How Men of Science Will Help in Our War

By George Ellery Hale
(Chairman of the National Research Council)

[Scribner's Magazine, June 1917]

The ancient forest of Compiègne, from time immemorial the favorite hunting-ground of the kings of France, stretched far away behind the battle-line. The town lay well within the range of heavy guns, but little injury had befallen it, and we saw few evidences of shell-fire as the military car that carried us in the company of Doctor Carrel, passed through to the hospital on its outskirts. Here, at the edge of the forest, in a hotel which has sheltered many a company of huntsmen, we were to see the most striking evidence of the value of science to a nation at war.

It was an eventful day at Compiègne. The Roumanian Government had declared its appreciation of Doctor Carrel's new surgical method, and his chief surgeon was on the point of leaving for Roumania, where he was to establish a military hospital of ten thousand beds organized on the antiseptic plan. We were fortunate enough to arrive in time for déjeuner with him and the rest of the able group of men and women who so loyally assisted in the hospital duties.

One of these -was Count de Noüys, a young physicist of Paris. After the train of motor-trucks he commanded had been demolished by a single German shell he was induced by Doctor Carrel to adapt his previous experience as a physicist to the needs of war. As the result of a series of careful investigations, which he was kind enough to outline for us, he had developed a formula for calculating the time required for the complete healing of almost any kind of wound under given conditions. The surprisingly accurate results paid tribute to the skill of the physicist and, above all, to the perfection of a system of surgery in striking contrast with the crude and often deadly methods in vogue during our Civil War.

The success of Carrel's system, I am told by those who know, is not due to a single element, but to the combined advantages of a highly developed technique. The operation itself is first performed with unusual care. A system of rubber tubes, with openings at close intervals, is next arranged over the wound, which is then irrigated to the greatest possible depth at regular intervals with Dakin's antiseptic fluid, supplied from a reservoir. We were shown every element in the plan, the patients cheerfully submitting their wounds to inspection. While I could not follow my companion (Doctor William H. Welch) in his appreciation of the details, I could at least admire the extraordinary results and rejoice with him in this magnificent contribution of science to the relief of the horrors of battle.

Think of the contrast with the surgery of the Civil War! I have heard our veteran colleague, Doctor Keen, describe with the emotion which all who were forced to use those earlier methods must now experience, the deadly errors into which they were led by ignorance, at length dispelled by the greatest of Frenchmen—-Pasteur. It was no uncommon thing in those days—not so long ago, yet mediaeval in their obscurity—for a surgeon to withdraw his knife from a wound, sharpen it upon his boot, and plunge it once more, loaded with virulent bacteria, into the very life-blood of his patient! What wonder that deaths were, a common sequence of even trivial wounds! And yet the human sympathy of the surgeon and his intense desire to save were no less obvious than at the present day.

What has accomplished this marvellous revolution? The patient researches of Pasteur and their adaptation to the art of surgery by such men as Lister and Carrel. No better proof of the value of scientific research to the world, no clearer evidence of its intensely practical importance in the midst of this world war, could possibly be asked. Let us glance for a moment at the origin of Pasteur's discoveries. Once understood, they sweep from the mind all misconceptions as to the significance of so-called "pure science," scoffed at by the uninformed as of purely academic interest but exalted by the most practical leaders of modern industrial research as the source from which all progress springs.

For Pasteur, in the initiation of this epoch-making work, had for his only guide an intense desire for new knowledge. His studies of the optical properties of crystals were made with no thought of human advantage, no consideration, even remote, of practical applications. He was impelled by that ungovernable instinct to extend the boundaries of knowledge, to reach out into the vast unknown, which every true investigator feels so keenly. He must know more, no matter where his discoveries might lead. Here lies the source of all great advances, the spring from which flow all the advantages brought by science into our daily lives.

The minute crystals of racemic acid fascinated the inquiring mind of the young Pasteur. Slight peculiarities in form, missed by earlier workers but detected under his microscope, led him to separate the crystals into two heaps. Though identical in chemical composition, these two classes nevertheless affected polarized light in opposite ways. And in this simple difference Pasteur knew that he had made a great discovery, potent with far-reaching possibilities which, even then, his keen imagination half-divined. "The gods send threads to a web begun," and from this small beginning the great and glowing tapestry we now admire was woven. For, in tracing the origin of racemic acid, Pasteur established the true nature of fermentation and the role of bacteria in the processes of putrefaction. Pushing on, under the stimulus of a bold imagination and untiring zeal, he quickly wove the pattern as it rose before him, and thus enriched the world with one of its greatest possessions. Out of his discoveries there developed on the one hand an important branch of chemistry, which tells us of the arrangement of the atoms in a molecule; and on the other the germ theory of disease and the elimination or destruction of enemy bacteria by the aseptic or antiseptic methods of modern surgery.

Fortunately for the United States, the methods of Pasteur and Lister and Koch have been developed to the highest level by American bacteriologists and surgeons. As we enter the war against a most formidable opponent it is a great satisfaction to realize that advantage will be taken of the best teachings of science. Even before the opening of hostilities we read the announcement that the Rockefeller Medical Institute will establish a special hospital, perfectly equipped, in which Doctor Carrel and Doctor Dakin will instruct our army surgeons in the new methods. What this will mean in the saving of lives no one can predict. But it will lend courage and hope to those who remember the Civil War and realize the advantages of the present day.

We need not go back so far, however, to appreciate, the changes wrought by scientific research. The training-camps of the Spanish War were breeding-grounds of typhoid, which swept away many a victim. Now typhoid is practically abolished in military camps and with it other diseases of similar gravity. Out-of 100,000 soldiers enlisted for Cuba, 20,000 were stricken with typhoid. Out of 125,000 sent to the Mexican border last summer, there were only fourteen typhoid cases. Some of the serums and vaccines, including those for typhoid and smallpox, are easily manufactured in large quantities. But others are very difficult to prepare, and here our research laboratories will perform an important service. The Rockefeller Institute, for example, is preparing for the army and navy the serums used against tetanus, dysentery, pneumonia, and meningitis, and other laboratories will undertake similar work.

The present war has developed in France, and especially in England, a far clearer perception of the national value of scientific research than had ever existed before. Postmaster-General Pease, of Great Britain, recently said: "One of the lessons of the war has been that we have learned as a state to respect and be guided by scientific method and scientific men to a degree which nothing, but a great necessity could have achieved." Germany, to the great cost of other nations, realized many years ago the fundamental importance of science; and generations of university men, trained for research and skilled in laboratory methods, have been available for the development of industry and the perfection of equipment for a great military offensive. In the United States the first national recognition of the value of scientific advice to the government was accorded by Congress toward the close of the Civil War.

It was in 1863 that President Lincoln signed the charter granted by Congress to the National Academy of Sciences. This established the Academy as the adviser of the government on all questions of science, and placed the services of its members, the leading men of science of the country, freely at the disposal of the executive and legislative branches. The military questions offered to the Academy in its early years were subsequently followed by problems of the widest range, proposed by the President, the heads of government departments, and both houses of Congress. The organization and growth of the scientific bureaus of the government have provided a satisfactory means of answering many technical questions; but the Academy still deals to advantage with matters of broad scope, especially those calling for cooperation between several departments of the government or the joint activities of investigators in universities, research foundations, and industrial-research laboratories. Such co-operation is most urgently needed in a national-crisis, like that occasioned by the present war.

The opportunity of rendering useful service to the government was recognized by the Academy at its annual meeting in April, 1916. The Sussex had been attacked without warning by a German submarine, and the President was on the point of taking the step which has finally led to our participation in the war. The Academy voted to offer its services in organizing the scientific resources of educational and research institutions in the interest of national defense and national welfare. This offer was accepted by the President, and steps were at once taken which soon led to the organization of the National Research Council. Cordially indorsed by the President, and assured, through his active support, of the Cooperation of all government departments, the Research Council is now devoting most of its attention to investigations bearing on military problems, undertaken at the request of the Council of National Defense. But its ultimate purpose is a much wider one.

There are four groups of scientific men in the United States which the National Research Council has brought into active co-operation. These include: (1) The chiefs of various technical bureaus of the army and navy, including the surgeon-general, chief of ordnance, and chief signal officer of the army,, and the chief constructor, chief engineer, chief of ordnance, and director of the medical school of the navy. (2) The heads of certain important scientific bureaus of the government, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Bureau of Standards, the Bureau of Mines, and the Weather Bureau. The members of these two groups, together with Mr. Howard Coffin, of the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, constitute the Military Committee of the National Research Council. Of this important committee the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution is chairman and the director of the Bureau of Standards, is secretary. (3) Representatives of various branches of scientific research in educational institutions and research foundations. (4) Representatives of industrial research and various branches of engineering and applied science.

The Council, now comprising fifty-two members, meets several times each year. In the intervals its work is conducted "by the executive committee and the military committee, assisted by committees representing the various branches of science and others dealing with special problems of immediate practical importance, including nitrate supply, foods, optical glass, and submarine detection.

The success of such an organization as the Research Council depends in large measure upon its ability to secure the co-operation of societies and institutions dealing with research in all branches of science and engineering. The action of the Engineering Foundation of New York—which represents the four great national engineering societies in joining with the National Academy to organize the Council, is of special significance. The entire income of the Foundation is now devoted to the work of the Research Council, which has also received substantial gifts from other sources. Many other scientific societies have similarly co-operated with the Council, which is receiving the solid support of American men of science.

Let us see how the work of the Research Council is conducted during a time of war. The military committee brings into active co-operation the men most closely concerned with the scientific and technical problems of the government, including those of a military nature and others occasioned by the interruption of foreign commerce. Questions calling for scientific research are constantly arising. They are formulated in co-operation with the secretary of the committee, who is in daily contact with the work of the military bureaus. Here is a typical illustration, showing how an important problem is attacked.

If a vessel on the surface could detect the presence of a submarine or submarine mine at a considerable distance, her safety might be assured. This is a physical problem in which the experience of the physicist in devising new methods is directly applicable. Several interesting possibilities suggest themselves at once, and a simultaneous attack is accordingly launched in several university and industrial-research laboratories. Doctor Robert A. Millikan, of the University of Chicago, charged by the Council with the correlation of researches bearing on the national defense, keeps in touch with the various investigators and brings them into contact with the secretary of the military committee and the army and navy officers immediately concerned, thus securing the co-operation necessary for the most effective work. Freedom of initiative is encouraged, and the participation of a number of competent workers, approaching the problem from different points of view, is welcomed. In fact, the research is conducted exactly as a large co-operative investigation in astronomy or in pure physics would be carried out. The indisputable advantages derived from experience in research, from personal knowledge of the co-operative methods of modern science, and from an acquaintance with the numerous and revolutionary advances of physics in recent years, are utilized to the fullest extent.

I mention these points in some detail in order to meet the question that sometimes arises: How can the student of pure science, unaccustomed, perhaps, to practical applications of his subject, be expected to deal effectively with these military problems? Acquaintance with the procedure of the modern observatory or laboratory would dispel any doubts as to the ability of a really capable investigator to adjust himself to present demands. He is accustomed to devise new instruments and methods, adapted to the ever-changing needs of his researches. And it is quite immaterial whether the object in view be the detection of a submarine a few miles away or the measurement of the pressure in the atmosphere of a star.

It is thus easy to understand how certain European astronomers have been able to aid in the solution of war problems. Count de la Baume Pluvinel, the well-known French astronomer, has devised an electrical instrument for detecting the presence of bits of shrapnel in the body, which I saw in use at Doctor Carrel's hospital at Compiègne. Other astronomers have invented new range-finders for air-craft and apparatus for rapidly adjusting the prisms of damaged binoculars, or applied their mathematical knowledge to the solution of the intricate hydrodynamical problems involved in the design of airplanes. The astonishing development in the efficiency of the French and British air fleet since the beginning of the war, which has enabled it to wrest the supremacy of the air from the Germans, is due in large measure, to the theoretical and experimental investigations of mathematicians and physicists recruited from university and laboratory and working in organized groups.

The submarine problem is only one of scores already formulated by our military committee. Some of these involve entirely new questions and call for immediate research. Others have doubtless been solved in Europe since the outbreak of the war. It would be an obvious mistake not to profit by all that can be learned of what is being accomplished abroad. For this reason the Research Council has sent a committee of scientific investigators to report from the front and to arrange for co-operation with men of science of the Entente in the solution of outstanding research problems. Here the advantage of many years of close cooperation in other fields of research will be felt.

During my recent trip to England and France, made for the purpose of learning how men of science can be of the greatest service to the State in time of war, I found that the very investigators with whom we have been most closely associated in the International Association of Academies, the International Union for Co-operation in Solar Research, and other bodies of similar character are prominent in the work now in progress for military purposes. French men of science are organized under M. Painlevé, a distinguished mathematician of the Paris Academy of Sciences, now minister of war. Associated with him in immediate charge of research are M. Borel, the well-known mathematical physicist, and M. Perrin, whose discoveries in physics have contributed so materially to recent progress. Working with them I was pleased to find MM. Fabry, Cotton, de la Baume Pluvinel, Chrétien, and others who have been active in our co-operative investigations in solar physics and spectroscopy. In England the leaders, most of whom are also physicists, include Sir Joseph Thomson, Lord Rayleigh, Professor Schuster, Professor Starling, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Sir Robert Hadfield, and others of similar distinction. The value of their contributions to military methods has been fully recognized by General Sir Douglas Haig in his reports from the front.

Many of the questions that call for scientific research fall in the fields of chemistry, physiology, preventive medicine, and hygiene. Here the corresponding committees of the Research Council are accomplishing valuable results.

Problems in chemistry are very numerous. The storage-batteries of submarines emit hydrogen gas in dangerous quantities; improved devices for detecting its presence must be developed and applied, and the more fundamental problem of absorbing the gas as rapidly as it is produced must be solved. A shell explosion in a confined space such as a gun-turret generates noxious gases; some means of absorbing or expelling them rapidly enough to save life is needed. Smokeless powder is probably susceptible of distinct improvement. And thus one might go on through an endless list of chemical problems, which are not confined to military needs but include a multitude of questions resulting from the stoppage of our imports from Germany.

One of the most interesting and important of the numerous chemical problems associated with the war is that of the fixation of nitrogen. Nitric acid is needed in great quantities for the manufacture of explosives, and cheap nitrates are equally essential for fertilizers. At present we depend entirely upon the nitrate beds of Chile, and this source of supply might be cut off by war. Congress has accordingly appropriated twenty million dollars, and at the request of the Secretary of War, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council, with the co-operation of the American Chemical Society, have investigated the various processes and made recommendations to the War Department. The report of the nitrate-supply committee has not been made public, but it may be said that one of its most striking features is the demonstration it affords of the need for further research. There are the strongest of reasons to believe, that a marked increase in efficiency could be effected at an early date, if the problem were attacked by our investigators in the same thorough way that the Germans have so successfully followed, and researches with this end in view will doubtless be organized.

Another large problem calling for physical and chemical research is that of optical glass. The chief source of optical glass before the war was the firm of Schott in Jena, which had been extremely successful in developing many new varieties through the aid of a subsidy from the German Government. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities England, found serious embarrassment in supplying optical glass for binoculars, gun-sights, range-finders, periscopes, and other military instruments. Investigators were set to work, but only after extensive researches did it become possible to produce a few of the more essential glasses. In this country a serious shortage of optical glass has also been felt; but the investigations undertaken some time ago by the Bureau of Standards, and those just inaugurated by the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in co-operation with large manufacturers, should soon solve the difficulty.

Every man of science, equally, with other citizens, must feel his obligation to contribute in some way to the prosecution of our war against the enemy of civilization. Greatly as he may abhor the practices of Germany, and deeply as he may resent the barbarities which have brought us into the war, he can hardly wish to retaliate in kind. We must aid in sweeping the sea free from submarines and in, pushing the fight on the west front until the German lines give way. We must not send out our men armed with flintlocks, nor equip them with any inferior means of attack or defense. But I trust we may not resort to those diabolical devices which constitute. an indelible reproach upon the German Government. It is conceivable that some forms of gas attack that do not cause unnecessary suffering may be justifiable; but nothing can excuse the fiendish cruelty which has led to the introduction into the most irritating gases of ingredients carefully calculated, we are credibly told, not to hasten death but to heighten suffering.

We may turn with relief from the contemplation of such practices to consider the precisely opposite methods of our investigators in experimental medicine and hygiene. Some of these have been mentioned in the introduction to this paper, but the subject is one not easily exhausted. The nation which has dealt with yellow fever in Cuba and eliminated its ravages from the Panama Canal Zone must not fail to protect its soldiers in the field. Unaccustomed as we are to the demands of a great war, and inefficient as we have proved to be in the recent past, we must leave no means untried to approach perfection now. The committee which the Research Council has sent abroad includes two medical observers of the highest type: one of them, Doctor Linsley Williams, has had exceptional experience in safeguarding public health in the State of New York. The other, Doctor Richard P. Strong, is widely known for his hazardous task of dealing with the typhus epidemic in Serbia. Both are accomplished men of science, and their reports will be invaluable to the Council of National Defense and to Surgeon-General Gorgas, whose success at Panama will reassure the nation in its heavy task.

Thus far we have dealt with the work of the National Research Council in a time of war, but its chief services to the nation should come with the return of peace. No one acquainted with the present organization of Germany and familiar with the strong foundation of scientific research on which it is based, will underestimate the intensity of the industrial struggle that will follow the present conflict.

Germany will be overcome by force of arms and weakened economically by the heavy drains she experiences. But the intensive education, of her people, their capacity for hard work and long hours, and the organization of her industries—already perfected—for commercial warfare, should not be ignored by her opponents. We must not only, perfect the organization of our own industries, but make certain that they are developed to the highest possible level by scientific research. The great corporations already recognize this need and have provided extensive research laboratories to meet it. But means must be found of extending similar benefits to smaller establishments which cannot afford to conduct research laboratories of their own.

Our chief task, however, lies farther down. So-called pure science, developed primarily for the sake of advancing knowledge, is the bed-rock of progress. None recognize this so clearly as those industrial leaders who have profited greatly from discoveries in pure science ultimately adapted to practical ends. The advancement of research for the sake of increasing knowledge, without thought of its application, is the most useful service the Research Council can offer the nation; and the support of the leaders of industry, already promised, will be a powerful aid in accomplishing this end.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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