Duke Engineering History

From its beginnings more than 75 years ago, Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering has grown into one of the fastest-rising in the nation.

  • The Pratt School of Engineering traces its history back to 1851 when Normal College, a forerunner of Duke University, advertised a Classical course which included engineering for seniors. Normal College became Trinity College in 1859, and engineering was introduced in 1887. The first student to graduate with an engineering degree was C.E.D. Egerton in 1903. When Trinity became Duke University in 1924, engineering underwent vigorous development. In 1927, engineering was organized into separate departments of civil and electrical engineering. The Department of Mechanical Engineering started in 1931. Growth in engineering at Duke in the 1930s closely paralleled the larger departments in arts and sciences. In 1930, there were four faculty members; and in 1938, there were nine. By 1930, 101 students were studying engineering. When Duke established the Division of Engineering in 1937, there were 167 students.

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  • Following a study that concluded further advancement of engineering was justified, Duke’s Board of Trustees authorized the formation of the College of Engineering in 1939. William H. Hall, who joined the Trinity faculty in 1915 to teach civil engineering, was named the first dean of the new college. With engineering alumni active and organized from 1937 onward and with a student body that had grown to 201 in 1939, the college was on its way. Students in each department competed to show off the latest technological marvels, such as the electrical engineers’ display of a newfangled telephone-television booth. By 1937, engineering at Duke had 30,000 square feet of space on East Campus, six times what it had a decade earlier. Engineers were the only men living on East Campus until they moved westward after World War II to join the students of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

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  • Engineering at Duke grew quickly during World War II in response to a national shortage of engineers. The first women graduated from the College of Engineering in 1946, and all three engineering departments moved to West Campus in 1947 to a new building that became known as “Old Red” (now named Hudson Hall). In 1951, the university created the Research and Development Program for Engineering, which eventually led to a graduate program and was the foundation for what would become a major national engineering research effort. The R&D program was led by Walter J. Seeley, who came to Duke in 1925 to teach electrical engineering. He became dean in 1953.

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  • The doctor of philosophy degree was offered in electrical engineering in 1960, followed by a Ph.D. in civil engineering four years later. James L. Meriam, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, was appointed dean in 1963. The college was named the School of Engineering in 1966 and the school’s first black students graduated two years later. The Division of Biomedical Engineering was established in 1967 and in 1971 it became a department–the first ever at a United States university. George Pearsall was named dean in 1969 and three years later the Engineering Annex to Hudson Hall opened. In 1974, Aleksander S. Vesic, who joined Duke as a professor of civil engineering 10 years earlier, was appointed dean. After Vesic died in 1982, Pearsall stepped in as interim dean until Earl H. Dowell moved to Duke from Princeton to become dean in 1983.

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  • The Nello Teer Library Building opened in 1984. Three years later, the Center for Emerging Cardiovascular Technology at Duke becomes the first National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (ERC) focused on biomedical research. In 1992, the Hudson Center for Engineering Education opened, followed in 1994 by the Levine Science Research Center, which provided additional space for growing school. In 1997, the Master of Engineering Management Program was established. Kristina M. Johnson joined Duke as engineering dean in 1999. Later that year the school was named for 1947 electrical engineering graduate and philanthropist Edmund T. Pratt Jr., who endowed the school with $35 million. It was at the time the second-largest gift in the university’s history, surpassed only by the original gift from James B. Duke to transform Trinity College into Duke University.

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  • The Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communications Systems was established in 2000. Teaching and research space doubled with the 2004 opening of the 322,000-square-foot Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (FCIEMAS). Duke celebrated the 75th anniversary of its engineering school in 2014-2015.

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  • In recent years the school has dramatically grown its external research funding and major nationally-awarded research centers, its faculty size and prominence, and its student body and selectivity, making Pratt one of the fastest-rising engineering schools in the country in terms of national rankings.

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  • 1887

    Courses in civil and mining engineering are first offered at Trinity College, which would later become Duke University.

  • 1924


    In the Indenture of Trust establishing Duke University, James B. Duke names an engineering school as one of the components he wished to eventually be included in the new university.

  • 1927

    Civil Engineering (CE) and Electrical Engineering (EE) departments are established at Duke University. Classrooms and labs are located in the Asbury and Bivins building on East Campus, and engineering students live in Southgate Hall (a.k.a “The Shack”).

  • 1928

    Duke instates a Bachelor of Science degree for engineers. It requires 138 semester hours (compared to 126 for the BA degree).

  • 1930s

    Annual “Engineers’ Show” becomes a popular event at Duke and in the Durham community. Featuring student-organized displays of technological marvels such as television, manmade lighting, a working model of a water filtration plant and a Mystifier revealing people’s exact height and weight. It attracts thousands of visitors a year over the next few decades.

  • 1931

    Mechanical Engineering (ME) department is established.

  • 1937

    Departments of CE, EE, and ME are administratively grouped to form the Division of Engineering.

A College Is Born

  • 1939

    Duke University trustees authorize the creation of a College of Engineering. It becomes the third undergraduate college at the young university, joining Trinity College and the Woman’s College. William H. Hall becomes the first dean of engineering. Five new engineering professors come on board, nearly doubling the size of the faculty to a total of 12.

  • 1940

    Engineering Student Government Society publishes the first issue of Duke Engineer (renamed DukEngineer in 1941). The mimeographed magazine was dedicated to the happenings in Duke’s engineering departments, alumni news and student society activities. DukEngineer is student-run and published yearly to this day.

  • 1943

    The College of Engineering holds its first commencement exercises early, on April 12, sending its first group of graduates “into a variety of wartime services.”

The Postwar Years

  • 1946

    The first women graduate from the College of Engineering: Muriel Theodorsen Williams (EE) and Marie Foote Reel (EE).

  • 1947

    Engineers’ Wives Club is founded to provide social and volunteer opportunities for spouses of engineering undergraduates. Male engineering students are relocated to West Campus.

  • 1948

    College of Engineering moves to West Campus and begins classes in the new Engineering Building (“Old Red”), now called Hudson Hall.

  • 1951

    Duke creates a Research & Development Program for Engineering, setting the stage for a graduate program.

  • 1953

    Walter J. Seeley becomes dean.

  • 1957

    The College of Engineering begins offering work leading to the Master of Science degree in all three fields. They are the first MS degrees offered at Duke.

The Changing ’60s and ’70s

  • 1960

    Doctor of Philosophy degree first offered in Electrical Engineering. Duke is the first private institution in the Southeast to offer such a program.

  • 1963

    James L. Meriam becomes dean.

  • 1963

    Gene Kendall becomes the first black undergraduate engineering student and one of the first five undergraduates to integrate Duke.

  • 1964

    Doctor of Philosophy first offered in Civil Engineering.

  • 1966

    Duke renames the College of Engineering as the School of Engineering “in recognition of its professional status and of the stature that it had achieved in its programs of graduate study and research.”

  • 1967

    Division of Biomedical Engineering (BME) is founded by Duke’s Engineering and Medical Schools “to train people for a new profession which requires more knowledge about medicine than is possessed by the average engineer and more knowledge in engineering than is possessed by the average doctor,” according to the Durham Herald-Sun.

  • 1968

    First black engineers graduate from the School of Engineering: Kenneth Spaulding Chestnut (CE), Charles Hall (EE) and Alfred J. Hooks (ME).

  • 1969

    George W. Pearsall becomes dean. He serves in the position twice, from 1969-74 and again from 1982-83. BSCE, BSEE and BSME degrees changed to BSE degrees.

  • 1971

    Biomedical Engineering division becomes a department. The following year, Duke becomes the first to have an accredited undergraduate major in BME.

  • 1972

    Engineering Annex Building opens at the rear of the 1948 Engineering Building.

  • 1974

    Aleksandar S. Vesic becomes dean. Department of Mechanical Engineering becomes the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS).

  • 1976

    Fredrick “Fritz” Thurstone, one of the founders of Duke’s biomedical engineering department, and graduate student Olaf von Ramm lay the foundation for the phased-array imaging system that revolutionizes cardiac imaging and paves the way for real-time ultrasound imaging in clinical practice.

  • 1978

    Egg Drop

A Foundation for the 21st Century

  • 1982

    Department of Civil Engineering becomes the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE).

  • 1983

    Earl H. Dowell becomes dean.

  • 1984

    The Nello L. Teer Library Building opens. The $1.5 million gift from the Teer family toward the $4.35 million facility was the largest single gift from a Durham family since James B. Duke founded the University in 1924.

  • 1984

    Thomas Lord gives $40 million to create the Lord Foundation of North Carolina at Duke Engineering to promote cross-disciplinary research, support excellence in teaching and foster hands-on project experiences for students, both in and out of the classroom.

  • 1985

    Henry Petroski (CEE) publishes “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design,” the first of nearly 20 popular and critically acclaimed books that make his reputation as “America’s poet laureate of technology.”

  • 1987

    CEE department establishes an architectural engineering certificate program for undergraduates. Duke’s Center for Emerging Cardiovascular Technology becomes the first National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center (ERC) focused on biomedical engineering research. Olaf von Ramm and Stephen Smith (BME) invent the first real-time 3-D ultrasonic scanner (4-D). It is now used worldwide in multiple specialties.

  • 1989

    Duke Engineering launches its National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, offering summer experiences in engineering to students from across the United States. In 2002, an innovative REU for increasing diversity is created to enhance opportunities for underrepresented minorities, women, and students with disabilities. Duke Engineering’s REU program has been used by the NSF as a model for others in the years since.

  • 1990

    Earl Dowell, Kenneth Hall and a MEMS team demonstrate an innovative method of modeling complex, time-varying fluid flows much more efficiently and compactly than previous methods, opening up new possibilities for understanding and controlling such flows. Their insights are widely used in current airframe and turbine designs for power plants, airplanes and windmills. Ray Ideker with Patrick Wolf and William Smith (BME) optimize biphasic waveforms for defibrillation of the heart.

  • 1991

    Duke engineering distinguished alumnus and adjunct professor Blake Wilson develops the continuous interleaved sampling (CIS) processing strategy for cochlear implants, dramatically improving how implanted patients perceieve speech. BME’s Howard Clark and Duke cardiologist Richard Stack patent the first bio-absorbable stent.

  • 1992

    Duke’s original engineering building (“Old Red”) is named Hudson Hall to honor Fitzgerald S. “Jerry” Hudson E’46, the first engineering graduate to be named chair of the Duke University Board of Trustees.

  • 1994

    Levine Science Research Center opens, providing new space for the growing engineering school and other Duke research programs.

  • 1995

    The Department of Electrical Engineering becomes the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

  • 1996

    Adrian Bejan (MEMS) postulates the constructal law of design and evolution in nature. David Needham (MEMS), working with radiation oncologist Mark Dewhirst, invents a new cancer treatment using heat-sensitive liposomes.

  • 1997

    Master of Engineering Management program established. It grows from an initial 12 students to nearly 300 by 2014.

  • 1998

    Biomedical engineer Wanda Krassowska Neu becomes the first female faculty member to receive tenure in the School of Engineering.

  • 1999

    Kristina M. Johnson becomes the first female dean of engineering at Duke.

  • 1999

    Duke’s engineering school is named the Edmund T. Pratt Jr. School of Engineering in honor of Edmund T. Pratt Jr. E’47, who gave Duke University $35 million to endow the school.

  • 1999

    Duke anesthesiologist and biomedical engineer Laura Niklason creates a novel “bioreactor” system and uses it to grow blood vessels that look and act like the real thing. The discovery ultimately leads to the first U.S. implantation of a bioengineered blood vessel, performed at Duke University Medical Center in 2013. Ashutosh Chilkoti (BME) develops the first elastin-like polypeptide fusion that provides a new method to purify proteins without chromatography – opening a new path to developing drugs with greater potency and fewer side effects.

A New Era for Research

  • 2000

    A center for the study of advanced photonics (now known as the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics) is established with a $25 million gift by Michael J. Fitzpatrick T’70 and Patty Wyngaarden Fitzpatrick W’69.

  • 2002

    Pratt Undergraduate Fellows Program is launched, providing opportunities for students to engage in intensive 18-month research experiences with engineering faculty mentors. Gregg Trahey and Kathryn Nightingale (BME) demonstrate a device that uses ultrasound to image and measure stiffness of breast tissue and, eventually, other tissues. The advance allows clinicians to detect and diagnose ailments such as liver scarring and prostate cancer without having to make a single incision in the patient.

  • 2003

    Joseph Izatt’s BME research group demonstrates more than 100-fold improvement in the sensitivity of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) biomedical imaging technology, which he helped develop for imaging delicate structures of the eye while at MIT. Lawrence Carin, Lesie Collins and other Duke electrical and computer engineering researchers develop new data-processing techniques for detecting hidden landmines and other explosive devices. The techniques are now in use by the U.S. military. Miguel Nicolelis, Craig Henriquez and team members at the Duke Center for Neuro-engineering demonstrate that a monkey can control a robotic arm using thought alone, a major breakthrough in the field of brain-machine interfaces.

  • 2004

    The 322,000-square-foot Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences opens. Duke’s Board of Trustees approves naming the facility the Fitzpatrick Center (FCIEMAS) in honor of Michael and Patty Fitzpatrick, who made another major commitment bringing their philanthropic support of engineering education and research to more than $50 million.

  • 2004

    Engineering World Health, co-founded by Robert Malkin in 2001, moves its headquarters to Duke. A global organization that empowers students and professionals to use biomedical engineering skills to improve health care delivery in developing nations, EWH today has chapters at 30 engineering schools in six countries.

  • 2005

    The Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership is founded with support from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to promote the development of new technologies to improve patient care. Pratt establishes the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) – a six-sided, full immersion virtual reality theater. DiVE is the only such facility in the Southeast, and one of just seven in the world. Pratt begins a four-year expansion of its undergraduate class – adding 50 students each fall to raise total enrollment to more than 1,200 by 2009. Pratt collaborates with Effat University to found a School of Engineering for Women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

  • 2006

    David Smith (ECE) and Sir John Pendry of Imperial College, London, introduce the concept of “transformation optics” as a means of designing invisibility cloaks and other exotic optical structures. With support from the Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership, BME’s Nimmi Ramanujam brings to market a novel instrument that uses light waves to detect cancer and assess treatment effectiveness in real time.

  • 2007

    Robert L. Clark becomes dean.

  • 2007

    The 11,400-square-foot Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) opens, providing Duke and the Research Triangle region with a state-of-the-art cleanroom facility and other resources for research.

  • 2007

    The Home Depot Smart Home at Duke opens. The 6,000-square-foot dorm, home to 10 undergraduate students a year, is a live-in research laboratory focused around a theme of sustainable living. In 2008 it becomes the first LEED Platinum-certified residence hall in the world.

  • 2008

    Thomas C. Katsouleas becomes dean.

  • 2008

    The DUhatch student business incubator opens in the Teer Building. Pratt is chosen to lead a $14.4-million federal project to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles, Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT). The National Science Foundation renews the grant for $15 million in 2013. Duke launches the Center for Metamaterials and Integrated Plasmonics, which in 2009 successfully competes for a $6.25-million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the Army Research Office. Lingchong You and BME colleagues engineer a synthetic predator-prey ecosystem using gene circuits. It is considered one of the most influential studies in the new field of synthetic biology.

  • 2009

    Duke takes a national leadership role in preparing engineers to meet the National Academy of Engineering’s new “Grand Challenges for Engineering.” Led by Dean Tom Katsouleas as chair of the NAE’s Advisory Committee on Grand Challenges, Pratt hosts the first national Summit on the Grand Challenges along with University of Southern California and Olin College and starts the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program, now in development at more than 50 U.S. engineering schools. Pratt partners with the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, and the University of Liege in Belgium to offer a new international master’s program in turbomachinery aeromechanics dubbed THRUST. Pratt launches its first online-based degree program, the Distributed Master of Engineering Management Program.

  • 2010

    Duke Board of Trustees approves the Master of Engineering (MEng) degree program, which accepts its first students in the fall. Pratt partners with NC State University’s College of Engineering to create the Grand Challenge K-12 Partners Program, designed to stimulate young students’ interest in science and technology. Duke engineers are selected to lead two major federally-funded research programs: MOSAIC (Maximally scalable Optical Senor Array Imaging with Computation), funded by a $24.8 million award from the Department of Defense, and MUSIQC (Modular Universal Scalable Ion-trap Quantum Computer), funded with $15 million from the Army Research Office. Mark Wiesner and researchers in CEINT demonstrate that nanomaterials accumulate in living organisms and can becomes more concentrated the further up the food chain they go, revealing the potential impacts nanotechnology could have on the environment.

  • 2011

    The $20-million Duke Coulter Translational Partnership is founded with support from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to promote the development of new technologies to improve patient care. The Triangle Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) is established at Duke with a six-year, $13.6-million NSF grant.

  • 2012

    Jeffrey N. Vinik E’81 and Penny Vinik establish the $10-million Vinik Faculty Challenge Fund to support recruitment and retention of faculty who focus on complex societal challenges such as engineering and related areas in energy, global health, brain sciences and the environment. In recognition of this and their previous generous gifts to the school, including $5 million in 1999 to help the school expand its facilities, Pratt’s deanship is named in honor of the Viniks. Engineering graduate students launch PhD Plus—one of the country’s first programs to offer entrepreneurship and professional development training tailored for PhD students. Pratt students working with BME’s Bob Malkin invent the Pratt Pouch, a ketchup-packet-like device to improve storage and delievery of medication to prevent HIV transmission in low-resource areas. David Brady (ECE) leads development of the world’s first gigapixel camera, which can capture images with unprecedented detail.

  • 2013

    Duke is awarded two highly competitive Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grants from the Department of Defense: $8.6 million for the Center for Materials Genomics and $7.5 million for a project in acoustic metamaterials. Duke Engineering and seven partner schools establish the Vest Scholarship Program—endorsed by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering—to spur international collaborations focused on the Grand Challenges for Engineering. The first-of-its-kind Global Women’s Health Technologies Center is founded as a partnership between Duke Engineering and Duke Global Health Institute. Duke creates a new undergraduate major in environmental engineering and a new minor in energy engineering.

  • 2014-2015

    Duke celebrates the 75th anniversary of its engineering school.

Building for the Future

  • 2015

    George A. Truskey becomes interim dean.

  • 2015

    Duke Engineering spearheads a national initiative to train more engineers to meet societal Grand Challenges. In a letter presented by Dean Tom Katsouleas and partners to President Barack Obama, more than a quarter of U.S. engineering schools pledge to establish educational programs modeled after the Grand Challenge Scholars Program at their institutions, with the goal of graduating more than 20,000 specially trained “Grand Challenge Engineers” by 2025. The Pratt School of Engineering and School of Medicine launch Duke MEDx, a new joint initiative to foster collaboration and innovation between medicine and engineering faculty and students.

  • 2016

    Ravi V. Bellamkonda becomes dean.

  • 2016

    Duke Engineering is selected to receive a $31.9 million award from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to advance quantum computing. The new multi-institution project is dubbed EURIQA (Error-corrected Universal Reconfigurable Ion-trap Quantum Archetype).

  • 2017

    The Duke Engineering Design Pod opens to house the school’s new First-Year Design course.

  • 2018

    Duke receives a $15 million NSF grant to lead STAQ, a seven-university consortium focused on building the first practical quantum computer. Students in the Duke Electric Vehicles club break a Guinness World Record for the most fuel-efficient vehicle in history.

  • 2019

    A four-decade-long relationship between the LORD Foundation and Duke’s engineering school leads to a $261 million distribution to support science and technology education and research at the Pratt School of Engineering as well as financial aid for Duke undergraduate students. It is the largest single outside contribution to Duke’s endowment since the founding of the university in 1924.

  • 2020

    The 150,000-square-foot Wilkinson Building opens in November 2020, with first classes held in January 2021. The building is named in honor of longtime supporters Jerry C. (E’67) and Beverly A. Wilkinson and their family.

  • 2021

    Jeffrey T. Glass becomes interim dean.

  • 2022

    Jerome P. Lynch becomes Vinik Dean of Engineering.