Moments in Academy History

Frank Barton Jewett

1939-1947 NAS President

The next president, Frank B. Jewett (1879–1949), chosen in 1939, was a very fortunate selection. He had just retired as president of the Bell Telephone Laboratories where he had been an eminent leader and had recently moved to Washington as a trustee of the Carnegie Institution and advisor to President Roosevelt at a time there was great need in the Capitol for individuals with his form of experience.

He had grown up in Pasadena, California, at the time it consisted of only a few houses, a one-room elementary school and many orchards. He attended the secondary and college-grade schools provided by the nearby Throop Institute of Technology, later the California Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1898. It was his plan to follow in his father's footsteps and continue his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, he was out of phase with the application cycle there. On the suggestion of a friend, he decided to undertake graduate work at the newly opened University of Chicago where Michelson agreed to take him as a student. He obtained a doctor's degree in 1902, leading to an instructorship at MIT.

While in Boston, he met by chance a scout for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) who was looking for new young talent to provide leadership for the task of extending the range of the telephone system. At that time, the New York based system had been marginally extended as far as Chicago, using primitive repeaters that employed relays consisting in the main of amplifying telephones that gave very poor performance because of the accumulation of background noise. The chief executive officer of AT&T, Theodore Vail, had insisted that it was time to develop a truly workable telephone network that extended all the way to San Francisco. Realizing that new technical talent would be needed, Vail sent out scouts to search for gifted individuals. One of them visited MIT and had a chance meeting with Jewett. The scout was much impressed by the combination of characteristics of this young man, as were many other individuals in the course of Jewett's life who had the good fortune to know him. He was not only highly knowledgeable but also had the qualities of leadership that came first in the search. Jewett was at that time tied up with a contract at MIT, but the AT&T scout came back when it expired in 1904 and convinced Jewett to join the engineering department of AT&T.

During his days at the University of Chicago, Jewett had become a good friend of Robert A. Millikan and arranged a meeting with him to discuss the problems he faced. Millikan recommended that he turn to the newly opened field of electronics, which he felt must contain a solution to the problem at hand. He also mentioned that Lee De Forest had developed some triode vacuum tubes which, although primitive, seemed to exhibit the type of amplifying properties AT&T was after. Jewett searched through the group of young individuals emerging from the University of Chicago for a helpmate and selected H. D. Arnold, who joined him in a diligent time-consuming search for a solution to their problem. Arnold carried on the detailed day-to-day investigations. The company purchased the patents of De Forest's triode and began to improve upon it in a very systematic way. Arnold is credited with the successful transformation of De Forest's very primitive triode into a highly reliable device. Jewett once said that during the uncertain period of development he and his colleagues got little sleep.

It so happens that the General Electric Company had decided independently that an electronic triode vacuum tube was the solution to many problems in communication technology and had begun serious investigations in the field under the leadership of Irving Langmuir. A lawsuit developed which AT&T won in principle. However, the major companies in vacuum tube development eventually agreed to create a patent pool, The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), at the end of World War I after deciding that they should not waste time and fortune quarreling with one another.

The Western Electric Company was the manufacturing arm of the telephone company and possessed a research and development component, designated its engineering department, which suited its immediate needs. Jewett became its assistant chief engineer in 1912, but rose through ranks to become president and director in 1921.

In 1925, the AT&T engineering department that had developed the successful vacuum triodes was combined with the engineering department of Western Electric and incorporated as the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jewett was selected to be its president. It rapidly became one of the most distinguished laboratories in the world. Its great alteration and contraction in recent years, almost equivalent to demise, is little short of tragic. Isadore Rabi, a New Yorker and a keen observer, once made the comment: “The people they hire all look alike!” This statement probably reflected the evolution of a common, well-knit culture.

Jewett retired as president of the Laboratories within a year after being elected president of the Academy, and moved to Washington where he lived an active second life. Along the way he had become one of the leading figures in the evolution of the telephone company. Part of his success lay in the special form of charisma he exuded in his working relations with others. No one needed to fear approaching him to discuss a bothersome problem. He would always respond in a cheerful, constructive way. Once he arrived in Washington he was quickly drawn into the special White House circle that President Roosevelt put together to provide scientific leadership in World War II.

Leslie R. Groves
One example of Jewett's special form of personal service relates to the advice given to General Leslie R. Groves when the latter was appointed military head of the nuclear bomb project in 1942. Groves, who was a member of the Army Engineering Corps, had just completed the construction of the Pentagon building when the decision to go ahead at full speed with the bomb project was made. The White House group decided that Groves would be an ideal candidate for the new military post since he was greatly experienced in problems related to supply and construction. He, however, had grave misgivings about the situation, since he had no experience in dealing with scientists and wondered how to get along with these strange individuals. One of his colleagues suggested that he discuss the situation with Frank Jewett, who had such experience and an office nearby at the Academy. Jewett not only put Groves at ease, but also became a friendly advisor. General Groves in fact played out his role exceedingly well, making certain that needed supplies were always on hand to the extent humanly possible and that basic schedules of construction were met. Jewett had helped bring out Groves' strongest qualities. Richard Tolman, a distinguished scientist-administrator from the California Institute of Technology, eventually became Groves' official science advisor during most of the war.

Jewett had obviously come into office with a highly diversified and productive career behind him. In addition he was profoundly thoughtful in approaching a new situation. In reading the charter that created the Academy he concluded that it was a remarkable document, ingeniously contrived by its authors. He decided that at its core it was intended to be highly permissive as far as the professional activities of the Academy are concerned. The restrictive items related principally to practical money matters such as reimbursement for out of pocket expenditure accrued in the course of its legitimate activities. He also decided that the phrase “on request” did not imply that the Academy could not seek tasks from the government agencies, but rather that there should be mutual agreement that the Academy could take them on.

Jewett was also bothered by the fact that the offices of the president of the Academy and that of chairman of the National Research Council were separate. Moreover, one had a part-time and the other a full-time chairman. The arrangement ad worked well over the years only because the two individuals had been  close friends. In another situation it could lead to disaster. He decided to leave the resolution of this potentially explosive problem to his successors.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1932, he and the Congress had initiated such organizations as the Public Works Administration to help create employment. Some members of the scientific  community saw in this an opportunity to obtain governmental support for scientific research, basing their hope on the thought that new discoveries in science would have a stimulating effect on the economy. At least two serious proposals of this type were made as a result of activities within the Academy. President Roosevelt took a personal interest in them, but the members of his cabinet concerned with such
plans vetoed them since they did not stimulate many new jobs in proportion to the money invested. Moreover, many members of the Academy feared that the formation of what could become deep links with the government in the process of determining research policy might result in the politicization of science and become counterproductive. As a result the issue of obtaining broad governmental support for basic science became a hopelessly controversial topic within the Academy and died in the process.

The situation began to change radically when World War II broke out in September of 1939. By that time many of the academic scientists, as well as others, in Great Britain had been mobilized into governmentally supported organizations and had in effect “gone underground”. Special emphasis there focused on radar and fighter planes, initially for defensive purposes. Some attention was given to recently discovered nuclear fission, but the British were prepared to farm such studies out to available trustworthy scientists in the United States and Canada since the topic was looked upon as being of secondary importance in the initial stages of the war.

In the meantime, the federally funded laboratories in United States that had relevance to national defense began to receive expanded budgets and became focused on topics that were likely to be immediately useful in the war.

The American scientific community was keenly aware of the changing situation in Europe and began to establish professional committees that individually focused on some broad area of military-oriented research, drawing upon the talents and interests of its members. To the extent possible, foundations or individual philanthropists funded the work of such committees initially. One might have thought that the National Research Council would have played a major role in the organization of the scientific community for military research as it did in World War I, but this did not occur. It was clear from the start that the funding of such research would eventually be shifted to governmental sources. Apparently the disputes within the Academy regarding the advisability of using federal funds for research that had taken place during the 1930s made it seem advisable to try new approaches worthy of the magnitude and urgency of the developing international crisis. It is said that Winston Churchill had emphasized to President  Roosevelt the great importance of involving the scientific and technically oriented academic community in the heart of the defense structure. It had proven to be invaluable in Britain.

National Defense Research Committee
The first step in providing a new solution to the use of science was taken by President Roosevelt in June of 1940, immediately following the fall of France. It led to the formation of the National Defense  Research Committee (NDRC) in the Executive offices of the government and close to the White House. Its first chairman was Vannevar Bush (1890–1974) (pictured right), president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington since 1939 and previously at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This was followed in May of 1941 by the creation of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), again in the Executive structure. It had the ability to fund large-scale research programs, including those at universities. Bush became its director and James B. Conant (pictured below left), the president of Harvard University, became the Chairman of NDRC, which was automatically attached to OSRD.

James Conant
Conant (1893–1978) had centered his academic career about Harvard where he established a world-renowned laboratory in organic chemistry after completing his basic and advanced education there. He retained close ties with his American and European counterparts, but was conscious of the great dangers that Hitler posed once the latter appeared prominently on the political scene in Germany. He not only gave early warnings about this but broke off all possible connections with previous German colleagues and friends who supported the dictator. He possessed so many outstanding qualities that he was chosen to be the president of Harvard University in 1933 and held the position for twenty years with a leave of absence for wartime duties.

In 1946 President Truman offered Conant the post of chairman of the newly-formed Atomic Energy Commission but he was very anxious to return to the responsibilities at Harvard. He did however accept membership both on the General Advisory Committee of the Commission chaired by Robert Oppenheimer and the chairmanship of the National Science Board, which oversaw the activities of the newly formed National Science Foundation. Then, in 1953, he resigned his post at Harvard while accepting an invitation from President Eisenhower to become the first High Commissioner to a Germany that was in the process of being reformed. He remained in the chair for four years as a very important and popular figure in that important transitional stage. He presided over much of the activity that accompanied the implementation of the treaty that created the Federal Republic of Germany. Throughout most of his career, Conant devoted a great deal of time to discussions and writings on principles that should govern educational processes.

Frank Jewett was not a member of the NDRC, but could attend the meetings as somewhat in the nature of a private advisor to President Roosevelt as well as president of the Academy. He rapidly became an effective “insider”. It was agreed that the Academy would cooperate in all possible ways with the OSRD. In fact, several committees of the NDRC used the facilities of the Academy for their headquarters. This included the committees on medicine and on ordnance. As a result, the Academy building soon became cluttered with temporary wooden partitions.

When the war ended with the collapse of Japan in the late summer of 1945, the role of the Academy began to change in a much more positive direction. Two factors were involved in major ways. First, the OSRD and the NDRC were disbanded (1947) and the various executive agencies were given freedom within budgetary restrictions to execute their own research programs. By this time, so many academic scientists had been supported by the OSRD during the war that the objections to receiving support for scientific research from the government no longer seemed valid.

Vannevar Bush and Karl T. Compton, the president of MIT, took posts within the Department of Defense in a desire to provide special guidance there on technical and scientific matters. They headed in turn an office designated the Defense Research and Development Board (DRDB) patterned somewhat after the wartime OSRD. However, the now highly experienced staff in the Pentagon wished for more freedom of action. A compromise was ultimately reached by the creation of the Defense Science Board (DSB), a review and advisory body that has endured since. The president of the Academy was designated as a statutory member of the Board, although not all presidents have exercised the privilege of participation.

The new order included the extensive transformation of some old science based agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the creation of entirely new ones, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Also existing agencies added special scientific adjuncts, such as the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

The first attempt to create a science foundation that would support the basic sciences failed. The group of scientists who helped to prepare the supporting legislation proposed a plan whereby all decisions regarding the disposition of research funds would be determined by a board of scientists chosen by the scientific community. The government would merely determine the allotment of funds. President Truman found it necessary to veto the legislation. It took a year or two to straighten matters. In the meantime the AEC and the military science agencies, such as ONR, supported much research.

Many of the new organizations as well as older ones began to ask the Academy to form advisory committees within the National Research Council that could be of help in their various fields of interest. The Academy's advisory structure began to take on new life.

Detlev W. Bronk
The second major post-war transformation at the Academy involved the arrival on the scene of a remarkably versatile scientist, namely Detlev W. Bronk (1897–1975) (pictured right). His undergraduate education in electrical engineering at Swarthmore College was interrupted by World War I service in training for naval aviation. He started graduate studies and research in the physics department of the University of Michigan with initial emphasis on investigations in the infrared portion of the optical spectrum, one of the major areas of research in the department at the time. In the process, however, he became interested in the physics and physiology of nerve conduction and finally obtained a doctor's degree in 1926 in the combined disciplines of physics and physiology. He then received joint appointments at Swarthmore and the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, carrying out teaching at one and research at the other.

This period was interrupted for a year (1928–1929) on an NRC fellowship that he spent in Cambridge, England, working with Professor E. D. Adrian, F.R.S., who was carrying on very advanced research in the field of nerve conduction. The two became intimate life-long friends. Adrian eventually shared a Nobel Prize with an English colleague for his research.

On returning, Bronk not only received a professorial appointment at Swarthmore, but was made the director of the newly established Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics at the medical  school of the University of Pennsylvania. The Johnson fortune had been partly earned as a result of the commercial success of the once celebrated Red Seal recordings of classical music marketed by RCA.

Bronk's principal service in World War II had been as Coordinator of Research in the Office of the Army Air Surgeon where he displayed his usual dynamic and imaginative leadership.

In 1946, President Jewett of the Academy, having come to appreciate the full range of opportunities that the institution offered in the immediate postwar world, asked Bronk if he would be willing to accept the post of full-time chairman of the National Research Council. Bronk agreed with the understanding that he owed residual responsibilities to the University of Pennsylvania. During these discussions, both Jewett and he apparently also agreed that the principle the Academy had in the main followed since its creation in not seeking advisory activities for the National Research Council unless requested to do so by a federal agency had been interpreted too narrowly. The post-war period required a more liberal and exploitative view of the matter that made full use of the national scientific talent.

In 1948 Bronk added the position of the presidency of Johns Hopkins University to his growing list of responsibilities. Then in 1953 he switched to the position of president of The Rockefeller Institute in New York, a post that allowed more flexibility.

Bronk soon took charge of most affairs at the Academy in his highly creative way. On one occasion, at a small gathering of members, someone commented that Bronk was now effectively chairman of almost all relevant Academy committees. Another member of the group jokingly suggested that they should form a committee in which Bronk was explicitly excluded. A third responded: “It would be futile; Bronk would be its chairman within a week after it was formed!”

On retirement from his chair in 1947, Jewett gave a brilliant address in which among other things he outlined his personal views of the future potentialities of the Academy as it advances. The address was reprinted in the proceedings of the Academy, PNAS 48(1962): 481–90.

Continue reading next chapter: Alfred Newton Richards

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

Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software