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Commentary: Nothing Impossible: The guiding spirit of St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2013 - From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition 100 years later, Western culture flourished in the Gateway City. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century made St. Louis a rich place. And the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 changed St. Louis’ geography, making it a Pacific as well as an Atlantic port city. Moreover, St. Louis’ factories and businesses helped to make the United States a great power.

About this article

This is slightly condensed from the conclusion of the keynote speech at the recent Field Notes, a Celebration of Science and Art in Grand Center. The program was cosponsored by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, The St. Louis Beacon, and St. Louis Public Radio.

Kevin Jon Fernlund is a professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In 1929, St. Louis was ranked seventh in the nation in manufacturing. Its industries included meatpacking and bakery goods, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, iron and steel, aluminum and zinc, clothing, especially boots and shoes, electrical machinery, printing and publishing. There were lumber mills, grain elevators, woodworking shops, stockyards, meatpacking plants, boiler works, machine shops, railroad yards and terminals, smelters, glue works, warehouses, tile, terra cotta, and other brick plants, brass foundries, clay products, light manufactures, major wholesale and retail firms, banks and insurance companies. But no industry in St. Louis appeared more future-oriented in the early 20th century than did aviation, which became closely identified with the city.

There was a reason Charles Lindbergh’s custom-built monoplane, which made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, was named the Spirit of St. Louis. Without St. Louis capital, “Lucky Lindy” would never have flown into the history books.

And what was true of Lindbergh’s plane was no less true of science in St. Louis. For science was and is expensive. And despite the romantic image of the lone scientist, toiling in his laboratory late into the night, modern science is very much a cooperative undertaking and requires, at the very least, steady institutional support. The wealth of St. Louisans supported two large universities — Washington University and St. Louis University — and, later, this wealth supported a number of other area institutions of higher learning, including my own, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which was founded in 1963. 

During the 20th century, the seat of the West’s power shifted from Europe to the United States. Concurrently, the political and economic power concentrated in the city of St. Louis shifted from the old urban core to the new, decentralized, suburbs. Inner St. Louis’ population peaked in 1950 at 857,000. Since then, the core of St. Louis shrank, losing 60 percent of its population. We often forget that this move to the suburbs was typical of cities throughout the Western word. The cores of Paris, Copenhagen, London, Glasgow, and Berlin all lost population. … But while the populations in these old urban and industrial cores have shrunk, their respective metropolitan areas have grown in size and population. In the U.S. today, 75 percent of residents in large metropolitan areas live in the suburbs; in Europe, 65 percent do.

In 2011, the population of greater St. Louis stands at almost 3 million and its economy — which is based largely on manufacturing, wholesale trade, and service — produced an impressive $133 billion worth of goods and services. Greater St. Louis is also home to nine Fortune 500 companies. For the St. Louis area, the postwar decades were a golden age of the suburb and exurb; communities of low-density living, local control and self-reliance. There were, of course, many who mourned the passing of the smokestack city, the power of big city bosses, and the unions, just as an earlier generation once waxed nostalgic about the passing of the frontier, the cowboy and the appeal of a morally simpler era.

The dynamism reflected in this massive postwar transition proved yet again that St. Louis possessed an astonishing capacity for reinvention in the face of new conditions — a hallmark of Western culture since the Age of the Enlightenment. Moreover, these economic, social, political, cultural and environmental changes coincided with, and were influenced by, spectacular advancements in science and technology. The first half of the 20th-century belonged to physics and, in particular, to the study of that basic unit of nature, the atom. The theories of special and general relativity as well as quantum mechanics dazzled St. Louis students and stimulated research in our area universities. In 1920, Arthur Holly Compton, who helped solve the wave-particle problem of light, headed the department of physics at Washington University. By 1942, after having taken a position at the University of Chicago, Compton was playing a key role in applying science to the development of a new kind of weapon, one that would end the war in the Pacific and define the ensuing cold war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

On the practical rather than the theoretical side, there was St. Louis’ Edward J. Mallinckrodt of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. Mallinckrodt had entered into a top secret agreement with the Manhattan Engineering District and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to purify uranium for the making of the atomic bomb.  From 1942 to 1966, Mallinckrodt workers processed the radioactive element, first at a facility in downtown St. Louis and later, after 1957, at the Weldon Spring site in St. Charles County. Needless to say, St. Louis did its part to win the Cold War and reunite the West in 1990.

If the first half of the 20th century belonged to physics, the second half was dominated by biology and the study of that basic unit of life, the cell. The shift from atoms to cells occurred in 1943, in the darkest year of the Second World War.

This is when the physicist and leading theorist of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger, gave a lecture, asking, “What is life?” Schrödinger believed science should be able to explain biology with the same rigor and precision that science explained physics and chemistry. His call for the mathematization of the life sciences was enthusiastically answered. In 1953, just 10 years after Schrödinger’s lecture, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and, with it, the secret of life. This breakthrough started a revolution in the life sciences, the first stage of which may be said to have ended only one decade ago, with the mapping of the entire human genome in 2003.

At the turn of the 21st century, it was the stated goal of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association “to position St. Louis as the international center for plant sciences and a major international center in the life sciences.” California may have Silicon Valley, but it was the destiny of Missouri to become the home of the St. Louis “Biobelt.” Today there are more than 400 plant and life science companies in the St. Louis region, which also boasts having the largest concentration of Ph.D.s in plant science in the world. Moreover, area universities are engaged in the supporting research. There is the Washington University School of Medicine, which includes the Center for Genome Sciences, the Institute of Clinical and Translations Sciences, and the Center for Biological Imaging. There is the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, including the Doisy Research Center. There is the Southern Illinois University-Edwardville’s School of Pharmacy, National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, and the Biotechnology Laboratory Incubator. And there is the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center.

The spirit behind the mission statement of the Donald Danforth Plant Center, founded in 1998, could be said to apply to the entire region’s bioresearch industry.  The mission statement reads: To improve the human condition through plant science. Observe that the mission statement of the Danforth Plant Center is to improve the human condition, not perfect it.

This is no small distinction and one that has a long history, going back to the 18th-century Enlightenment; to the fact that there were two Enlightenments. There was the Anglo Enlightenment (which includes the British and American variations) and there was the Continental, or European, Enlightenment. The Continental Enlightenment thought it was self-evident that human societies could be made perfect. This certainty, utopianism, and arrogance led to the French and later Russian revolutions and, tragically, their subsequent reigns of terror. The Anglo Enlightenment, in contrast, thought it was self-evident that society could be improved, if only gradually; that mankind could form a more perfect union.

At the heart of the Anglo Enlightenment was a negative but powerfully liberating idea, namely, that we are all liable to error. Our culture and our science are based on the humbling but essential truth that neither the human condition nor our knowledge of the world will ever be perfect. What is possible, however, is progress: a series of small improvements — occasionally even big improvements — one after another, unto infinity. Mankind is always striving, but never quite arriving. For St. Louis, this is the meaning of our history and the basis for our optimism.