The Golden Age of Science

student in labDuring the 1950s, a quiet technological and social revolution was taking place across the United States. Chartered in 1950 by the U.S. Congress, the National Science Foundation reflected the public’s interest in scientific research. The foundation’s mission was to set scientific policy and encourage basic research through grants. Dollars for research flowed in, and a new generation of scientists attracted to public research joined the professional ranks at agricultural experiment stations nationwide. Employment increased by 50 percent in less than a decade.

Hollywood producers of the 1950s reacted to the public interest in science, churning out science fiction movies about plant-based alien beings, giant insects and shrinking humans, and visitors from other planets.

On campus and at regional centers across the state, Texas A&M scientists were involved in real research and agricultural investigation, with global implications. In the College of Agriculture, researchers and faculty shared in the glory of this golden age of science, making major contributions to agriculture worldwide. As the funding increased, so did the expectations from Congress, state legislators, and the American public. The College was up to the challenge.

  • In a small substation in Chillicothe, Texas, J. Roy Quinby and his USDA counterpart, J. C. Stephens, developed a new hybrid sorghum. Introduced in 1955, this hybrid and new production processes more than quadrupled sorghum production in Texas. Quinby and Stephens’s work on the hybrid sorghum and their adaptation of tropical sorghums for temperate climates made Texas A&M a world leader in sorghum research.
  • Paul B. Pearson, professor of animal nutrition, inspired many students seeking careers in biochemistry and nutrition, including J. Russell Couch, who went on to be named one of Progressive Farmer’s top 10 agricultural scientists of the 20th century for his work in poultry science. Pearson would later leave A&M to join the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C.
  • Although he was offered prestigious positions at other universities, J. Russell Couch came back to A&M, where he could make things happen. Couch’s research with the newly discovered vitamin B12 in poultry reduced the amount of feed and time needed for production and revolutionized the poultry industry.
  • In 1952, King Ranch loaned 30 Santa Gertrudis heifers to Texas A&M and supported research to compare performance with other breeds. Beef research included new processing techniques that improved the quality and flavor of beef, enduring studies of the effects of marbling on tenderness, and the introduction of improved forage grasses. The processing techniques developed at Texas A&M are still in use by the beef industry worldwide.
  • Dependency and overuse of chlorinated hydrocarbon and organophosphate insecticides during the World War II years, along with the introduction of many new pesticides, greatly affected the direction of the Entomology Department. Insects such as the boll weevil, once thought to be under control, became resistant to pesticides, creating economic and environmental problems in Texas and other states. These pest outbreaks led some researchers to call for caution in the use of insecticides and to promote a new practice of integrated control, combining biological and chemical control tactics. For entomologists, the 1950s closed with the realization that environmental problems and pesticide resistance required a reassessment of insect control practices.

During the decade, four different scientists held the office of dean of agriculture at Texas A&M, beginning with Charles Noah Shepardson. Between 1955 and 1958, three more were appointed in succession: soil scientist James E. Adams, animal scientist James C. Miller, and plant pathologist Gustav McKee Watkins.

In spite of the turnover in leadership, progress was being made on the education front as students began to take advantage of doctoral programs first offered in the late 1940s. In 1950, the Department of Agricultural Economics and Sociology awarded a Ph.D. to a foreign student for the first time, an indication of an increasingly diverse student body.

Overall, the 1950s was a decade of continuity and stability but also one of concern for faculty, staff, and administration. The push for coeducation, elective military training, a civilian student body, and racial integration, along with burgeoning research and graduate studies and the need to broaden course offerings contributed to the demand for change and progress. Without real change in the culture at Texas A&M, divisiveness over big issues would continue to be detrimental to academic programs and growth.

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