Philip Hauge Abelson
Papers, 1937-1989 (bulk 1962-1984)
Acquisition And Processing Information
Philip Hauge Abelson donated his papers to Washington State University through the WSU President's Office. In 1985 they were transferred to the WSU Libraries (MS 1985-15). One item was added to the collection later: the transcript from an interview with Dr. Abelson in 1989, conducted by WSU History graduate student Stephen W. Charry. The collection was processed by Susan Vetter in 2009.
Number of Containers: 4
Linear Feet of Shelf Space: 2
Philip Hauge Abelson (1913-2004) was born in Tacoma, WA, to Ellen and Olaf Abelson. Both Ellen and Olaf had attended Washington State College, where Philip Abelson earned his bachelor's (chemistry) and master's (physics) degrees, and also met his wife Neva Martin, a fellow chemistry student. They married in 1936, while Abelson was completing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, Abelson worked with pioneering nuclear scientists Ernest O. Livermore, Edwin McMillan, and Luis Alvarez, all eventual Nobel Prize winners. Abelson and McMillan co-discovered the element neptunium in 1940.
Earning his Ph.D. in 1939, Abelson spent the war years at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., where he continued his nuclear research and developed the thermal diffusion process for separation of the fissionable Uranium-235 from U-238. Abelson's process, employed at the Oak Ridge laboratory, provided a breakthrough in the Manhattan Project and the eventual deployment of the uranium bomb. He also pursued research that led to the first nuclear submarine, scaling reactors for use on submarines. For his wartime work, Abelson received the U.S. Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1945.
Abelson first joined the Carnegie Institution of Washington (now the Carnegie Institution for Science) in 1939 as an assistant physicist in its Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM). After wartime leave to work at NRL, Abelson returned to Carnegie's DTM in 1946 as chair of the Biophysics Section. In 1953 he became director of the Geophysical Laboratory. His long career at Carnegie concluded after he served as president from 1971 to 1978, and he served as a trustee until his death in 2004.
Upon his return to the Carnegie Institution after World War II, Abelson continued his cyclotron work that had begun at Berkeley, with a new focus: the production of radioactive tracers to study cell processes. In these years, Abelson extended his scientific training from chemistry and physics into biochemistry and microbiology. Abelson and his team used radioisotopes to examine the metabolism of Escherichia coli and amino acid synthesis as well as other intracellular processes. When Abelson moved into the directorship of the Geophysical Laboratory, he created another cross-disciplinary enterprise, biogeochemistry, in his study of amino acids in fossils and the Earth's biological history. A testament to his multi-disciplinary expertise was Abelson's election to the National Academy of Sciences, where he was eligible in any of seven sections: biochemistry, chemistry, engineering, geophysics, microbiology, physics, and geology.
His career as an editor began in 1958 with the Journal of Geophysical Research where he established his ability to publish quickly and expand readership, both of which contributed to his success as editor of the journal Science from 1962 to 1985. He became a consummate editor, conversant in research in many different fields, and a competent administrator who reduced publication time, implemented more efficient peer-review procedures, and fostered active science reporting, especially at the intersection of scientific research and public policy. Through his editorials, more than 450 in total, Abelson enlightened, as well as provoked, Science readers. He continued his association with Science and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, until his death in 2004.
In 2003, Washington State University recognized Abelson and his wife Neva Martin Abelson by renaming Science Hall in their honor. Neva Martin Abelson died in 2000 after a distinguished career as a medical doctor who developed the Rh factor blood test.
During his long career, Philip Abelson was honored with many awards, including:
Member of the National Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Medicine
Distinguished Civilian Service Medal (U.S. Navy), 1945
Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science from UNESCO, 1972
President's National Medal of Science, 1989
Public Welfare Medal from National Academy of Sciences, 1992
Vannevar Bush Distinguished Public Service Medal from National Science Foundation, 1996
First Recipient of WSU's Regents' Distinguished Alumnus Award, 1962
The Philip H. Abelson papers offer a glimpse into the long and distinguished career of a research scientist and scientific editor. This collection includes publications by Abelson (some reprints and reproductions), notes, newspaper clippings, correspondence, speeches, and an interview transcript.
The publications in this collection range from scientific papers written during Abelson's Berkeley graduate student days to those based on his research at the Carnegie Institution, and are dominated by the more than 450 editorials he produced as editor of Science from 1962 until 1985. In addition to published items, the collection includes several unpublished speeches.
The collection includes a comprehensive bibliography of Abelson's scholarly work through June 1979 created by Marjorie H. Walburn, who worked with Abelson as Assistant to the President of the Carnegie Institution.
Other items of special interest are materials related to the debate regarding the Apollo manned space program in the 1960s, in which Abelson was a prominent participant. Items in this sequence range from newspaper clippings to copies of addresses and congressional testimony. In April 1963, Abelson used his position as editor of Science to express his opposition to the Apollo manned missions, arguing that unmanned programs provided better scientific data at lower cost, and that public funding for science should be directed toward other priorities. Abelson was one of the scientists who testified before Congress in 1963 as the NASA budget and priorities were debated. He received considerable coverage in the popular press as he spoke about the Apollo program, NASA, and government funding of scientific research.
The final items in the collection were received with the label "PHA Notes--Yellow Pads in President's Office." These are notes--many of them very cryptic--made by Abelson, and possibly gathered and preserved directly from his Carnegie Institution desk. The original groupings have been retained. Though largely undated (except for notes on a 1971 trip to Chile and a 1971 reprint of a scientific paper), this aggregation of primarily handwritten notes on a wide variety of topics seems to come from Abelson's tenure as President of the Carnegie Institution from 1971 to 1978. The notes demonstrate the breadth and depth of Abelson's scientific thinking, as well as his decisions as the chief administrator in an independent scientific research organization. Topics include astronomy, medical research, geochemistry, geophysics, and plate tectonics. They show Abelson's thoughts about intersections of science and public policy including technology transfer, funding of science education and research, and the federal role, with comments on the Nixon Administration's science policy and on federal regulations especially with regard to the newly organized U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They also include budget calculations, possibly related to Carnegie projects.
The final series consists of an interview transcript from 1989 which was a later addition to the collection. The interview, conducted by Stephen W. Charry, concentrates on Abelson's early opposition to the manned Apollo program. Abelson assesses his time in the limelight, observing that he was "sufficiently obnoxious" that the media always called him when they wanted an opposing voice. More than a quarter century after the initial debate, Abelson remained skeptical about manned expeditions for the purpose of colonization of the Moon and/or Mars.
The collection is arranged in five series:
- Series 1: Publications, speeches, and Walburn bibliography, 1937-1984
- Subseries 1.1: Publications and speeches, 1937-1984. This subseries reflects Walburn's original filing order, essentially a simple chronological sequence where publications and speeches are sometimes grouped separately (1979-1984). In some cases, related items such as reader-response correspondence are filed with individual items. In the Container List below, published materials in this subseries are described collectively, and unpublished materials (all typescripts) are itemized.
- Subseries 1.2: Walburn bibliography of Abelson, and miscellaneous items, circa 1965-1980. The bibliography in this subseries was created by Marjorie H. Walburn, who served as Assistant to the President of Carnegie Institution. In 1979 and 1980 she constructed the bibliography, assembling Abelson's publications and speeches, arranging them chronologically, and compiling a 39-page typescript that lists all publications and published speeches from 1937 through June 1979. The rest of the subseries consists of miscellaneous items.
- Series 2: World War II atomic research, 1942-1956. This series consists of materials generated during Abelson's wartime work for the Naval Research Laboratory related to his liquid thermal diffusion process, and to the patent that he filed in 1942 for "Production of Uranium Hexafluoride," issued in 1956.
- Series 3: "Comments Moon Race--President's Science Advisor (1963)," 1963-1970. This series includes materials related to the debate regarding the Apollo manned space program in the 1960s, in which Abelson was a prominent participant. Items in this sequence range from newspaper clippings to copies of addresses and congressional testimony. The original order of the items has been retained.
- Series 4: PHA Notes: "Yellow Pads in President's Office," circa 1970s. This series consists of notes--many of these very cryptic--made by Abelson. The original groupings have been retained.
- Series 5: Transcript of Stephen Charry interview regarding Apollo program, 1989
Abelson, Philip Hauge -- Archives
Scientists -- Archives
Science and state
Energy policy -- United States
Manned space flight -- Government policy -- United States
Project Apollo (U.S.)
This collection is open and available for research use. Copyright restrictions apply.
The suggested citation for the collection is:
Philip Hauge Abelson papers, 1937-1989
Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections
Washington State University Libraries
At Washington State University: Philip and Neva Abelson oral history interviews, 1989 (Cage 740. Collection guide available online: http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/MASC/finders/cg740.htm).
At other institutions: the Library of Congress houses the bulk of Abelson's papers (MSS84803), and the American Institute of Physics holds records of three interviews with Abelson in 2002.
Most documents are in English; however, some of the reprinted publications are in French, German, Japanese, or Spanish.