Strong in Science

Northwestern College Archives

Northwestern students conduct experiments in a science lab in 1942.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Northwestern began to stand out for the strength of its science programs.

Northwestern Classical Academy was established to prepare students for college and ultimately the ministry. However, in 1924 Alfred Popma graduated from the academy, earned his medical degree, and became one of the nation’s foremost authorities on cancer, credited with pioneering breast self-exams for women.

The same year Popma graduated from the academy, Science Hall was built. It contained a single laboratory, two classrooms and an auditorium/gymnasium. Two decades later, Zwemer Hall housed the chemistry, biology and physics labs.

What President Jacob Heemstra described as “insufficient laboratory space for science work” led to construction of an addition to Science Hall in 1948. Two more additions and a name change, to Van Peursem Hall, followed. When the final wing was added in 1968, physics occupied the first floor; biology, the second; and chemistry, the third.

In the years between those additions, Northwestern became a four-year college. It also doubled the number of its biology faculty to two when Dr. Edward Van Eck and Virg Muilenburg ’62 (see page 3) were hired in 1963. Van Eck, recruited to develop a pre-medicine program, taught at NWC for 18 years; Muilenburg, for 37. Other longtime science professors included Dr. Glen Hegstad, biology, 30 years; Dr. Henry Veldhuis ’61, physics, 32 years; and chemistry professors Dr. Harold Hammerstrom, 31 years, Dr. Peter Hansen, 30 years, and Dr. Tim Lubben, 30 years.

Together they provided an education that prepared Northwestern science majors for success in medical and graduate schools. As a sophomore, Linda Van Roekel ’69 received a research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), while Doug Schelhaas ’67 won a National Institutes of Health traineeship his senior year that was equivalent to a pre-doctoral fellowship.

Until 1970, all of the college’s premedical students transferred after their initial two years at Northwestern. Jerry Van Es ’71 was the first to be accepted directly from Northwestern. Ruth Langstraat ’72, another NSF grant recipient, was the first female Northwestern graduate to enter medical school.

Other graduates from the ’60s and ’70s pursued careers as research scientists. Hansen, the longtime chemistry professor, cites Northwestern alumni like John Swart ’90, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Nebraska, and Luke Haverhals ’00, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Iowa (see page 37).

And while Popma was the first recipient of Northwestern’s Alumni of the Year award, he was followed—to date—by 20 other science grads who likewise have been recognized by their alma mater for their professional achievements.

Northwestern College Archives

Science Hall (what is now the west wing of Van Peursem Hall) as it appeared in the 1940s. Note the new addition on the building’s south end and Zwemer Hall on the right.

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