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Environmental Concerns

In the 1950s, research into the impacts of marine pollutants flourished after the incident of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. In the 1960s, a series of alarming events raised our national environmental consciousness. For example, the discovery that dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was the agent responsible for the inability of pelican eggs to hatch verified Rachel Carson's (1962) warning in Silent Spring of chemical dangers lurking in the environment. At about the same time, oil from an offshore drilling rig blowout coated beaches in Santa Barbara, California.


The Early Years

On March 3, 1863, as its last act on its last day, the 37th Congress passed legislation establishing "an independent organization to address scientific issues critical to the defense of the country." That evening, Abraham Lincoln signed this bill—creating an organization that would be known as the National Academy of Sciences—into law.

Its charter mandated that "whenever called upon by any department of the government" the NAS was to "investigate, examine... and report upon any subject of science or art." Federal agencies made ten requests to NAS in the first year. Three were ocean and defense related:

  1. The Committee on Protecting the Bottom of Iron Clad Ships from Injury by Saltwater: On May 8, 1863, the Navy Department through the chief of its Bureau of Navigation, Admiral Charles H. Davis, asked the Academy to investigate protection for the bottoms of iron ships from injury by salt water. Wolcott Gibb's committee, appointed the next day, reported that a metallic coating or alloy was commonly used to prevent or arrest corrosion of metals and that substances in paints often were used to destroy accumulations of plants or animals on ship bottoms. The committee provided its report in seven months and was discharged early the next year.

  2. The Compass Committee: Also on May 8, 1863, the Academy was asked to conduct an investigation of magnetic deviations in iron ships and means for better correction of their compasses. Alexander Bache chaired the committee appointed on May 20 and made his report with seven subreports on January 7, 1864.

  3. The Committee to Examine Wind and Current Charts and Sailing Directions: The third request was for recommendations regarding the proposed discontinuation of Matthew Fontaine Maury's Wind and Current Charts and Sailing Directions. The committee's view was less than favorable, finding the charts to be "a most wanton waste of valuable paper" that "embrace much, which is unsound in philosophy, and little that is practically useful" It recommended that they be discontinued in their current form. In Maury's defense, his charts did, in fact, reduce sailing times, and a simplified version was republished 20 years later.

TABLE 1 Era of Early Institution Building

Dates of Origin



California Academy of Sciences, California


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts


Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts


Hopkins Marine Station, California


Scripps Institution of Oceanography, California


University of Washington, Friday Harbor Labs, Washington

These early ocean committees set the tone for the Academy's future role in advancing ocean science in support of national security. But, for the next fifty years, federal agencies made no major marine research requests to NAS. During this time, however, a number of small marine laboratories were established and were used by biologists and their students from nearby universities during the summer months. Some of these were and still are supported by state funds, whereas others received funds from private foundations. As these seaside biological stations grew so did the scope of their investigations and the interests of the scientists using them. Some of them grew to become oceanographic laboratories. Table 1 indicates the dates when some of these early oceanographic institutions began.

In 1916, the National Academy of Sciences formed the National Research Council (NRC) to improve cooperation among government, academic, industrial, and other research organizations. The principal aims in creating the NRC were to encourage investigations of natural phenomena, increase the use of research to develop U.S. industries, strengthen national defense, and promote national security and welfare.

World Wars Spur Investment and Advances in Ocean Science

With the outbreak of World War I, the federal government sought the assistance of the NAS-NRC. to support the national defense. From 1916 to 1918, three committees were formed:

  1. The Committee on Physics chaired by Robert A. Millikan,

  2. The Submarine Investigations Subcommittee chaired by Robert A. Millikan, and

  3. The Committee on Navigation Specifications for the Emergency Fleet chaired by Lewis S. Bauer.

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