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Faculty of Bioscience engineering - History



In 1878, under Rector Namèche, the Institute of Agronomy was established within the Faculty of Science following upon the initiative of a group of Catholic landowners who put together the necessary funds on behalf of the university. This initiative has to be seen against the background of the major agricultural crisis which hit Belgium and the rest of Europe as a result of the massive grain imports from Russia and America and which put pressure on Belgian agriculture to develop new methods of production. The agricultural sciences were called upon to help in this development. Important landowners and farmers looked to the University of Leuven to contribute the necessary resources. The bishops were in favour of the plan because they did not trust the state-run Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Gembloux and they hoped that the agricultural engineers who would be trained at the Catholic University would play a part in protecting the Belgian farmers from liberal influence and at the same time keep this traditional bulwark of Belgian Catholicism intact.


From Agricultural College to Faculty of Agricultural Sciences

The bishops' concern to keep liberal influence out of rural/agricultural circles was evident in the study programmes. Next to the subjects required by the state, a great deal of attention was given to philosophical and social matters. Even the composition of the teaching faculty felt the repercussions of the bishops' concern. Rather than recruit agricultural experts from Gembloux, a number of graduates from the Leuven Special Schools were called upon who, on account of the poor financial situation of the university, were prepared to teach for free.

In the initial stages, the Faculty of Science was rather wary of the Institute of Agriculture, which it viewed as essentially a technical school, and for a number of years it enjoyed an almost independent status. Nevertheless, given the shortage of resources, the broad co-operation of the faculty was increasingly called upon, with its positive effects on scientific standards. In 1892 the Institute was officially united to the Faculty of Science and in the same year it launched its own official mouthpiece, the Revue Agronomic, which in 1930 became the bilingual journal Agricultura.

The first generations of students came from among the rich landowners who wanted to acquire the necessary professional expertise for the good administration of the family property. Recruiting slowly broadened however, stronger links with the Boerenbond, the important farmers' organisation founded in Leuven in 1890, were established.

In 1895, a facultative fourth year was added to the original curriculum which allowed for specialisation, for example in forestry or in agricultural chemistry. Some, however, were of the opinion that standards had gone beyond the reach of a number of students for whom the school was originally intended. For this reason, a two-year licentiate in Applied Agricultural Sciences was established in 1908, in addition to the degree of Master of Science in Agriculture (Master in Biological Engineering).

From 1947 onwards, the study duration was increased to 5 years with two possible degree orientations: Master of Science in Agriculture (Master in Biological Engineering) and Master of Science in Chemistry and Agricultural Industries (Master in Engineering in Chemical and Agricultural Industries). These changes were the logical consequence of a more and more far-reaching scientific knowledge being built up within the university's agricultural departments which was, at the same time, being demanded by the business sector. Indeed, these trends went hand in hand with the rising number of specialisation in the agricultural domain. At the same time, however, a horizontal disintegration was taking place, that is to say a breakdown in processing activities on the farms themselves together with an increase in the provision of raw materials from supply companies.

From 1934 onwards, the Institute's diplomas were recognised as fully-fledged university certificates. They attained legal status in 1949. In 1965, the Agricultural Institute, which up to that date had been a branch of the Faculty of Science, was promoted to the status of an autonomous Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. In 1966, the law brought the various university engineers' titles into line with one another at the administrative level which meant that from then on engineers (masters) of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences could also use the title 'Ir.'.

In 1908, thanks to a number of benefactors, among them senator De Becker-Remy, the Institute for Zoology was established by L. Frateur. At its height the Institute's laboratories covered almost one hectare. It became one of the most famous zoological centres in Europe, especially for its research into genetic factors. When the research centre was later transferred to Lovenjoel, the Institute continued to be of great importance, especially for its artificial insemination service under the leadership of A. De Vuyst.

Between the wars, Canon Th. Biourge and Canon Fr. Janssens were able to carry out original scientific research. Biourge studied the various types of penicillin while Janssens developed the theory of the 'chiasmata', which noted that a rearrangement of the genetic material came about during the reduction division. He formulated his theory in a study devoted to the spermatogenesis of salamanders which appeared in La Cellule in 1909, an article which became a milestone in the history of genetics. It became the springboard for the 'theory of linkage' which was further developed and circulated by Thomas Morgan. A. Dumon acquired prominence in genetic research and in the work of selection of new grain varieties at the Refinement Station of the Celestijnenhoeve at Heverlee.
In addition to these researchers, excellent work was done in the laboratory of A. Antoine (forestry), which for many years had been chair of the Agricultural Institute, in pedology by Canon J. Baeyens and in acquisition of knowledge related to the brewing process by Prof. L. Verhelst and his successor Prof. J. Declerck.
In the period following W.W.II prominent professors of the Agricultural Institute included: C. Van Himbeeck, J. Dondeyne, P. Simonart, J.E. Opsomer, C. Boon, I. Scheys, J. Fripiat, H. Landelout, J. Heuts ...

In 1939, in order to encourage pure academic research among the Institute's graduates, the scientific degree of Doctor of Agricultural Sciences was established.

In the late thirties, to alleviate the cramped and run-down conditions of the location in the Minderbroedersstraat, the Institute was moved to the Arenberg Park. Work on the new buildings began in 1928, but due to lack of funds there was little progress in construction for a number of years. Only in 1936 did it become possible to push on with the work, thanks to the Unemployment Relief Service and the assistance of a number of agricultural industries and organisations.

The political decision taken in 1968 to split the University of Leuven into two autonomous universities resulted in the removal of the Faculté des Sciences Agronomiques of the U.C.Louvain to Louvain-la-Neuve during the period 1970-72. As a consequence, a whole series of well-known professors and other competent staff, who up to that point had worked closely with their Dutch speaking colleagues, took their leave of Heverlee.

In the initial stages, student numbers were quite limited. The 9 students in 1878 had increased to 126 after the first 25 years and to 274 after 50 years. Openings towards the former Belgian Congo brought enrolment in 1952 to 395 (French speakers and Dutch speakers together).
In line with and sometimes in spite of the industrialisation of agriculture and various industrial initiatives, the number of students grew steadily.
Up to this point most of the students were drawn from farming backgrounds. From the fifties onwards, there was a remarkable shift towards students from the non-agrarian sector. This shift went hand in hand with a decline in the importance attached to practical farming experience, which had formerly been considered essential, together with an increase in the role of basic scientific methods within agriculture and the rise in agricultural-industrial or bio-industrial activities. This most recent movement, supplemented with considerations from the 'softer' sector of biological materials in which engineering activities are situated, explains the increasing number of interested female students.


Developments in the field of study leading to the Master's degree in engineering in biological fields

Up until 1991, the teaching of agriculture in the university was organised by the K.B. of May 23, 1967. On June 12, 1991, the Flemish Executive ratified the Decree Concerning the Universities in the Flemish Community. Where the 'Applied Biological Sciences' are concerned the new titles of 'Kandidaat Bio-Ingenieur' and 'Bio-Ingenieur' have been established. By virtue of the decree, the KU Leuven can now award these new degrees.

By a decision of the Flemish Executive of December 18, 1991, permission has been given to organise courses leading to the academic degree of:

  • Master in Engineering in Agriculture
    (Bio-ingenieur in de Landbouwkunde)
  • Master in Engineering in Land and Forest Management
    (Bio-ingenieur in het Land- en Bosbeheer)
  • Master in Engineering in Chemistry and Biochemistry
    (Bio-ingenieur in de Scheikunde)
  • Master in Engineering in Environmental Technology
    (Bio-ingenieur in de Milieutechnologie)
  • Master in Engineering in Cell and Gene Biotechnology
    (Bio-ingenieur in de Cel- en Genbiotechnologie)

These new degree titles are the result of recent developments in the fields of study and professional sectors in which graduates are to be found.

Within the study and practice of agriculture and its related industries, new possibilities are developing in the broader field of applied biology alongside more fundamental approaches to the biological, chemical, economic and technical- engineering processes. Beyond the purely descriptive and encyclopaedic provision of information, more and more detailed study is being done to clarify and explain biological phenomena and their various processes and applications. Interweaving this study with the chemical, economic and technical-engineering disciplines and the influence and even control these disciplines can exert over biological phenomena, makes scientific research more complex and at the same time more attractive. This new openness towards a more inter-disciplinary approach remains as much a challenge for the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences as it would be for any Faculty of Applied Sciences. The production chains within agriculture itself are still the primary ends of this approach, but these are being supplemented with further applications and sectors from biology, chemistry and technical engineering.

The more recent developments in biotechnology, a collective name for the wide range of techniques which can intervene in complex biological systems, provide new accents to the training process. A multidisciplinary approach is required here also to allow new insights to come to light. The complexity of biological systems and their interactions, however, necessitates an elementary study of their component aspects along with the setting up of simplified representative model-systems.
The quantification of these bioprocesses, both as a basis for explanatory insights and as a foundation for regulatory strategies for the system being exploited, is only in its infancy. This approach is fast becoming the arena of research and sphere of work of the 'engineer of living material', which is much more complex than that of non-living material.
The exploitation of bio-technology within agricultural production, the food industry and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is the work of the 'Bio-Engineer' who, alongside his/her production orientation, is being confronted more and more with a concern for ecological balance on the micro and macro-scale.
Alternative, environmentally friendly methods of cultivation of micro-organisms, plants and animals, together with alternative industrial transformation processes, are becoming possible as progress is made in bio-technological know-how.

The command and administration of biological systems permits the 'Bio-Engineer' to make an important contribution to the needs of the community at large.
A greater knowledge of the biotope ('environment, soil, micro-organism, plant and animal') in a variety of climates together with techniques of intervention and control systems will contribute towards the production of raw materials for food on a world-scale with the focus oriented particularly towards the developing countries.
An ever increasing grasp of the chemistry, microbiology and technology of preservation and transformation processes, supplemented by knowledge of human dietetics will make it possible for the Bio-Engineer to increase the yield of agricultural products for the consumer.
Such interventions go far beyond the provision of sufficient agricultural products. Indeed, they are necessary for adequate industrial production, which in its turn is an economic requirement for a stable social order.
The importance of well-organised and productive agriculture as an inherent requirement for good social policy is the concern of the 'Bio-Engineer in Agriculture', a key position above all in the developing countries.

As a further consequence of his/her multi-disciplinary training, the knowledge and impact of the Bio-Engineer on biological processes will continue to give him or her a central position in study, control and intervention. At the same time the Bio-Engineer will play a pivotal role in the protection and preservation of the natural environment. This problem, which is a primary concern of the industrial world, will be situated on a variety of levels in the future.
On the micro and meso-scale: soil water and air pollution brought about by human systems of production (over fertilisation; draining of sewage; phytopharmaceutical and herbicidal products; gas and vapour emissions; soil and plant absorption of radio active contamination ...).
On the macro-scale: landscape; land development; land, water and forestry control; environmental planning.

Unique to the more industrial production methods within agriculture and to agro-industry's preserving and processing methods is the consumer's concern for quality food products and a balanced food supply. This is especially true in our own society where farming techniques have led to over-capacity production.
Methods of quantification for determining the quality of the food supply and techniques for comprehensive quality control will be indispensable for the coming generations in order to stimulate renewed production and processing methods, some of which will become possible by way of bio-technical interventions.

Throughout its long history, intensive farming in Flanders has been among the most progressive in the world. A diversity of cultures and techniques from the horticultural sector and agricultural breeding sector (intensive livestock production) have spread from their Flemish roots throughout the rest of the world. Belgian know-how, produced and tested in our experimental centres, and further scrutinised in our laboratories, will continue to take the lead in the years to come. Belgian agricultural and horticultural products are internationally recognised and appreciated.
It will be the Bio-Engineer's task to deepen this knowledge and at the same time translate it into hardware and software, which can be exploited, exported, and commercialised in other countries.

Apart from the standard engineering programme a number of special programmes was created for industrial engineers who wished to obtain an academic degree. Advanced training possibilities in the third cycle include Bio-Industrial Sciences, Cellular Biotechnology, Environmental Control and Ecology.
With the special concerns of overseas students in mind, most of whom come from third world countries, programmes were created such as the following: the 'Inter-University Programme in Water Resources Engineering' (in collaboration with the V.U.Brussel), Supplementary Studies in Remote Sensing for Environmental Planning and Management of Natural Resources, Supplementary Studies in Postharvest and Food Preservation Engineering, Master of Postharvest and Food Preservation Engineering, Master of Malting and Brewing Sciences.

From the academic year 1994-95 on, research in the one department of Bio-Technical Sciences has been classified into six departments, each of which groups together a number of laboratories: Applied Plant Sciences, Animal Sciences, Agro-engineering and -economics, Land Management, Interphase Chemistry, Food- and Microbial Technology.
Thanks to the growth in academic and scientific personnel (from 26 members in 1967 to 78 in 1996) and the increase in parallel financing (250 positions for assistant academic personnel), our scientific reputation has been promoted in the following areas: soil science, hydroculture, phytotechnology, soil fertility, phytopathology and plant protection, bio-engineering, physiology and immunology of animals, zootechnology, agricultural building research, agricultural engineering, land technology, tropical plant production, forestry, teledetection, landscape management, food microbiology, food chemistry, food technology, industrial microbiology and biochemistry, carbohydrate chemistry, tropical food technology, analytic and mineral chemistry, applied organic chemistry, brewing sciences, surface chemistry, colloidal chemistry, agricultural economics, biometrics and experimental techniques.

The material infrastructure of the faculty has been and is being substantially improved.
The Agricultural Institute was completely renovated between 1981 and 1985. In view of the expansion of research activities, financed primarily from extra-university sources, and the increasing number of students, for whom educationally supportive research possibilities are being broadened, a second wave of activities took place between 1990 and 1997, focusing primarily on the extension of buildings. Besides expansion at the Agricultural Institute (Kardinaal Mercierlaan 92) to provide for research departments such as 'Interphase Chemistry' (an additional floor in 1992), 'Cell and Gene Biotechnology' (a new wing in 1996-97), and 'Microbial and Food Technologies' (laboratory and pilot installation in 1992, extension on the roof of the back-side building of the institute in 1995), together with the major renovation of a whole series of laboratories, new premises and infrastructure were created in 1992-93 for the laboratories of Plant Production and Plant Protection at de Croylaan 42 in Heverlee. In 1996, greenhouses were built. In 1991, an experimental brewery was established at de Croylaan 2. Also in 1991, the Institute for Land and Water Management was housed at Vital Decosterstraat 102 in Leuven. A totally new wing with four floors was added to the main building and modifications were performed in the existing building. Consequently, the ‘Laboratory of Gene Technology’, the ‘F.A. Janssens Laboratory of Genetics’ and a number of other laboratories could move entirely or partly to the new building. In this new building, three new seminar rooms were installed, as well as an auditory giving place to 100 people and a newly equipped PC class. An ultramodern greenhouse covering a space of 1500 m2 was constructed in 1998.
From 1988-1992 on, renovation work took place at the Zootechnical Centre in Lovenjoel (80 hectares) which included new buildings for sheep, pig and poultry research. At the same time the renovated Corbeekhoeve in Korbeek-Lo was incorporated into the Zootechnical Centre.
The Horticultural Foundation in Rillaar was expanded and united as a Fruit Production Centre (23 hectares) for the Faculty.
The Faculty continues to participate in the ‘Bodemkundige Dienst van België’ (Belgian Pedological Service).
Aware of her vocation towards the developing countries, the Faculty maintains close relations with a number of overseas institutions in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Zaire, South-Africa, Vietnam, Ecuador, etc..


The Faculty of Agriculture adopts a long name ...

Since September 27, 1993, the Faculty has carried the name: ‘Faculteit Landbouwkundige en Toegepaste Biologische Wetenschappen’ (Faculty of Agricultural and Applied Biological Sciences).

This name change is a direct result of the broadening of capacity, which had long been called for at both the teaching and research levels within the faculty.

In listing the variety of possible fields of study, the Decree on the Universities, ratified by the Flemish Executive on June 12, 1991, already included the area of 'applied biological sciences' instead of the traditional 'agricultural sciences'.

The fact that the Faculty has oriented itself to a number of sectors beyond the specifically agricultural has not always been commonly known. The new name helps to make this fact more explicit.