A Look Back: Engineers Helped Rebuild after 1st World War

University Library of Leuven, whose bell tower and carillion are dedicated to the American engineers who lost their lives during World War I.

One hundred years ago, the United States entered World War I. This war, sometimes known as the Chemist's War because of the use of chemical weapons, was undoubtedly a time of incredible destructive and violence, yet the time following the war brought with it many stories of international cooperation during the rebuilding of Europe. One particular instance at the University of Leuven in Belgium shows how American chemical engineers and others did their part to help revitalize an important center of engineering education in Europe.

Centuries-old center of learning

One of Europe’s leading research universities and home to an important chemical engineering department, the University of Leuven has a long history that stretches back to its founding in 1425.

One of the darkest periods in the university’s long history came in World War I, when the Germans completely destroyed and looted the university’s library of 300,000 volumes, among which were rare manuscripts and early printed books.

To rebuild, Belgium looked to other nations for assistance, and the rebuilding of the university and its library were no exception. Although there was discussion of building a new library in a modern style, the impressive library was eventually rebuilt in a traditional style, thanks to help from outside Belgium’s borders.

American engineers lend a hand

One of the most noteworthy architectural features of the library is its impressive bell tower and carillon, which were rebuilt shortly after the war with assistance from American companies and organizations. Considerable funding came from engineering-related businesses and organizations, and upon completion, the tower and carillon were dedicated to the memory of American engineers who died during World War I.

When the carillon underwent maintenance and restoration the 1980s American engineering organizations, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, again came to the university’s assistance with funding.

Once a site of great destruction, today the University of Leuven represents international collaboration as well as the continuing advancement of chemical engineering education. And each time the bells in the library’s tower ring, members of AIChE can know they played a role in helping keep the university and its traditions alive.