Involvement of the National Academy of Sciences Complex in World War II Research Programs: A Summary
Chartered in 1863 during Abraham Lincoln's presidency, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) serves as an independent scientific advisory organization to Congress and government agencies. Three other components of the Academy complex were added later under the Academy's original charter, the National Research Council (NRC) in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine in 1970. Each component of this complex works through committees of scientific experts who gather to discuss, share their expertise, and make recommendations on scientific policy and issues. A key aspect of all such committees is their independence from outside pressure and influence. Through a variety of mechanisms, each committee represents a group of individuals who operate with consideration for all known positions or views on a specific subject, but who also operate with complete independence from any of the involved parties, including those providing the funds for the study.
As the United States mobilized for the Second World War, the level of involvement of NRC committees in the actual research enterprise was dramatically changed. Of interest to the present study is the fact that certain NRC committees acted directly for the government in the supervision of war-related research, including animal studies of the effects of mustard gas on the body and tests with human volunteers of ointments to protect against mustard gas burns. The specific agencies and relationships involved in this collaboration of the NRC with the government are described in other sources, but the important aspect is that the strict, distinct boundary lines we see today between the role of
the NRC committees and the role of the government were absent (Andrus et al., 1948; Stewart, 1948).
In 1941, President Roosevelt established two branches and an Advisory Council under the Office of Scientific Research and Development to initiate and supervise war-related research. The first of these branches was the Committee on Medical Research (CMR), charged with studying the medical effects of various warfare agents and situations and with developing protocols of treatment for everything from malaria to mustard gas burns. CMR came directly to the NRC and took advantage of already standing NRC committees to form, among others, the Committee on Treatment of Gas Casualties. It was from this group that the first requests for human volunteers were made in order to test protective ointments then under development.
The other branch, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), was charged with the development of protective clothing, gas masks, and other equipment-type items. Thus, the NDRC was responsible for the chamber tests of protective clothing against mustard gas, such as the tests done at the Naval Research Laboratory. Although seemingly separate, CMR (and NRC's Committee on Treatment of Gas Casualties) and NDRC dealt with many overlapping issues and, thus, were in relatively constant communication with each other. The overlap among the groups can be seen today in the reports of the testing programs, some of which list NDRC as sponsor, some of which list CMR, and some of which list those two along with NRC's Committee on Treatment of Gas Casualties.
The specific role of the Committee on Treatment of Gas Casualties was to review and supervise the 23 grants dealing with chemical warfare agents. This supervisory role for NRC committees ended in 1944, when CMR expanded its staff and reorganized in order to coordinate and supervise all medical research contracts. By 1947, many of the responsibilities and functions of the CMR were incorporated into newly formed government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation.
Andrus EC, Bronk DW, Carden GA Jr, Keefer CS, Lockwood JS, Wearn JT, Winternitz MC, eds. 1948. Advances in Military Medicine. Vols. I and II. Boston: Little, Brown.
Stewart I. 1948. Organizing Scientific Research for War. Boston: Little, Brown.