Founders and Trailblazers

But our accomplishments were small compared with those of today, and tomorrow will be greater by far. I hope we laid a good foundation, and our good wishes go to those who follow us.

—George Marston
1887

John Edwin Ostrander

John Ostrander was one of the founding faculty of Massachusetts Agricultural College, arriving in 1887 as a professor in civil engineering and then going on to chair the Department of Mathematics and Civil Engineering. He edited the Hatch Experiment Station Meteorological Record. Ostrander was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Mining Engineers, and the Society for Promotion of Engineering Education. 

Read his biography in this excerpt from Union University: Its History

1914

Christian I. Gunness

Christian Gunness was a professor from 1914 to 1946. He served as the head of Agricultural Engineering and the first head of the Division of Engineering, which was established in 1937 and combined existing programs in civil and agricultural engineering. He was known for his pioneering work in storage refrigeration for fruits and vegetables, and for his contributions to the cranberry industry. The first School of Engineering building on campus was named for Gunness.

1933

George Marston


George Marston arrived at the Massachusetts State College in Fall 1933 with an instructorship paying $1,440/yr to teach mathematics. He began teaching engineering in 1938, offering courses in applied mechanics, strength of materials, kinetics and hydraulics, highway structure, water supply, and surveying. 

Marston left campus for three years, beginning in 1943, volunteering to serve in the U.S. Navy on anti-submarine warfare works and construction during World War II. Following the end of the war, hundreds of returning soldiers were offered GI Bill training, and wanted to become engineers. In response to the intense demand for engineering education, the trustees of the college approved the formation of a School of Engineering on Sept. 1, 1947. Six months later they named Marston its first dean, a position he held until his retirement in 1963. 

The school was fully accredited by 1950, and had announced plans to begin a graduate program. Marston is credited with building the College from the ground up. In just four years he took a program with engineering courses that didn’t lead anywhere and molded it into a formal school with accredited degree programs. And he did this without a footprint of buildings or dedicated labs. He made do with donated equipment from war surplus and attracted good faculty, who stayed and won outstanding teaching awards. Marston recalled offering one of the original professors lab space in a potato storage shed, using the attic of Flint Hall as classroom space, and setting up a $30 petty cash fund for professors in need of engineering equipment. “There is only one thing I couldn’t find in war surplus, and that was aspirin,” he noted.

George Marston (center) with students

During his tenure, Marston oversaw the construction of five buildings on campus. Enrollment in engineering grew from 40 to 900. The school expanded to include chemical, electrical, mechanical, civil and industrial engineering. Marston prided himself on continuing to be an active teacher, even while serving as dean. He managed to teach at least one class a semester, until his last three years on campus. After his retirement from UMass, Marston went on to serve at Western New England College as dean of engineering, a post he held for five years, and then spent an additional five years there as a professor of mechanical engineering. In 1970, the main Engineering Building at UMass was renamed Marston Hall.

Marston in front of what would become Marston Hall

A native of Montague City, Marston received his BS in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1930 and his MS from the State University of Iowa in 1933. He later received a professional degree in civil engineering and honorary doctor of engineering degree from WPI.

Fun facts about Marston: 

  • He drove a 1929 Ford Roadster (Model A). 
  • His first job after graduating from WPI was with Turners Falls Power company, working as a surveyor on the Cobble Mountain Reservoir project. At that time, the reservoir was the largest earthen dam in the world. 
  • During the (still!) record breaking February 1943 cold snap in New York City he married Grace. It was 15 degrees below zero. 
  • Marston “laid out the railroad yards at Camp Myles Standish…the whole warehouse and embarkation area. In the summer of ‘42…” A U.S. Army camp in Massachusetts, Camp Myles Standish served as a staging area for U.S. and Allied soldiers during World War II, with over a million passing through either on their way overseas or to return for demobilization after the war.
John Dittfach
1948

John Dittfach

John H. Dittfach was one of the first faculty members in the School of Engineering, arriving in 1948. He was promoted to associate professor in 1952 and professor in 1956. He also served as associate department head and undergraduate program director from 1968 to 1990, when he retired. In 1955, he was instrumental in founding the campus chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). He served as a board member of SAE from 1952-62. He was also the administrator of a 1963 National Science Foundation grant for the purchase of a supersonic wind tunnel, a lower velocity wind tunnel and a hot wire turbulence anemometer. In 1965, he received the Distinguished Teaching Award. Read his obituary

1948

Joseph Marcus


Joseph Marcus gave 36 years of his life to the university. Recognized as a gifted teacher, caring advisor, and tireless administrator, he is also remembered as a no-nonsense guy with strong opinions on the importance of teaching over research, ethics in science, and the role of the university. 

Born in Oct. 1921, Joseph Marcus attended Worcester Polytech (BS 1944), and after war-time service with the Navy, he joined the School of Engineering in 1948 as an instructor in civil engineering and a graduate student (MS 1954). Although trained as a chemical engineer, he took responsibility for the fluid mechanics laboratory and taught in civil and mechanical engineering. He introduced nuclear engineering into the curriculum, after spending a year at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and experiencing courses from the Atomic Energy Commission. Marcus became a key figure in university administration. During his career at UMass he served as an assistant dean, associate dean, preceptor for Emily Dickinson House on Orchard Hill, and Special Assistant to the Chancellor for long-range planning, while serving on committees for military affairs, Engineering honors, transfers and admissions, discipline, and Continuing Education. Marcus also served as acting dean of Engineering before his retirement in 1984. He was instrumental in the transition of the university from a small state college to a major institution. 

Beyond teaching, counseling, and administration, Marcus commanded the naval reserve officer’s unit on campus, he directed Hillel before the campus had a rabbi, and helped establish the Amherst Jewish Community. Marcus was a recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Medal in 1984. Dr. Marcus died of cancer on November 1, 1985. Marcus Hall was named in his honor.

A Tribute to Joseph Marcus

1948

Carl Roys

Carl Roys was named by George Marston as one of two “headlining faculty” for the new School of Engineering. In the field of electrical engineering, he brought the institution great prestige as a top researcher. Carl graduated from WPI and went on to Purdue for his doctorate. He worked at GE in its research division and was a senior member of the Institute of Radio Engineers. He joined the university in 1948. It was said that he left Purdue because he was so far ahead in his field.

1948 news clipping

1949

Charles E. Carver, Jr.

Civil Engineering

Charles Carver first joined the faculty in 1949 to teach civil engineering. He left in 1951 to pursue his doctorate at MIT and returned to the UMass faculty in 1958. In all, he taught civil engineering for 31 years. He authored 32 papers in the fields of fluid mechanics, ocean engineering, and engineering education. He was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a member of the honorary societies of Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi and Phi Kappa Phi. Read his obituary

1968

James Douglas

James Douglas was a full professor at UMass Amherst for nearly 30 years, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and was a recipient of the UMass Amherst Chancellor’s Medal. So great was his influence that a former student established the Professor James Douglas Early Career Faculty Development Award in the College of Engineering in his honor.

Douglas cut a distinctive path through the process design community in chemical engineering. He pioneered a rational approach to design, embodied in a systematic design method that altered the well-established belief that no one could teach process design without years of experience. Douglas joined the UMass Amherst ChE department in 1968, served as department head from 1979 to 1982, and retired in 1997.

Douglas received a BS degree from Johns Hopkins and in 1960 earned his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware. He worked in industry for five years before beginning a long and notable career in academia. Jim loved good jokes, clever pranks, sailing, and the sunsets in Cape Cod.

In 2014, the James Douglas Early Career Faculty Development Award was established “in honor of Professor Douglas’ research innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and ability to tackle complex problems using innovative and non-traditional approaches to achieve results.” The purpose of the Douglas Fund is to provide an Early Career Faculty Development Award annually to an untenured faculty member in the ChE department.

Read his obituary

Read the College of Engineering news article on his passing

1981

Vladimir “Val” Haensel

Vladimir Haensel had a profound impact on his profession, and was a winner of the National Medal of Science. He was elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, and was a Distinguished University Professor at UMass Amherst.

Haensel served as professor of chemical engineering from 1981 until his retirement in 1998. Prior to joining the University, he had a distinguished career with UOP (formerly Universal Oil Products) and was the company’s vice president for research. Haensel led the team there that invented “platforming,” a chemical engineering process essential in producing clean fuel for transportation and in supplying materials to the plastics industry. The process uses extremely small particles of platinum, one of the world’s most precious metals, to drastically speed up certain chemical reactions, efficiently converting petroleum to high-performance fuels. The technique is widely considered to be one of the most significant in chemical engineering. Platforming creates cleaner-burning high-octane fuel, eliminating the need to add lead to gasoline.

For this and other distinguished contributions in catalysis, he received many honors including: the National Medal of Science in 1973; memberships in both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering; the Professional Progress Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and the Perkin Medal in 1967. He was the first recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in Service to Society. When he was 83 years old, Haensel was awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the National Academy of Engineering. The prize is considered the engineering profession’s highest honor. He was the first chemical engineer and university professor to receive this honor.

Professor Haensel enjoyed a productive second career as a teacher and mentor. He took particular pride in two elective courses he taught on Catalysis and Energy Conversion Processes, and Industrial Chemistry. While at the university he received the Chancellor’s Medal and an Outstanding Teacher Award. To mark his 80th birthday, UOP established the Vladimir Haensel/UOP scholarship fund, which sponsors research by undergraduates in chemical engineering at UMass Amherst.

Oral history at Science History Institute

National Academy of Engineering Biographical Memoir

NOTE: The history shared on the website is far from complete. What have we missed? To share your stories and photos please contact us.

Photographs are courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst and the College of Engineering archives.  

Content written/provided by the Special Collections and University Archives, Cheryl Brooks, Charlie Creekmore, Heather Demers, Sarah Harvey, and Lauren Rubenstein.  

Cited sources:

  • New York Times archive