James Bernard Macelwane was born September 28, 1883, in Ottawa County, Ohio, on the shore of Sandusky Bay off Lake Erie, about four miles southeast of Port Clinton, Ohio. He was the second oldest of nine children (five boys and four girls) born to Alexander and Catherine (Carr) Macelwane. Their first child, a girl, died in infancy, so James was the oldest of the children who grew up together.
He attended public elementary school in the Port Clinton area, but quit school at the age of 15 to work in his father's farming and fishing business. Even during this period when he was not attending school, young Macelwane continued to read, study, and write. After two years of this work for his father, the family decided that James should enter St. John's High School in Toledo, Ohio. This he did in 1901. He completed three years of high school courses in two years, and then he was determined to seek admission into the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to become a Catholic priest.
In August, 1903, Macelwane was admitted to the Jesuit novitiate in Cleveland, Ohio. As part of his Jesuit training, he studied at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he received the A.B. degree in 1910 and the M.A. in 1911, both in philosophy. He also took courses in ancient and modern languages, literature and history, natural sciences and mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in St. Louis in 1918.
Macelwane had a strong liking for classical languages and he looked forward to a career in teaching Latin and Greek. But his Jesuit superiors, noting his natural facility in the sciences, advised him to pursue further studies in physics, mathematics, and geology.
In 1921, Father Macelwane enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to continue studies in the sciences. His major field in graduate school at Berkeley was physics, with minors in geology and mathematics, but his dissertation was actually in the field of geophysics. He received his PhD from the University of California in 1923. Macelwane was asked by special request of the director of the Department of Geology at Berkeley to stay on at the University. This he did for two years as an assistant professor in geology, organizing the University's graduate program in geophysics.
Father Macelwane left the University of California in 1925 to come to Saint Louis University where he established the first department of geophysics in the western hemisphere. Over time, he expanded the scope of the geophysics program to include research and courses in seismology, earthquakes, industrial or blast vibrations, exploration geophysics, and meteorology. He served as dean of Saint Louis University's Graduate School from 1927 to 1933, and he was also a member of the University Board of Trustees. During 1931 and 1932, Father Macelwane accepted the responsibility of being the chair of the Jesuit Commission on Higher Studies. At the request of the Jesuit Father General, this Commission studied in great detail the higher educational work of the Society of Jesus in the United States. The report issued by the Commission has been commonly called the "Macelwane Report."
In 1944, he established the Institute of Technology (IT) as a separate school within Saint Louis University. The Institute offered a curricula in engineering as well as the earth and atmospheric sciences. Father Macelwane was the Institute's first dean, a position he held until his death.
Father Macelwane was a very active scholar. He wrote two books, contributed chapters to several others, and wrote or presented more than 130 scientific papers. He was one of the primary forces behind the establishment of both the Jesuit Seismological Association and the Seismological Society of America. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and professional awards or certificates.
Father Macelwane served on several advisory committees to the United States government, including the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation.
He died on February 15, 1956, of a liver infection after an illness of approximately two months. Father Macelwane had not been feeling well, however, for nearly two years, yet he continued to read, write, research, and help others right up to the time of his death.