AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXX, No. 1, Spring 1998


The Archives of the National Academy of Sciences

by David J. E. Saumweber

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a rich source for historical information on American science and technology. It was established by act of Congress in 1863 as a private, honorific institution charged with providing independent advice on science and technology to the federal government. Anticipating an expanded wartime need for advice, the NAS established the National Research Council (NRC) in 1916 and continued its operation after 1918. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) was established under the NAS charter in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was similarly established in 1970. The NAE and IOM administer their own affairs, but share in management of the NRC, which operates most research activities of the institution.

The NRC is composed of approximately 1,000 committees, with a total membership of just under 10,000. Most of these committees are appointed in response to a specific government request and spend on average 18-24 months evaluating a scientific or technical topic before providing their peer-reviewed advice in the form of a written report. In addition to these better-known advisory services, the institution also contributes significantly to building the national scientific and technical infrastructure. The Academy and the Research Council have sponsored fellowship programs, worked to strengthen industrial research, promoted science abstracting and information services, housed infant scientific institutions, fostered international nongovernmental science organizations, operated international scientific exchange programs, and done much other work. Perhaps most importantly, the NRC has maintained an ongoing, cooperative organization since 1919 in which the concerns of the disciplines and of the scientific and technical community are discussed and reviewed, and through which leadership in the resolution of their problems may be exercised.

The records in the NAS Archives are arranged by the historical structure of the organization. The institution's annual directory, Organization and Members, is the most comprehensive guide to the institution's programs; it has been issued for almost every year since 1917. An Annual Report was also issued 1863-1978. The most comprehensive history is Rexmond C. Cochrane's The National Academy of Sciences: The First Hundred Years, 1863-1963 (Washington, D C, National Academy of Sciences, 1978), still in print. Frederick W. True's A History of the First Half-Century of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863-1913 (Washington, 1913) remains the fullest account of the early committee activities of the NAS. Automated finding aids for programs exist for the entire period since 1863 and may be made available to researchers; automated finding aids for individuals exist only for the period since 1982, and are available only to staff. Manual finding aids are available for individual series. No published finding aids are currently available.

The NAS Archives, part of the Office of Archives and Information Services, is the institution's corporate archives and operates its records management program. David J. E. Saumweber is the Director of the Office; Janice F. Goldblum is NAS Archivist. The NAS Archives is the repository for all records of the NAS and the NRC and the program records of the NAE and the IOM. All fraternal records are permanently closed. Other records are closed for at least the most recent twenty-five years. The Archives staff cannot perform extensive research for outside requestors, but the records in the open period are available to qualified scholars by appointment. Photocopying and micrographic services are available.

The following records may be of special interest to historians of physics and allied sciences:

  • Papers of various international unions, including ICSU, IUPAP, IUCr, IAU, IUGG, IUPAC, and others, and their United States National Committees, of which the NRC is the sponsor.
  • Papers of the international scientific programs for which the Academy was the U.S. participant, such as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the International Years of the Quiet Sun (IQSY), the International Indian Ocean Expedition (IDOE), the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), et al.
  • Papers of the activities that grew out of the International Geophysical Year, e.g. the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences, the Committee on Polar Research (now the Polar Research Board), the Geophysics Research Board, the Space Science Board (now the Space Studies Board), and the Committee on Oceanography (now the Ocean Studies Board), as well as papers of the American Geophysical Union (1919-1972), which was founded under and was part of the National Research Council for over fifty years.
  • Papers of the Committee on the Physics of the Earth, 1926-1942; the Committee on Nuclear Science, 1947-1978; papers of the various radiation committees (BEAR, BEIR, etc.); papers of the disciplinary surveys in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, and physics (the "Bromley Report", "Greenstein Report", and the like); and papers of the panels advisory to the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

The NAS Archives is located in the NAS-NRC Building at 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20418; phone 202-334-2415; Fax 202-334-1651; e-mail or Researchers should write or call in advance to arrange access.

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