Jepson, collecting plant specimens in the Sierra Nevada, 1911

'Golden years' of growth

During the 20-year presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, which began in 1899, UC's finances stabilized, ushering in the "golden years" of growth and distinction. A classical scholar and able administrator, Wheeler attracted library and scholarship funds, research grants, and a distinguished faculty to the University. Its reputation grew — particularly in the fields of agriculture, the humanities, and engineering; campus museums were established in anthropology, vertebrate zoology, paleontology, as well as the Bancroft Library, specializing in western U.S. history.

Existing departments expanded and many new departments were added. Among them were a College of Commerce (now the Haas School of Business), the first of its kind in the country, to funnel graduates into the export trade with Asia and into industries and businesses throughout the state. Summer sessions were begun in 1899 to train physics and chemistry teachers, and before long the summer program broadened its scope.

Early 1900s: New talent for 'big science'

During the 1920s and '30s, Berkeley faculty moved to the forefront of civil engineering research, advising on construction projects — bridges, dams, and buildings — of unprecedented size and complexity and conducting pioneering research in materials science. In fall of 1930, Robert Gordon Sproul — a Berkeley civil engineering alum who had gone on to become a high-level UC administrator — was inaugurated UC president, beginning a tenure that was to last three decades. Concerned first and foremost with academic excellence, Sproul succeeded in attracting brilliant faculty, particularly in the physical and biological sciences, and in completing the transformation of California's university to an internationally known center of research and education.

Ernest Lawrence, winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics
Ernest Lawrence, winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics

With the infusion of new talent — and the establishment just up the hill of a national laboratory, whose scientists maintain close collaborations with the campus — "big science" research projects burgeoned at Berkeley in the 1930s and '40s. Work in nuclear physics, chemistry, and biology led, respectively, to the development of the first atom-smashing cyclotron, the isolation of the human polio virus, and the discovery of 16 chemical elements heavier than uranium.

In 1939, Ernest Lawrence received a Nobel Prize for his work on the cyclotron — becoming the first of 20 Berkeley faculty members, to date, to garner a Nobel and the first Nobelist at a public university. In 1942, the American Council on Education ranked UC Berkeley second in the nation, after Harvard University, in its number of distinguished departments.

Although the Great Depression brought drastic reductions to UC programs and salaries, the Berkeley campus rebounded within a decade. Government research money related to World War II, was largely responsible for its speedy recovery; the campus completed, by the end of the war, $57 million worth of government-sponsored work. Building on earlier campus research, Berkeley chemists and physicists, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, played a key role in the wartime effort to build the world's first atomic bomb. Once the war was over, Ernest Lawrence  turned his corps of brilliant researchers loose on "peacetime" problems — leading to groundbreaking research in photosynthesis, nuclear medicine, and other fields, and laying the groundwork for work today to develop alternative fuels.

Mid-20th-century research across the disciplines

The first linguistics department in the Western Hemisphere was founded in 1901 at UC. In the early 1950s the newly reconstituted department was asked to survey and describe California's many Native languages.

Campus researchers, meanwhile, were expanding the limits of knowledge in a broad array of fields. The University of California Southern African Expedition of 1947-48, led by Berkeley paleontologist Charles Camp, included experts in archeology, paleontology, anthropology, botany, linguistics, and musicology. There, researchers discovered a chain of prehistoric sites on the land bridge between Africa and Asia, collected and identified tens of thousands of plant and insect specimens, and discovered Mesozoic fossils that helped to demonstrate the course of evolution of reptiles into mammals.

The linguistics department at Berkeley— originally founded in 1901 (the first in the Western Hemisphere) and reconstituted in 1952 — was entrusted to survey and describe California's many native languages and initiate comparative linguistic work to help with the reconstruction of the human prehistory of California and the continent. And psychologists with the campus's Institute of Child Welfare conducted some of the earliest research in the western U.S. in the field of child study. In 1966, the campus's broad excellence — in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities — earned it recognition by the American Council on Education as "the best balanced distinguished university in the county."

From molecular evolution to genomics and computing

Fruit fly: UC Berkeley scientist Gerald Rubin led the project to sequence the fruit fly genome
Molecular biologist Gerald Rubin led the project to sequence the fruit fly genome

During the latter half of the 20th century, scientists' understanding of genetics and the development of computers revolutionized the possibilities of research. In biochemistry, Berkeley's Allan Wilson founded the field of molecular evolution, using genetic material, rather than fossils, to investigate the origins of humanity. A reorganization of the campus's biological sciences in the 1980s — merging fields like anatomy, zoology, botany, physiology, and microbiology into several "integrative" departments — set the stage for later research breakthroughs. In genomic science, for instance, molecular biologist Gerald Rubin led the project to sequence the fruit fly genome (developing techniques later used to successfully sequence the human genome), while geneticist Mary-Claire King in 1990 identified the gene responsible for hereditary breast cancer.

Geneticist Mary-Claire King in 1990 identified the gene reponsible for hereditary breast cancer.
Geneticist Mary-Claire King in 1990 identified the gene responsible for hereditary breast cancer.

Berkeley scientists and engineers played a crucial role in the computer revolution and the growth of Silicon Valley. Building upon the original code from Bell Labs, campus experts created the Berkeley UNIX operating system in the 1970s (which soon became an immensely popular tool in science), and pushed forward the frontiers of computer-aided circuit design and micro-electro-mechanical systems. Graduate student Bill Joy, who helped develop Berkeley UNIX, released the operating system under the Berkeley Software Distribution moniker and encouraged a world of hackers to improve it. Upgrades were then incorporated by his team into future releases, thus launching a new software-distribution paradigm, now known as "Open Source," that would have a formative influence on the development of the Internet.

Growing computing power — first using giant mainframe computers in the 1970s and '80s, and then increasingly powerful desktop machines — opened new doors for research and teaching in engineering and science, the social sciences, and even the humanities. UC Berkeley computer scientists joined bioengineers in work supporting the Human Genome Project, while other scholars began to use information technology to digitize texts, train students in languages, and analyze social-science data. To address the complex legal and social questions surrounding the technology, the campus's law school opened the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic, the first law-school clinic in the country representing consumer interests in intellectual property, communications regulation, and privacy issues.

Carbon-neutral energy and other current research initiatives

Energy Biosciences Institute logo

A number of new research programs at Berkeley transcend traditional disciplines. Among them are the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative, focusing on social issues in multicultural societies; a health-sciences initiative seeking to make biomedical advances; and a multi-campus public-private effort to apply information technology to practical social challenges — from energy conservation to education and health care.

In 2007, thanks largely to a proven track record conducting "big science" projects, UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were selected to receive a total of $625 million in funding for two major efforts — the Energy Biosciences Institute and the Joint BioEnergy Institute — to develop new carbon-neutral bioenergy fuels to address the nation's energy needs and the challenges of global warming in the 21st century.

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