William A. Beck, Marianist and Biologist

Presented at University of Dayton, Forum on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, January, 2003
by Dr. John A. Heitman.

William Beck was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1883 and was drawn to the life of a religious at an early age.(1) For a time he taught elementary school while taking courses at St. Xavier College in Cincinnati (now Xavier university) and St. Mary's College in Dayton (now the University of Dayton). In 1909 he received his Bachelor's Degree, and enrolled at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland where he received a Licentiate in Science in 1912. By that later date he had already refined ideas on the relationship between science and religion, which were presented in a 1911 article entitled "Whence is Life?"(2) Both a defense of the Church and an explanation of recent scientific advances, particularly in the physical sciences as related to the topic of vitalism, Beck's essay called for fairness when judging the Church and its position with regards to science. Beck asserted that caution and a healthy scepticism were integral to the sciences, for many theories were just that -- theories later proved to be false. Therefore, traditional views were enduring for a reason, and thus demanded an intellectual respect until proven otherwise. Yet, in Beck's opinion, the Catholic Church had been often unfairly criticized not for its anti-scientific views, but precisely because it was exercising a healthy and necessary scientific attitude. For Beck, science was a rigorous intellectual process that ultimately never contradicted faith: "Let scientists prove (mark the word prove) their theories and they will never find the faith contradicting their results -- Truth is simple."(3) Yet in seeking truth, Beck claimed that "Catholics are sometimes accused of being opposed to science whereas we merely make a firm stand against such untried, unsettled theories, and refuse to accept as demonstrated what is, at most, a fair conjecture.... Our real position, if understood, is a perfect readiness to embrace science when we come across it."(4)

Between 1912 and 1924 Brother Beck taught a wide range of science courses at St. Mary's College, where he also found time to design and patent a microscope illuminating device.(5) While never a commercial success, the illuminator was a testimony to Bro. Beck's abilities as an instrument designer. Simple, small, and effective, the device consisted of a silver-coated reflector and refractive prism positioned at precise angles and held in place by metal and Bakelite collar. Light, directed in this way resulted in an observed object whose shadows and interference patterns were minimized. Consequently far more details were now clearly visible, and microphotograph quality was greatly enhanced.

Brother Beck left the promotion of his illuminating device to others, however, for in 1924 he left Dayton, and returned to Fribourg, where he would complete his Ph.D. in 1926 under the direction of the distinguished botanist and plant physiologist Alfred Ursprung. Armed with an enhanced understanding of plant physiology and experimental techniques, he returned to the University of Dayton after completing his doctoral dissertation. Between 1926 and 1935 Beck published a steady stream of papers on plant tissues and osmotic pressure inProtoplasma, and Plant Physiology, and he also presented work at the annual meetings of the International Congress of Plant Sciences held at Cornell in 1926 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Cleveland in 1930. (6) Despite being a middle-aged freshly minted Ph.D. in a religious order that valued teaching far more than research, Beck was emerging with a solid international reputation in the life sciences, while at the same time remaining faithful to his religious vocation.

It remains unclear as to how Archbishop McNicholas and George Sperti learned of Beck, but he had to have impressed them, for he was named as one of the founding faculty of the IDT when in 1935 it was established. Unlike Eldon's Cook's research agenda in the biochemical origins of malignancy, however, Beck's first IDT studies were not so obviously connected with the cancer problem. Beginning with studies of radiation, atmospheric pressure and seed germination, Beck and his students took a simple approach to enhancing a fundamental understanding of cell growth and proliferation.(7) As he would subsequently explain in simple non-scientific language to a radio audience, Beck's work was well within the scope of IDT cancer research efforts, however. Investigating phenomena involving radiation, and the effect of hormones on cells, Beck and his students were at the borderlands separating the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics. And as in the past with his microscope illuminator, Beck's ability to improvise experimental apparatus proved to be significant.

Brother Beck's gift of designing simple but effective experimental apparatus was soon evident to those working with him at the IDT. After seedlings were first grown in the dark, and then exposed to light, pigment concentrations were determined using a Beck-designed photo densitometer that measured the amount of chlorophyll, xanthophyll and carotene. By passing light though a cell containing the pigments in solution, Beck had improved upon a method of famed German scientist Richard Willstatter, and as a result he suggest that there existed a precursor compound to chlorophyll that quickly was converted once exposed to incident light. Beck also fabricated a pressure chamber, in which plants, under various pressures of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and air, were studied in terms of pigment formation. Ultimately this line of work had its goal of examining various growth promoters. Beck labeled these substances as auxins and heteroauxin, and he postulated that they were responsible for the enlargement of epidermal cells. Expansion was measured using optical devices; in this case a microscope first used by Ursprung that detected as little as .01 mm of growth with a precision of .001 mm. Yet this instrument's sensitivity was limiting, and as in the past with the development of his illuminator, Beck improvised and came up with another improved device. In particular, Beck designed an apparatus that measured plant growth on an expanded readout at brief intervals of time. By mounting a small mirror on a watch balance wheel and fastening a minuscule glass bead on the other end, plant growth could be telescopically observed; as the plant grew, the bead was ever so slightly moved, thus causing a deflection in the mirror and hence incident light rays.(8)

Brother Beck's role at the IDT was not confined, merely to the laboratory, however, for in the early days of that institution's history every faculty member seemed to follow the lead of Director George Sperti and mix with a diverse array of public constituents. Accordingly, Beck wrote short essays on learning and science in the local Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Telegraph-Register, addressed the Medievalist Society of Cincinnati on plant growth, and lectured to students and seminarians on science, education, and the limits of scientific knowledge.(9)

For Brother Beck, as for IDT colleague Fr. Cornelius Jansen, the world was the self assembled product of the efforts of an Intelligent Designer. And while Beck could not prove this concept with a rigorous demonstration, he clearly articulated this principle from intuition. In 1940 he would be quoted in a Cincinnati newspaper that

The substance which we call cell protoplasm, and which is the physical basis of life, grows by itself into its own kind, which becomes a part of a living whole. Foreign bodies are broken down physically and chemically, and from the wreck the living protoplasm selects the useful parts and rejects the useless parts. Protoplasm works as though it were endowed with intelligence to achieve a given and predetermined end, namely to produce a chick, frog, or a tree.(10)

Beck's thinking went far deeper, however, than his talks to the public suggest. A number of sources, including course syllabi, lecture notes, and retreat notes, provide a sense of Beck's ideas related to science, religion, and the relation between the two. Without over generalizing, one may conclude that Beck, while an original thinker in his own right, drew on a number of Catholic intellectuals of his day, including Alexis Carrel, Lecomte du Noüy, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.(11)

As a young physician, Carrel had been a sceptic of the Church and of its claims of miracles, until he had reason to go to Lourdes and investigate the supernatural healings that had taken place there. His experience with the miracles at Lourdes led him down the path of mysticism and a belief in Christ, who through the Holy Spirit, worked miracles in the present. According to Carrel, while miracles were an anathema to the rational scientists and philosopher and not an everyday experience, they did happen, if one was to believe a series of carefully documented studies.

Carrel, however, was not simply a contemplative physician, for his work on vascular surgery had won him worldwide fame, a Nobel Prize in 1912, and an appointment to the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, where he later collaborated with aviator Charles Lindbergh in the design of an artificial heart. Never one to be content with medical practice, since his student days Carrel had been interested in the humanities, religion, philosophy, and the social sciences -- indeed, what he later would coin as the "science of man." Thus it was natural for Carrel to comment on the happenings at Lourdes and subsequent studies conducted by medical and scientific experts in his immensely popular, and to a degree controversial book published in 1935, Man, The Unknown. Containing a charged commentary on everything from the relationship between sexual activity and creativity to the mind-body relationship and the paranormal, Carrel's work sparked new interest in the life sciences and its future possibilities. William Beck lectured from these pages for years to come, directly borrowing Carrell's analysis of miracles:

The organic phenomena are observed in various circumstances, among them being he state of prayer...[a] mystical elevation, an absorption of consciousness in the contemplation of a principle, both permeating and transcending our world. Such a physiological state is not intellectual. It is incomprehensible to philosophers and scientists and inaccessible to them....The prayer which is followed by organic effects is of a special nature. First it is disinterested. Man offers himself to God. He stands before Him, like the canvas before the painter, or the marble before the sculptor, at the same time he asks for grace, exposes his needs and those of his brothers in suffering....Such a type of prayer demands a complete renunciation, that is a higher form of asceticism. The modest, the ignorant, and the poor are more capable of this self denial, than the rich and intellectual.(12)

Like Carrel, Beck was a scientist with a mystical bent who maintained that the limits of rational science could be transcended by intuition, mediation, otherworldliness, and prayer. Nature could only be partly explained by mechanics, as Beck explained that "my mind is not satisfied with this alone but desires to know the why as well. The Science that has yielded so much knowledge has not exhausted all reality. And my mind seeks to go beyond this.... The final proof lies beyond the domain of what is defined as the limit of the domain of science."(13) Beck, like many other scientists and theologians of his day and now, simply wanted to know more, and this demanded a kind of unusual spiritual discipline to follow a path prescribed by the light.

The scientist too must use the God-given light while investigating and contemplating nature. He can see only as far as the nature of light will permit him to see. It is dangerous to "overdrive" one's lights... The "Beam in Darkness" will lead him to "Wisdom."(14)

Light, illumination, divine revelation, grace -- all these were words used to describe a way of seeing nature that transcended the material world, and that enabled the practitioner to know God better through observations of nature. Brother Beck drew on the admonitions of St. Bonaventure, who cautioned in Mystical Opisculum "Let no one believe that it is enough to read without unction to speculate without devotion, to investigate without wonder, to observe without joy, to act without Godly zeal, to know without love, to understand without humility, to strive without divine grace, or to reflect as does a mirror without divinely inspired wisdom."(15)

Thus, Beck refused to recognize that an inherent conflict existed between science and religion existed. Indeed, these two ways of knowing complemented each other. And in his opinion, a working relationship between the two was critical to the survival of Western Civilization. In his lecture notes Beck wrote " If we were forced to choose between religion without science and science without religion, we would be faced with a dilemma of choice between two evils....man is never satiated by the knowledge of the physical sciences, but is constantly urged by a 'divine discontent' to press forward and solve more problems and penetrate more deeply into mysteries, whether they be of a material or spiritual nature,..."(16) Beck went on

A close union of science and theology must be developed. Unity (which is obviously lacking in our time) of Theology and Science is of great importance to save our Civilization. We are saddled with ideals that did not work and which have little or no significance.... [Science] must become an instrument of moral purpose which brings the world into relationship with spiritual values. Religious scientists sought knowledge for the glory of God and blessings for humanity. Nature is not a slave to be mastered; it is God's gift which must lead man to God, his beginning and must be his end....Nature without God makes no sense at all.(17)

And how would Brother Beck draw on science to influence religious practice? Retreat notes suggest that Beck applied the same discipline that he followed in the laboratory to his meditations. In articulating his way to perfection, to a purity in Jesus, Beck listed the following:

1. I will simplify my intellectual processes.

2. I will assure correct conclusions in my judgment of things.

3. I will produce a reflective spirit....

4. I will direct into favorable channels the operation of my imagination.

5. I will discipline my passions.

6. I will produce surveillance of the senses.

7. I will regulate my use of creatures.

8. It will urge me to be detached from all things and be dependent on the Goodness of God alone which is the Little Flowers "Little Way."(18)

In a very real way, Beck was attempting to exercise a control over his senses during meditation in a way not unlike the practices of a good experimentalist who was aware of one's critical observational limitations that was inherent to the apparatus and the system under study. Simplification, discipline, detachment, and the desire to carefully and rationally exercise judgment could be applied to matters both spiritual and material. Therefore there existed only one universe where God and nature were in harmony and unity.

This unity was extended to a fervent belief that moral progress must match material progress if our civilization is to survive, a concept that Beck introduced in his Biology courses that he taught at both the University of Dayton and in Puerto Rico once he left the IDT in 1946. In his upper level offerings he drew from another French scientist who was a collaborator of Carrel at the Rockefeller Institute, Pierre Lecomte du Noüy..(19) Born in 1883 in Paris, du Noüy met Carrel in 1915 while both were serving in the French Army, and subsequently developed a mathematical expression for wound healing that defined biological rather than chronological time. As an associate at the Rockefeller Institute between 1920 and 1927, du Noüy studied various properties of blood as it related to immunity, and designed numerous experimental apparatus, most notably the surface tension balance. In 1927 he returned to Paris, where he worked at the Pasteur Institute until escaping occupied France in 1942. The author of several important works on the philosophy of science, including Le Temps et la VieL'Homme devant la Science, and L'Avenir de L'Espirit, his Human Destiny was published in 1947 and assigned as required reading in Beck's classes.

Du Noüy's arguments in Human Destiny are at times dense; along with an ample amount of patience, a reading of this work demands facility in both science and philosophy, although the author's conclusions tend to be straightforward. Du Noüy places strict limitations on science, arguing that "we must not blindly believe in its actual almightiness."(20) Spiritual and moral development must follow, du Noüy argues, if mankind and civilization is to progress beyond the morass of the Second World War and its aftermath. Du Noüy asserted that

The extraordinary strides made in the conquest of nature will not bring to man the happiness he has a right to expect, unless there is a corresponding moral development. This development can only be based, in our actual society, on a unification, a reconciliation of the rational -- science -- with the irrational -- faith; of the ponderable with the imponderable; on the explanation of the relation between matter and spirit; on the distinction between the role of the animal, prisoner of his instincts, and that of the free man, in natural evolution. That is what we have attempted to do by showing that the future of this evolution is in our hands and identifies itself with the future of the spirit.(21)

Teaching vigorously in the classroom past eighty, Brother Beck assigned Man the UnknownHuman Destiny, and The Divine Millieu as required reading in his Biology and Science and Religion courses until his death in 1967. And clearly Beck's thoughts about the relationship between science and religion changed with the times. While Carrel had been so popular during the 1930s, du Noüy during the 1940s, Chardin was the source of much of Beck's contemplations during the 1960s, as evidenced by a loose scrap paper inscribed "Hymn of the Universe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin" found in his retreat notes.

Although Chardin's works were only widely disseminated after this death in 1955, one wonders to what degree were Chardin's ideas discussed within Catholic intellectual circles in the U.S. before publication dates.(22) Secondly, as William Beck's materials suggest, how much of Chardin's ideas were far more "in the air" amongst his (and Beck's) generation of scientists. Beck routinely assigned The Divine Millieu to students in Puerto Rico and Dayton during the last decade of his life. In it, Chardin emphasized the presence of Christ in all things, and that evolution was a divine process; indeed, Christ and His ascendency marked the very end of evolution. For Chardin, and for Beck, one was to love God in all things, and to work in but be detached from the world at the same time. As Chardin exclaimed "We must try everything for Christ; we must hope everything for Christ."(23) The Universe possessed an inherent divinity as Christ was present in all creatures and creation, with evolution and worldly events speeding towards an upward finality. Therefore, in his classroom teaching, Beck had no inherent difficulties rationalizing the theory of evolution with his deep and mystical faith. In a set of notes on evolution that he used in class, he concluded:

God operates through the laws of nature, which He has established and which hold sway through the universe from the microscopic forms to the mighty galaxies. God has said "I am the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega." Thus we can view nature as a grand cosmic book describing the power and majesty of God bearing the title page of Genesis: " In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth...And God created man to His own image, the image of God He created him: male and female He created them."(24)

While his research productivity undoubtedly peaked while he was on the IDT faculty, several forces served to deflect Beck's rather strongly focused agenda with strands of continuity going back to the 1920s. Beginning in 1940, Beck relocated his work down to Bradley Hall in Palm Beach, Florida, where he shifted from botany to marine biology was he began to investigate sea urchins and their eggs. These minute organisms were thought to be ideal subjects to continue studies on the mechanisms by which external factors influence cell growth and proliferation. But this effort was hardly underway when World War II further shifted Beck's work to studies of algae yielding agar-agar, native Florida fauna as sources for rubber, and a National Research Council sponsored survey of anti-malarial drugs.(25) Beck, along with other IDT staff and of course Director George Sperti, were featured in an early 1946 released Popular Science theater short in which staff were shown "in exploration and experimentation in ancient Indian medical lore...into the Everglades."(26) Approximately 1300 tropical plants -- their roots, stems, leaves, bark, flowers, and berries -- were tested as possible therapeutic agents before the war brought this work in tropical to an end.

With the end of the war IDT research would continue, but without the services of Brother Beck, who at 63 was no longer the vigorous scientist of earlier days. In 1947 he returned to Dayton where he would head the Biology Department and cultivate both the exotic and commonplace plants in conspicuous places on campus. In 1955 he relocated to the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where he would teach interdisciplinary studies in science and religion. Finally returning to the East Dayton Mt. St. John Campus of the University of Dayton in 1964, Beck remained quiet, devout, and in love with his plants, One wonders what Beck could have achieved had his order been more supportive to those who wished to pursue intellectual work, and had war not intervened during his last chance to make a mark in the scientific community. Yet for Beck, worldly success probably did not matter that much. In 1952 he began a retreat reflection by writing his fundamental thought as "To be a saint is to love Jesus Christ," and certainly other statements consistently echo a desire to go well beyond the things of the material world.

1. On Beck, see William A. Beck, "Cane Sugar and Potassium Nitrate as Plasmolysing Agents," Dissertation, University of Fribourg, 1926; "Requiem Held in Dayton for Marianist Educator," Dayton-Miami Valley Catholic-Telegraph, February 24, 1967, B-4; UD Alumnus, June, 1967, n.p.; "List of Publications," in Personal Records File, Marianist Archives, University of Dayton.

2. William A. Beck, "Whence is Life," The Apostle of Mary, VII(December 1911), 296-316.

3. Ibid., p.298.

4. Ibid., p.303.

5. William A. Beck, "An Illuminating Device for Microscopes," Transactions of the American Microscopical Society, 42(April, 1923), 108-122. See also William A. Beck, An Illuminating Device for Microscopes (Dayton, OH, 1923); Superior Microscope Illuminator Co.,An Illumination Device for Microscopes Producing Annular, Cross Fire, and Indirect Illumination (Dayton, OH?: n.d.); John J, Gerlach, " A New Dark Field Microscope Illuminator For Opaque Objects, Producing Annular, Cross Fire, an Indirect Illumination," Review of Scientific Instruments, 2(July, 1931), 412-415. Patent documents related to the illuminator are in the Beck Papers, Marianist Archives, University of Dayton and include: U.S. Patent 1,427,714; British Patent 194, 996, March 22, 1923; German Patent, 390,955, July 18, 1922; French Patent 568,116, July 18, 1922.

6. Between 1926 and 1935 Bro. Beck's publications included: "Cane Sugar and Potassium Nitrate as Plasmolysing Agents," Protoplasma, I(1926), 15-73; "Osmotic Pressure, Osmotic Value, and Suction Tension," Plant Physiology, III(1928), 413-440; Translation of Alfred Ursprung, "The Osmotic Quantities of the Plant Cell," Proceedings of the International Congress of Plant Sciences, II(1929), 1081-1094; "Determining the Osmotic Value at Incipient Plasmolysis," Transactions of the American Microscopical Society, XLVIII(April, 1929), 204-208; "The Effect of Drought on the Osmotic Value of Plant Tissues," Protoplasma, VIII(1929), 70-126; "Variations in the Og of Plant Tissues," Plant Physiology, VI(1931), 315-323; Translation of Alfred Ursprung, "Osmotic Quantities of Plant Cells in Given Phases,"Plant Physiology, X(1935), 115-133; "The Effect of Light on the Og of Plant Tissues," Protoplasma, XXIII(1935), 203-210.

7. See William A. Beck, "The Chloroplastinsymplex and the Formation of Chlorophyll," Protoplasma, XXVII(1937), 530-534; "A Practical Device for the Rapid Quantitative Determination of Plant Pigments," Science, 85(April 9, 1937), 368; "Pigments Formed in Etiolated Sunflower Seedlings," Protoplasma, XXVIII(1937), 273-283; "Development of Carotenoid Pigments Without the Aid of Light," Plant Physiology, 12(1937), 885-886; "The Development of Plant Pigments in Seedlings Grown in the Dark," Studies of the Institutm Divi Thomae,[Hereafter referred to as IDT Studies] I(1937), 109-116; "The Effect of the Atmosphere on the Development on the Development of Plant Pigments,"IDT Studies, I(1937), 217-244; with Rev. R. Redman and Sister Petronella Schroeder, C.PP.S., "The Relation Between the Development of Chlorophyll and Time of Exposure to Light, IDT Studies, I(1937), 245- 251; "The Effect of Sun and Shade on Pigment Development," Plant Physiology, 13(), ; with K. Schocken, "Cell Enlargement in the Hypocotyl of Helianthus Annus," IDT Studies,II(1939), 107- 112; with Sr. M. Winifred, R.S.M., "The Critical Point of Cell Enlargement in the Hypoctyl of Helianthus," IDT Studies, II(1939), 179-188; .

8. "Organisms and Growth," Transcript of Radio Talk over WLW, January 20, 1940, Box 581, B 38, Monographs on Botany, William A. Beck, Set II, Folders 1-12, Society of Mary Archives, Province of Cincinnati.

9. William A. Beck, "What Does the Scientist Know," Semscript (St. Gregory Seminary, Cincinnati), III(November, 1935), 1, 4-5; "Science and Education," speech delivered to Preble County Schoolmasters, March 21, 1937; "The Patroness of Learning," Catholic Telegraph-Register, December 17, 1937, 11 and December 24, 1937; "Faith in Christ is Reasonable," Catholic Telegraph-Register, January 29, 1938.

10. "Plant Mysteries Revealed," Cincinnati Times-Star, January 9, 1940, Sperti Scrapbook, Reel 4.

11. On Carrel, see Robert Soupault, Alexis Carrel (Paris, 1952); W. Sterling Edwards and Peter D. Edwards, Alexis Carrel, Visionary Surgeon (Charles Thomas, 1974); Theodore I. Malinin, Surgery and Life: The Extraordinary Career of Alexis Carrel ( New York, 1979).

12. "Notes" -- Miracle II.

13. "Notes" -- Axioms, Christianity and Science

14. "Notes" -- A Beam in Darkness.

15. "Notes" -- Seeking God by the Contemplation of Nature.

16. "Notes" -- Science.

17. Ibid.

18. William A Beck Papers, Marianist Archives, University of Dayton, Box Beck, William. Personal Effects. Personal Records. File, :Spiritual Retreat Notes, "Retreat of 1952 at Marcy. August 23-Sept. 1."

19. On du Noüy, see the biographical sketch in Lecomte du Noüy, Human Destiny (New York, 1947), pp. 275-277.

20. Ibid., p.39.

21. Ibid., p.256.

22. Books by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin include The Phenomenon of Man (New York, 1959); The Divine Milieu (New York, 1960); The Future of Man (New York, 1964); Hymn of the Universe (New York, 1965); The Appearance of Man (New York, 1965); Man's Place in Nature (New York, 1966); The Vision of the Past (New York, 1966). On Chardin, see Charlie May Simon, Faith Has Need Of All the Truth: A Life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (New York, 1974).

23. The Divine Milieu, p.138.

24. "Notes" -- Evolution IV.

25. Beck's obituaries include UD Alumnus, June 1967; "Requiem Held in Dayton for Marianist Educator," Catholic-Telegraph, February 24, 1967, B-4.

26. Sperti News, 3(January 1946), 4-5.