Celebrating 150 Years of Excellence in Science

Charles Doolittle Walcott

1917-1923 NAS President

When the United States entered the war, the Academy's president, William H. Welch, decided to accept a high-ranking position in the Army Medical Corps and resigned from his Academy post. In the quest for a successor to Welch, who retained close relationships with the advisory structure of the Academy, the search committee called upon the Vice President, Dr. Charles D. Walcott (1850–1927), who was ongoing Secretary of the Smithsonian. In addition to being one of the world's great paleo-geologists and a very capable administrator, Walcott possessed knowledge in depth and breadth regarding who and what were important for achieving significant goals in the Washington community. He probably can be regarded as the spiritual successor to Joseph Henry. His actions in relation to the evolution of the Smithsonian were undertaken quietly, without fanfare, but he left the institution richly endowed with new buildings, museums and special collections. His remarkable intuition is indicated by the fact that he established a committee on aeronautics as early as 1897, six years before the flights of the Wright brothers, as a result of witnessing the experiments on flight of Samuel P. Langley that were being supported by the Navy.

Walcott had been raised in upstate New York under circumstances in which he was able to have only ten years of formal education. He decided, however, that he wanted to be a scientist. A chance meeting with an older individual who was collecting fossils attracted his interest and he began a collection of his own, mainly of trilobites, while absorbing the professional literature. By age 16 he was highly experienced and decided to focus on Cambrian fossils. He made an agreement with a farmer to work part time for room and board and succeeded in gathering a fine collection of invertebrate fossils which
were sold to Harvard University. His remarkable abilities and professional approach attracted the attention of Louis Agassiz, who made preliminary plans to have him enter Harvard. Unfortunately, Agassiz died before the plan could be put into effect, so in 1876 he accepted a position in the New York Geological Survey, then under Professor James Hall who had gained much admiration for Walcott.

As mentioned earlier, the U. S. Geological Survey was created in 1879. Hall successfully recommended Walcott for a position there. The latter extended his studies over large parts of the country in the new post and was made head of the division of invertebrates in 1882. On one occasion he ventured deeply into the Grand Canyon quite alone and often followed dangerous trails. He was becoming a distinguished master of his profession.

When Powell resigned his position as head of the Geological Survey after what had become a stormy period in Congressional relations, Walcott was selected to be his successor. This occurred with the full agreement of his colleagues since his special diplomatic skills in handling negotiations in the Washington environment were now well recognized and appreciated. He held the position until 1907 when he was appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian.

One of Walcott's great discoveries occurred in 1907 while on what was for him a refreshing research investigation in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. While traveling through the Burgess Pass he noted an out of place specimen of Cambrian shale on the trail. A study of the item demonstrated that it contained a remarkable fossil. A diligent search on the spot led to the discovery of the source, which turned out to be very rich in fossils of fauna from a special transition period in evolutionary history. Walcott sighed and said that the research there was for fortunate younger individuals.

Walcott demurred at first in his discussions with the search committee for a new president of the Academy because of his age (67), but finally agreed. He remained in office for six years, until 1923. As chairman of the National Research Council, Hale could not have had a more effective colleague heading the Academy during his most strenuous days. The two worked as a very well coordinated team both during and after the war, Walcott deferring to Hale when matters of publicity were concerned. Hale was prone to overwork to the point of exhaustion and suffered periodic nervous breakdowns as a result. For example, he apparently suffered such breakdowns in 1910, 1913 and 1921. The last was sufficiently severe that he gave up all pressure-producing administrative posts and devoted his subsequent career to scientific research on Mount Wilson and the design of a 200–inch telescope that was eventually established on Mount Palomar. Except for the problem of health, he probably would have followed Walcott as president of the Academy.

By the end of the war the various activities carried on by the National Research Council were viewed for the most part as having been highly successful. It had brought into service in a productive way both individuals and groups that otherwise might not have been able to contribute to the war effort in as effective a manner as they did. For example, it provided a vehicle that permitted imaginative individuals to make important contributions to fields such as sound ranging and sound amplification for the purpose of locating enemy artillery or early detection of approaching aircraft. Or to develop special systems of optical filters that would help reveal camouflaged systems. At the opposite level, the organization made it possible for technical and managerial staff from different industrial organizations that normally might be in competition to work together as partners instead in advancing essential new areas of technology, such as aeronautics, sonar, and radio communication.

Some brilliant private inventors, such as Reginald Fessenden, complained that such mixed industrial teams tended to abuse the rights of individual inventors. Although he had led the way in the invention and use of sonar, he was never asked to participate in the extensive wartime activities of the Council in the field for unknown reasons.

Foundation Awards
In any event, two of the large private foundations felt that the Academy should be rewarded in a significant way for its wartime enterprises. The first to act (1919) was the Carnegie Corporation, which provided a gift of five million dollars, a portion of which was to be used for the construction of an appropriate building in the District of Columbia to serve as headquarters for the Academy. The remainder was to be used as working endowment. Actually, early plans for some such gift, probably more modest, had been initiated in conversations Hale had with the Corporation prior to the war, but the outstanding success of the work of the National Research Council undoubtedly accelerated the actions of the Carnegie Corporation and enhanced the magnitude of the gift that was eventually made.

Meanwhile Robert A. Millikan, (1868–1953) (pictured right), then in the transition from the University of Chicago to the California Institute of Technology and deeply interested both in Academy affairs and the general promotion of science on an international scale, helped prepare legislation that permitted the Academy to own land in the District. With this start, he raised sufficient funds to acquire a parcel, actually a city block, near the Lincoln Memorial on what was then called B Street but renamed Constitution Avenue in 1931. Millikan did much in the 1920s to help promote the creation of the International Scientific Unions, which came into being in the early 1930s.

With the help of the Commission of Fine Arts of the District of Columbia and his own broad experience, Hale selected Bertram G. Goodhue (1869–1924), a deservedly celebrated architect, to design what became one of the most distinguished buildings in Washington. The basic plans for the structure were developed by April of 1921, and the building was completed in 1924, just in time for the planned dedication on April 28th. A great deal of thought went into every detail of the structure, well beyond the organization of space and the use of the finest construction materials available. The exterior presents a magnificent marble facade to Constitution Avenue with an apt quotation from Aristotle. The halls, meeting rooms and the numerous embossed bronze doors are decorated with items related to the history of the Academy, of the intellectual world abroad or symbolic of the history of science since the time of the Greeks. On display was scientific equipment including an operating Foucault Pendulum.

President Coolidge and many other notables both within and without the membership of the Academy were present at the dedication. Albert A. Michelson, the newly elected president of the Academy, as well as Walcott, participated actively in the formal ceremonies. To accommodate the complexities of the meeting as well as the size of the assembled group, the large central hall was modified to a degree by the addition of various wooden structures of high cabinet-level quality. These remained in place until the centennial celebration of the Academy in 1963 when the hall was completely refurbished. The “temporary” additions had been used occasionally in the interim.

A young architect, Wallace K. Harrison (1895–1981), who was starting on his career, had the good fortune to become somewhat of a senior apprentice on Goodhue's staff and played a major role in the design of the building. He was sufficiently stimulated by the experience that he wrote an extensive article on the construction of the Academy building in the professional journal Architecture in 1924. He was to play a major role in the extension of the structure in the next fifty years.

As the Carnegie Corporation was providing a home for the Academy, the board of the Rockefeller Foundation realized that the United States was now well on the road to becoming an advanced scientific nation. In order to be certain that the most capable young scientists who had recently obtained a doctorate or its equivalent had a good opportunity to extend their period of internship further, the Board decided to provide the Academy with funds sufficient to permit a reasonable fraction to have an additional period of concentrated study and research at an institution of their own choosing. The National
Research Council administered the fellowships.

Most such fellows selected major centers in Western Europe. The National Research Fellowships were not only very popular, but rapidly helped close the creative gap in science that had existed on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. What might have been left incomplete in the way of closure was bridged in the 1930s by the flight of refugees from Europe to the United States ordained by Hitler and Mussolini.

The fellowship grants were continued over a thirty-year period, until federal funds became relatively free. At first those in the physical sciences were favored to a degree as a result of the quantum revolution,  but Warren Weaver (1894–1978), a wise and perceptive counselor newly arrived in the Rockefeller Foundation in 1931, foresaw the revolution that was to come in the biological sciences, and convinced the grantors that they should provide more balance.

In the meantime, the Academy, in an effort to express its gratitude to the engineering community, created a section on engineering. Nine existing members of the Academy who had strong interest in the applications of science joined the new section to form a base. One was Frank Barton Jewett, president of the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

One of the major transformations resulting from the participation of United States in World War I was its rise into the family of major industrial nations in a broadly competitive way. Not least, it was now a significant contender in the field of industrial chemistry.

Versailles Treaty
The victorious European allies were aghast at the massive destruction that had finally been achieved as a result of the continuation of centuries of internecine rivalries and warfare. In meetings held in Versailles, they chose to inflict very vindictive peace terms on their former enemy countries with heavy indemnities. The United States rejected that peace plan in spite of the pleas of President Wilson to accept it and made separate peace agreements once Germany and Austria had adopted democratic governments. The Versailles Treaty included the stipulation that the scientists in the enemy countries
would not be allowed to attend international scientific meetings in the future.

Fortunately this provision did not prevent Albert Einstein (pictured right) from visiting the United States in 1921 on a philanthropic mission. In addition to being received warmly, he gave several scientific lectures in the East and Midwest. It did, however, completely disrupt the prewar pattern of international scientific congresses and eventually led to protests by the countries that had been neutral in the war and by the United States. Niels Bohr, the esteemed Danish scientist, made the statement: “If Einstein cannot go to the meetings, I cannot go!” A crisis was at hand. It was finally resolved in 1931 by the creation of international scientific unions in each of the major fields of science and under the overall governance of The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). In the meantime, the clause in the Versailles Treaty that had restricted international scientific travel was rescinded.

The German economy collapsed in the mid-1920s as a consequence of the monetary burdens placed on it, causing great stress within the central European community as a whole. This generated considerable concern in English and American economic circles for fear of an eventual effect on international trade. In an attempt to help remedy the situation the two countries made a deliberate effort to bolster the German government's struggles through loans. It is debatable how much influence the collapse of the central European economy had on the generation of the world-wide depression that started in 1929, but it did, unfortunately, help the rise of Hitler and other dictators.

Continue reading next chapter: Albert Abraham Michelson

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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