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The National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council and World War I

In the summer of 1915, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was already undertaking preparations for providing large-scale services to President Wilson if the U.S. were drawn into the European War.  At that time, George Ellery Hale (Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences) initiated a canvass of the NAS Council to determine whether it would support a proactive move to assist the Wilson Administration as part of the overall war effort.  Seeking to reform the mostly honorific NAS, the ambitious Hale strongly believed that service to the nation at a time of war would provide the fulcrum necessary to transform the Academy into a more active scientific research organization comparable to some of the most prominent foreign scientific academies he had surveyed the previous year.  Hale’s advocacy came to a head at a meeting of the NAS Council in April 1916, when the council unanimously asked the Academy’s president “to inform the President of the United States that, in the event of a break in diplomatic relations with any other country, the Academy desires to place itself at the disposal of the Government for any services within its scope.”1   When the Academy’s leaders met with President Wilson later that month, he asked them to establish a committee to accelerate preparations for the Academy’s support of a war effort.

Once established, the committee soon drafted the blueprint for a National Research Council (NRC), the purpose of which would be to coordinate existing governmental, educational, industrial, and other research organizations with the initial object of inventorying the U.S.’s essential materials, equipment, and researchers.  The first topic thus identified was the supply of nitric acid, used in the manufacture of most high explosives, which, along with most chemicals, was overwhelmingly supplied by Germany.

Initially, the White House did not enthusiastically embrace the NAS’s plans for the NRC. President Wilson was facing re-election in 1916 and was running on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the European war.  Nevertheless, the Wilson Administration did identify delegates from the relevant agencies to join with industrial R&D leaders and members of the NAS, as outlined in the NRC blueprint.  Thus, by the end of 1916, the nascent NRC had established 28 committees that spanned all scientific and engineering fields as well as specific war needs. 

The larger national context in which the NRC was launched in late 1916 was cluttered with other organizations offering to assist the prospective war effort: the Carnegie Institution of Washington; the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research; the Naval Consulting Board; and an advisory committee of the Council of National Defense, which President Wilson had established.  The severance of diplomatic relations with Germany on February 4, 1917, energized the NRC and its leadership, especially when the Council of National Defense met on February 28th and designated the NRC as the official organizer of all “scientific forces of the country” for national defense.  Requests from various federal agencies and non-governmental organizations cascaded into the NRC, ranging from the Patent Office asking for a review of its operations to the Signal Corps requesting the establishment of a dedicated research division. 

One of the enduring legacies of the NRC’s wartime operations was its proactive outreach to scientists in allied nations.  Intensive collaboration began with the UK, France, and Italy on a wide range of projects, including tools to combat the U-boat attacks on supply convoys to Europe.  The development of aviation for warfare, the wartime availability of synthetic drugs (e.g., novocaine and arsphenamine), and the roles of tanks, machine guns, and poison gas were all topics addressed by the NRC.  The widespread phenomenon of “shell shock” among combat troops led to engagement by psychologists, who were eventually accepted by the Army's Medical Department. 

Although the United States’ direct involvement in the war lasted only 18 months, the institutional and scientific changes wrought by World War I had lasting effect.  By the end of 1917, various leaders of the NAS were discussing a post-war, permanent organization like the NRC to continue to advise the nation on matters of science and engineering, to promote collaboration between industry, government and universities, and to sustain worldwide cooperation in scientific and industrial research (through an “International Research Council”).  In March 1918, the NAS sent a letter to President Wilson asking for a new Executive Order to establish the NRC on a permanent basis.  That Executive Order was signed on May 11, 1918.  The Carnegie Corporation of New York shortly thereafter awarded the NAS the largest gift in its history – $5 million – to provide for an endowment and construction of the headquarters of the NAS/NRC. 

With the eventual disbanding of the administration’s Council of National Defense, the relationship of the federal government with the NRC became somewhat more distant, as the character of the NRC as a subsidiary of the non-governmental, non-partisan NAS prevailed.  Nevertheless, President Wilson’s Executive Order of 1918 enabled a close, prominent, and enduring role for the NRC in harnessing the best expertise among American researchers to advise the government in an increasingly complex world.

Vew a bibliography of essential resources on the history of the NAS/NRC.

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