Cage 741

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.

Extent/Quantity Information

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

Collection Description

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.

Collection Arrangement

The collection is arranged in five series:


Abelson, Philip Hauge -- Archives
Scientists -- Archives
Science and state
Nuclear physics
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.

Preferred Citation

The suggested citation for the collection is:

[Item Description]
Philip Hauge Abelson papers, 1937-1989
Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections
Washington State University Libraries
Pullman, WA

Related Materials

At Washington State University: Philip and Neva Abelson oral history interviews, 1989 (Cage 740. Collection guide available online:

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.

Container List:

Box Folder Description
    Series 1: Publications, speeches, and Walburn bibliography, 1937-1984
    Subseries 1.1: Publications and speeches, 1937-1984
1 1 1937-1940
  2 1946-1950
  3 1952-1953
  4 1954-1955
  5 1956-1957
  6 1958-1959
  7 1960-1961
  8 1962
  9-10 1963
  11 1964
  12-13 1965
  14 1966
  15 1967
  16 1968 (including unpublished item: "Keynote Address: The Future of Science and Its Effects on Society")
2 17 1969
  18 1970 (including unpublished item: "Toward a More Livable Environment," address presented upon receipt of the third Mellon Institute Award, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, 1970 April 10)
  19-20 1971
  21 1972 (including unpublished item: "Science in the Seventies," address delivered at Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C., 1972 May 4)
  22 1973 (including unpublished item;"The Emerging Energy Crisis," address delivered at Dickinson College Joseph Priestley Celebration, Carlisle, PA, 1973 March 9)
  23 Publications
  24 Speeches, including unpublished items: "William Walden Rubey," remarks at the Memorial Service held at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1974 April 27; also "Energy for Tomorrow," Jessie and John Danz Lecture Series, University of Washington, Seattle, 1974 November 19, 20, 21 [note: later published as Philip H. Abelson, Energy for Tomorrow (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975)]
  25 1975
  26 1976
  27 1977
  28 1978 (including unpublished item: "Opportunities for Scientists and Engineers," commencement address at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, 1978 May 23)
    Science editorials and speeches
3 29 1979 (including unpublished items: "Industrial Research," abstract of address before Iowa Academy of Science, 1979 April 20; "New Directions in Toxicology," remarks at dedication of Laboratory of Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology at the Research Triangle, NC, 1979 September 12; "New Opportunities for Geologists," address on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States Geological Survey, 1979 October 18; "Science in the Washington Jungle," address presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, San Diego, CA, 1979 November 5-8)
  30 1980 (including unpublished items: "The Human Element in Scientific Communication," address presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, San Francisco, CA, 1980 January 14; "Factors Shaping Future Energy," address presented as part of Health Effects and Energy Generation Seminar Series, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 10 March 1980; "Summary Remarks for Bio-Energy '80 World Congress and Exposition," Atlanta, GA, 1980 April 21-24; "Animal Agriculture and Human Needs in the 21st Century," address presented to Conference on Animal Agriculture Meeting Human Needs for 21st Century, sponsored by Michigan State University, Boyne Mountain, MI, 1980 May 4-9; "Chemists' Contribution to Solutions to Energy Problems," address presented at annual meeting of American Institute of Chemists, Inc., 1980 May 10;
  31 1981 (including unpublished items: "Energy and Electronics in a Changing World," address presented at the 50th anniversary symposium, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, 1981 October; "Government Support of Research," address presented at the Zumberge Conference, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, 1981 May 5-7; "An Era of Change," address presented at the 1981 regional conference for Fulbright scholars, University of Alabama, Birmingham, AL, 1981 April 6-9)
  32 1982 (including unpublished items: untitled address presented to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL, 1982 September 14-16; "Future of Methane as an Energy Source," keynote address presented at Symposium III--Unconventional Methods in Exploration for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, 1982 September 8-9; untitled remarks, presented to "Increasing Use of Biomass for Energy and Chemicals," Energy Seminar of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1982 July; "Science and Technology: An Optimist's View," address presented to The Temple, Cleveland, OH, 1982 May 7; convocation address presented at Arkansas State University Scholars Week, Jonesboro, AR, 1982 April 16; "Creativity and the Pursuit of Knowledge," Convocation Address, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 1982 March 10; "Management of DNA Research," remarks presented at Sesquicentennial Symposium "The Human Prospect and Recombinant DNA Research," Wesleyan University, 1982 March 4)
  33 1983 (including unpublished items: untitled address presented to Energy Research Institute Symposium, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1983 January 10-11; untitled address presented to International Symposium on Amazonia, Belem, Para, Brazil, 1983 July 7-13)
  34 1984 (including unpublished items: untitled acceptance address for National Science Foundation Distinguished Public Service Award, 1984 May 9; "Ellis Truesdale Bolton, Carnegie Institution of Washington Professor of Marine Studies," University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 1984 July 2; "Research and Scholarship," 25th anniversary celebration, Oakland University, Rochester, MI, 1984 October 22)
    Subseries 1.2: Walburn bibliography of Abelson, and miscellaneous items, circa 1965-1980
  35 Marjorie Walburn bibliography of Philip H. Abelson, covering 1937-1980 (typescript), 1980 August 12
  36 "Science and Society's Future." Correspondence related to publication of article in the Italian journal Scienza e Tecnica and copy of article, adapted from "Science and Society's Future," Intercentury Seminar, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, circa 1965
  37 "John A. Fleming," Dictionary of American Biography. Correspondence, research materials (photocopies), manuscript; 1975-1980
  38 "Procedures in the Study of Fossil Amino Acids" (typescript), undated
    Series 2: World War II atomic research, 1942-1956
  39 Abelson, Phillip [sic] H., Robert E. Ruskin, and Chad J. Raseman, "Memorandum to Director: Atomic Energy Submarine," approved by Ross Gunn and H.A. Schade, 1946 March 28
    Miscellaneous typescript items related to Uranium liquid thermal diffusion and the atomic bomb including "A Survey of the Literature Relevant to Liquid Thermal Diffusion" by H.M. Moseley
  40 Patent "Production of Uranium Hexafluoride" (filed 1942, issued 1956), 1956
    Series 3: "Comments Moon Race--President's Science Advisor (1963)," 1963-1970
  41-42 "Comments Moon Race--President's Science Advisor, 1963"
4 43 "Comments Moon Race--President's Science Advisor, 1963" (continued)
    Series 4: "PHA Notes--Yellow Pads in President's Office," circa 1970s
  44-47 PHA Notes--Yellow Pads in President's Office" (manuscript notes by Abelson), circa 1970s
    Series 5: Interview regarding Apollo program (transcript), 1989
  48 Transcript of oral history interview conducted by Stephen W. Charry, 1989 October 19
    Processing file