A Doctor's Memories
Victor C. Vaughan, M.D.

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Chapter 12

National Research Council

During our Civil War the authorities became aware of the fact that science could be of service in war as well as in peace, and the National Academy of Sciences was chartered by Congress in 1863. This is a self-perpetuating body, selecting its own membership, receiving no financial aid from the government, but ready at all times to put itself at the command of Congress or the President. Immediately on its organization, the Academy was entrusted with the solution of problems, ranging from “the preservation of paint on army knapsacks” to “the protection of bottoms of iron vessels from corrosion.” In peace, committees from the Academy have, on request, given advice on an equally wide range of subjects. At its annual meeting in April, 1916, the Academy, by unanimous vote, tendered its service to President Wilson and this was immediately accepted. A committee of members of the Academy with authority to enlarge its membership from the scientists of the country was appointed and christened “The National Research Council.”

The first meeting of this body was held September 20, 1916, in the Engineering Foundation Building in New York. About forty of the most eminent scientists, including every department from astronomy to bacteriology, were present. An organization was effected and an executive committee, which should meet at short intervals, was appointed. We had no money, but to its great credit the Engineering Foundation gave us office space in its building, furnished a secretary, and granted five thousand dollars from its treasury for immediate expenses. It is not my purpose to give in any detail the work done by the National Research Council. This has been done by its prime mover and leading spirit, George E. Hale, of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California, and by others in a volume entitled The New World of Science by Robert M. Yerkes. Doctor Hale was the dynamo that generated and supplied the motive power, reinforced by such men as Michael Pupin, Gano Dunn, Robert Millikan, A. Michelson, William H. Welch, Edward Conklin, J. J. Carty, A. A. Noyes, and many others. The scientific men from every department of government were brought in cooperation with this organization. In other words, the scientific forces of the nation were mobilized and began to work without a creak or jar, as a perfect machine should. Indeed, the mobilization of science extended beyond our country and soon we were in close cooperation with the scientific men of all the allied nations. Immediately after the appointment of the committee known as the National Research Council, Doctors Hale and Welch went to Europe and established a liaison with our friends. It was found that the scientists of our allies were ready to supply us with all the knowledge they had gained, and our work was largely directed by their experience and advice.

My part in the National Research Council before we entered the war was to look after medical affairs. As a member of the executive committee during the fall and winter of 1916-17, I made frequent visits from Ann Arbor to New York and Washington. I would make a night journey to one of these places, spend a day in consultation with my fellows and return that night and continue my University duties. Quite naturally we could not talk about these matters with those outside of our organization. Our country was still endeavoring to practice neutrality in deed, word and thought. During this period President Wilson was re-elected largely on the slogan that he had kept us out of the war. Even among ourselves we did not speak of our work as a preparation for war, but as preparation for an “emergency.”

Our organization had no official standing, no government support. The National Academy of Sciences had volunteered its services to the President and he had accepted, but we were not under his direction nor that of Congress. It is true that the President, with the authority of Congress, appointed in the spring of 1916 a Council of National Defense but with this we had at the time no official connection. To me, and I dare say to all the members of the National Research Council, this was a period of work under high tension. During this time I passed through phases of great elation and distressing hours of mental depression. I felt a moral and intellectual enthusiasm when I saw, as sometimes I did, the approach of the day when our disgraceful procrastination, so it seemed to me then, could be broken; then I felt like shouting from the house top. In this condition of mind I did at times speak out more plainly than I intended.

At a Faculty meeting one day when I had returned that morning from New York I said something-I do not remember what-but it must have been spoken with fervor because it led dignified President Hutchins to remark: “Doctor Vaughan, we are not all so enthusiastic about entering the war as you are.” I admit that I became somewhat morbid. I did not see how my University colleagues could go on engrossed in their daily routine while the nation faced a catastrophe. Indeed, the only regrettable words I uttered to a colleague were spoken when in this state of mind. I immediately saw the injustice of my remarks and apologized. But unjust accusations are never forgotten. I had my hours of depression when I reviewed the number of German insults heaped upon us answered only by polite notes from our President and I wondered whether he could ever be prodded into action.

Of course, during this period I kept in close touch with General Gorgas and his staff and was largely advised by these men. However, there were certain things which an outsider could do better than one in the service. The following are some of the many subjects which were discussed: (1) The sterilization of drinking water for troops in cantonments, on the march, and on the firing line; (2) the ventilation of barracks; (3) soldiers’ clothing; (4) rations; (5) the best methods of vaccination against both smallpox and typhoid fever; (6) the treatment of wounds; (7) the treatment of poisoning with deadly gases; (8) the provision of supply of medicines; (9) the protection of the ear against high explosives; (10) the detection of disease carriers and their treatment; (11) provision of diagnostic laboratories in both equipment and personnel; (12) the bacteriology of wounds. On all these points my confreres in the regular medical corps were better posted than I.

Digitalis was considered an essential agent in the treatment of pneumonia. The “emergency,” if it came, would be accompanied by a high morbidity from this disease. All the digitalis used medicinally in this country had come from Germany. There was not enough in stock here to serve a small hospital six months. A species of the plant from which medicinal preparations are made grows wild in this country, especially in the states of Oregon and Washington, but this is not the species from which the preparation had been made. Would this species serve our purpose? Boy scouts in Oregon and Washington gathered the wild leaves; these were assayed at the University of Minnesota and when the “emergency” did come we had enough of this drug to supply the world.

Surgical needles were not made in this country. A firm was induced to build a plant for this industry. This it did at its own expense and our surgeons in France were able to stitch wounds with American made needles. We would need the most efficient disinfectants in large numbers; what are they ? And how should they be used? Professor Zinsser of Columbia University and Professor Richards of the University of Pennsylvania put their services and their laboratories at our disposal in answering these questions and continued this work for some months after we entered the war.

We knew that body lice infested the soldiers of our allies, as well as those of our enemies, and the natural history of these parasites and the most successful method of destroying them became matters of concern. We secured recipes for insecticides from our allies and did our best to improve them.

On February 28, 1917, the Council of National Defense invited the National Research Council to cooperate with it in scientific matters.

On the day preceding the entrance of the United States into the war, the following cablegram was sent by the National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society of London, the Paris Academy of Sciences, the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, and the Petrograd Academy of Sciences-leading scientific bodies, then engaged in the study of war problems, with which the National Academy had cooperated for many years in scientific research:

“The entrance of the United States into the war unites our men of science with yours in a common cause. The National Academy of Sciences, acting through the National Research Council, which has been designated by President Wilson and the Council of National Defense to mobilize the research facilities of the country, would gladly cooperate in any scientific researches still underlying the solution of military or industrial problems.”

As I have already indicated, during the war the National Research Council acted as the scientific component of the Council of National Defense. Since the war the National Research Council has received five millions of dollars from the Carnegie Foundation, large grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the General Education Board and smaller grants from other sources. Its function is to encourage research in all branches of science and to foster cooperation in this work.

A Doctor's Memories
Victor C. Vaughan, M.D.

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