Progress Out of Horror: The Developments of UNL in the WWI Era

Samuel Avery portrait<br />

Samuel Avery, the University of Nebraska Chancellor from 1908-1927

Animal Pathology and Hygiene Complex

Animal Pathology and Hygiene Complex on the East Campus

Nathan Fricke, History 250: The Historian Craft, Spring 2019

The gruesome trench conditions and mass killing fields of Western Europe tend to be the pictures painted in people’s minds when reminded of World War I. These depictions are largely true and should not be downplayed. The volume of the war in Europe shifted life on the home front greatly in its duration. Although not directly affected by the bloodbath like in Europe, the United States was also impacted at home. After the United States’ declaration of war on Germany in 1917, there was an immense overhaul necessary for an effective war effort. Unproven in industrial warfare at the time, the nation relied on new crops of ingenuity and manpower. As a result, universities around the nation ramped up efforts to produce students that were equipped with the advancing scientific techniques needed to keep up with the daunting demands of the war. Outside of participating in military service, students and faculty chipped in to help the food supply, medical facilities, and industry for the full-fledged war effort. In turn, students’ actions caused fields such as engineering, agriculture, and medicine to blossom in the face of the horrors occurring across the Atlantic. The University of Nebraska was no exception. In a time of great uncertainty during World War I, the University of Nebraska saw great developments in the years 1914 to 1919, due to the efforts by students and faculty to support the war.

In order to understand the overall impacts that the war effort had on the university as a whole, one must grasp the actions taken that set the stage for such large war-time developments. Such efforts are just another reason that the war had a positive impact on the university. On April 7, less than a week after the declaration of war on Germany that brought the United States into the bloody conflict, Chancellor Samuel Avery was already putting in place policies to streamline the war effort. One of his actions was to give full semester credit to any student who dropped out to join the war effort in a way that was deemed patriotic. In allowing full semester credit to be earned either by those who provide military service, or other services such as in industry, agriculture, and medicine, Avery set a precedent for full-fledged war contributions.[1]

The fact that Avery did not explicitly state the guidelines for patriotic acts reflected the trust and overall confidence in his students’ ability to contribute to the war effort and his urgency for assisting in the cause. An additional action in which Avery also took in the days after the war declaration that cemented his desire for efficient servitude was his approval for medical students to graduate early. The action was done in order to give the U.S. forces a larger pool of trained medical officers in a timely manner. Avery’s efforts to increase the rate of funneling students into professional positions to assist the war effort did not stop at medical officers. A policy was also put in place to allow engineering and agricultural students to graduate early through summer courses as a way of increasing the skilled contributors to the war economy in the quickest way possible. All of such actions done by Avery and the university reflected a spirit of service and patriotism. However, the overall need for manpower in the war, coupled by Avery’s actions, were catalysts for a plummet in overall enrollment. As the Daily Nebraskan reported at the start of the 1917 academic year, the total enrollment was nearly an astounding 50 percent lower than the previous year. Despite the clear uphill battle of dwindling enrollment, the university proved adept in advancing many colleges. With the leadership of Chancellor Avery, the foundation was laid to push the campus to new heights.[2]

Out of all the facets of the university that were developed in order to provide for the war effort, one has to deeply consider the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Upon the completion of a new hospital for the medical college in Omaha at the start of American involvement in World War I, the college was still in need of a spark to bring it out near non-existence. World War I proved to be that spark. The increase in the overall output of the college speaks for itself. At the beginning of the decade in 1910, the medical college was all but extinct. In stark contrast by 1918, after the necessity for medical officers for the war effort, the college’s enrollment reached 181 students. The numbers speak for themselves, but do not depict the full development of the college as a whole. Alongside the large increase in enrollment came the advancement of scientific medical practices in the curriculum.[3]

During the United States’ involvement in World War I, the medical practices on the battlefield saw a significant shift from the primary concern of mending the physically wounded, to one more focused on clinical pathology. The new style of conducting medical practices consisted of the implementation of new laboratory studies of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, parasites, and blood cells. Other advances included the examinations of the chemical compositions of blood and the reasons they lead to one condition or another. Enhanced knowledge from the top of the intellectual ladder, a direct result of the industrial revolution and heighted access to complex education, was an immense step forward for the field of medicine. The advancements in studies were then implemented into medical practice.[4]

Conditions up and down the Eastern and Western Fronts warranted a developed knowledge of the causes and subsequent remedies for diseases and other mishaps that occurred. The new pathological tests intertwined within the medical practices helped diagnose and treat many ailments, such as syphilis, typhoid, and influenza. In terms of the numbers of medical practitioners, as nearly every facet of the total war effort, there was always a need for more resources. Given the heightened awareness for pathology in medicine, there was a significant necessity for new practitioners with the given skills in scientific and laboratory studies. The call for the increase in those with this new type of medical education was felt directly by the institutions that produced the vital source of capital, the universities themselves. As a result, medical colleges across the United States were forced to keep up with the demand by bolstering their curriculum and increasing the number of graduates as experts in the field. The University of Nebraska upheld the calling upon them. The medical college responded in the succeeding years by not only increasing the enrollment and graduates of the college, but also by giving the college a face-lift by providing a more scientific curriculum incorporated. In doing so, the university produced a great many of war-ready medical nurses and doctors that would be adept in administering complex practices to assist with the widespread human ailments in Europe. The efforts by the medical college added to the new crop of much needed practitioners to be sent to the front, as well as introduced a new type of medical practice that would remain and develop in years to come. By the summer of 1919, the recognition of the new medical research resurrected the college into modernity.[5]

The developments of the medical college were largely complemented by the advancement of the engineering and agricultural colleges, due to the increased need for supplies and armaments in Europe. When referencing the advancement of the agricultural college, the overall numbers of enrollment fail to tell the whole story. Once the United States entered the war in 1917, the enrollment that peaked at around 600 students had declined considerably, due to the enlistment into the Army by many young men in the college. Although the numbers of those enrolled were depleted, the agricultural college reached new heights.[6]

The Great War put an intense strain on those working in the agricultural sector of the American economy. Due to the large reliance on the United States to supply food to the Allied forces, in order to maintain their well-being and morale, crop crises began to arise. Beginning in the late summer of 1916, despite a minimal increase in the overall production of crops across the U.S., poor weather, crop diseases, and reduced acreages led to a large crisis in the productivity of farms. At a time when French, British, and Italian purchases of American crops were greatly expanded, the production could simply not keep up with the demand. A change fueled by ingenuity was largely needed to keep the Allied war effort fed. In order to chip in to solving the agricultural shortcomings, the University of Nebraska’s College of Agriculture pooled more resources into their scientific research.[7]

As a direct result of the heightened need for agricultural advancements, the college saw great leaps in its facilities. Unlike the medical college, which developed greatly once the U.S. entered the war, the College of Agriculture saw large developments as early as 1915. Even before the food crises of 1916, the need for food supplies in Europe had lured many students to the agricultural college at UNL. In 1915, enrollment numbers reached a level that required additional agricultural facilities to keep up with the swelling numbers. The University of Nebraska’s East Campus, or better known at the time as “The Farm”, thus saw major developments. The rather unspectacular plot of land started construction on both the Agricultural Engineering Building and the Animal Pathology and Hygiene Complex in 1916, with completion in 1918. Adding the two buildings to the campus epitomized the effect that the war had on the urgency for agricultural developments. In terms of physical additions to East Campus, the enhancements did not stop with the opening of the two new complexes. Multiple barns, as well as the Dairy Industry Building were updated during the war, with the additions of new facets, such as power sources, to boost the practicality. All in all, the value of East Campus was doubled by the time the war had finished.[8]

Additional steps to boost crop yields came in the form of both technological and scientific research. Despite the decline of enrollment numbers in through 1917 and 1918, the agricultural college continued to be on the cutting edge of innovation. Some of the efforts made by the college to advance agricultural production include the enactments of crop serums to assist in plant health, as well as many experiments with irrigation techniques. In the decade of 1910 to 1920, and most notably during the war years in response to the increased demands, many stations were set up across the state of Nebraska by the agricultural college to test their research in irrigation. The end goal was to bolster crop production in the face of poor weather conditions, especially droughts. Experiments in irrigation by the college were largely successful. The agricultural college’s innovative techniques in irrigation and plant studies gained a foothold on farms all across the state and established the college as a forward-thinking center for agricultural ingenuity during the wartime years. The food crises of World War I in the U.S, coupled by the industrial innovations that came along with the war were undoubtedly a spark that increased development of the agricultural college. Despite the aforementioned depletion of enrollment numbers, the college forged its way into becoming a modern and innovative institution.[9]

The immensely mobilized war effort of the Great War also bolstered the importance of the field of engineering in significant way. The profession of engineering was on an enormous climb in the latter decades of the 19th century. In order to keep up with the demands of an increasingly mechanized world, engineers sought to apply their scientific studies to increase the practicality of the outputs that industries, such as transportation, armaments, and heavy machinery produced. World War I saw such demands grow exponentially. The need for the innovation to produce supplies to gain an edge in new style of mechanized war in Europe caused a monumental increase in the importance of the engineer. The source for the ingenuity to assist in designing the elements of such a style of war lied in the education of young engineers at colleges around the world. At the University of Nebraska, the College of Engineering would rise to unprecedented heights in terms of overall size and prominence.[10]

As proven in the case of the agricultural college, numbers of those enrolled in the college did not have a bearing on its advancement. However, when referencing the College of Engineering, the registration trends were quite the opposite. Registration for the college doubled in the year 1918 alone. Alongside of the increase in student enrollment, was also a near tripling of the amount of faculty members teaching the techniques of industry. As of 1919, the number of faculty members was twenty-three, as opposed to nine in the years prior to the war. The massive scale of the total war effort placed the college into a much higher standing within the university as a whole, given its sheer size. Engineering became a cornerstone of the university in the shadow of the horrors in Europe.[11]

While death and destruction swept across Europe due to one of the bloodiest events in human history, the world left in its wake was altered forever. World War I left an entire generation of young men nearly decimated, caused centuries-old empires to crumble, and placed Europe in a state of ruin, both physically and socially. Of all the mindboggling effects that the war had, it may be easy to overlook the developments that occurred as a result. Among the developments, the United States especially, due to a lack of domestic destruction, saw a great leaps in industrial innovation, a rise in scientific research in medicine and agriculture, and a break from its isolationist past. These advancements found their way to a prairie university, that was now able to reach heights never before seen in its history. The University of Nebraska, fueled by large amounts of patriotism, stepped up to the plate and put forth a massive effort towards to the war for the United States. The contributions by students and faculty brought the university into the modern world, and forged a path for future success.


  1. Samuel Avery inter-university speech, 7 April 1917, RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 2, Item 21, Speeches, Chancellor Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
  2. Samuel Avery inter-university speech, 7 April 1917; The Daily Nebraskan, September 17, 1917, Nebraska Newspapers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE,
  3. Samuel Avery. The Progress of the University During the Past Decade, Opening Convocation for the 1919-1920 academic year, 23 Sept 1919, RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 2, Item 4, Speeches, Chancellor Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
  4. James R. Wright Jr, and Leland B. Baskin, World War I Pathology, Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Volume 139, September 2015, 1162-64
  5. Avery, September 23, 1919; Wright and Baskin 2015, 1163
  6. Avery, September 23, 1919; Kay Logan-Peters, East Campus, UNL Libraries, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005,
  7. Tom G. Hall, Wilson and the Food Crisis: Agricultural Price Control during World War I, Agricultural History 47, no. 1, 1973, 25-26
  8. Avery, September 23, 1919; Kay Logan-Peters, East Campus, UNL Libraries, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005,
  9. Avery, September 23, 1919
  10. Carroll Pursell, Prometheus, Routledge, Volume 24, September 2006, 257-258
  11. Avery, September 23, 1919


  • Avery, Samuel. Inter-university speech. 7 April 1917, RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 2, Item 21, Speeches, Chancellor Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
  • Avery, Samuel. The Progress of the University During the Past Decade. Opening Convocation for the 1919-1920 academic year, 23 Sept 1919, RG 05-10-02, Box 1, Folder 2, Item 4, Speeches, Chancellor Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
  • Electronic Photograph. Undated. Architectural Tour of UNL, Tour of East Campus, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Electronic Photograph. Undated. Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
  • Hall, Tom G. Wilson and the Food Crisis: Agricultural Price Control during World War I. Agricultural History 47, no. 1, 1973.
  • Logan-Peters, Kay. East Campus. Architectural Tour of UNL, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005,
  • Pursell, Carroll. Prometheus. Routledge, Volume 24, September 2006, 257-258
  • The Daily Nebraskan. September 17, 1917. Nebraska Newspapers, University of Nebraska Lincoln Libraries, Lincoln, NE,
  • Wright, James R. Jr. and Baskin, Leland B. World War I Pathology. Archives of Pathology and   Laboratory Medicine, Volume 139, September 2015.




Progress Out of Horror: The Developments of UNL in the WWI Era