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World War II ‘Scientific Manpower’

Bookshelves of the OSRD collection housed in the Library of Congress TRS unit.

K-rations, better night vision binoculars, and synthetic rubber are just a few examples of innovations resulted from scientific research during World War II.  The story of science during World War II is one of partnerships and prolific research. On June 28, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8807which established the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) “for the purpose of assuring adequate provision for research on scientific and medical problems relating to national defense.”  In essence, the OSRD brought together the armed services, civilians, government agencies and industry to prioritize defense-related scientific research. It is important to note that the formation of OSRD happened before the U.S. officially entered the War on December 8, 1941.

Time was of the essence– research needed to be funded and completed at a rapid rate.  OSRD mobilized scientific manpower within the country and worked closely with the armed services and allies to identify improvements and inventions needed for national defense. It recruited and funded scientists from educational institutions, research laboratories and a number of industries to help with the war effort. The focus was on weapons, devices, and medicine that could be immediately used in the field by our troops and allies. Under OSRD contracts, these engineers, industrialists, and scientists undertook a wide array of scientific investigations and produced thousands of studies and reports.

OSRD Report on Diet and Fatigue in Hot Climates by Ancel Keyes. Photo by J. Harbster

The Library’s Technical Reports and Standards (TRS) Unit houses the treasure trove of scientific and technical information generated by OSRD.  There are over 40,000 hard copy reports, 400 reels of microfilm, and 68 bound volumes of the Summary of Technical Reports.  I randomly took an OSRD box off the shelf and peaked inside. What I found were the studies and reports on diet from Dr. Ancel Keys. Dr. Keys is best known for formulating K-rations (meals for soldiers) and for research on cholesterol. Have you heard of the Mediterranean Diet?  Dr. Keys was initiallyresponsible for promoting this low fat diet in the 1940’s.  Here in my hands were his early investigations on health and diet!

OSRD research related to RADAR. Photo by J. Harbster

There are many more stories of scientific development in this collection, such as the story of RADAR or the mass production of penicillin. It is also the story of civilians, government, and business working together for a common purpose — the national defense. On this Veteran’s Day we honor and remember our soldiers, scientists and civilians who serve and sacrifice for the common good.


  1. Peter Barbella
    November 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Wasn’t the primary function of this organization to investigate the potential of the newly discovered “fission physics” to the application of the atom bomb?

  2. Jennifer Harbster
    November 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Yes, the OSRD funded research of nuclear weapons (atomic bomb/ Manhattan Project)- however this was being researched before the formation of OSRD. I’d imagine many would argue that the most notable of OSRD projects would be the atomic bomb. However, OSRD had 23 units that researched all things related to national defense- – there were units for medicine, ballistics, RADAR, optics, rockets, etc. Due to the nature of the material, we do not have the original OSRD research from the Manhattan Project, but we have a quick guide to books about the Manhattan Project and Chernobyl

  3. Amanda Driver
    May 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    was medicine a major part of science in world war 2?

  4. Jennifer Harbster
    May 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    @Amanda. Yes, medicine was a major part of science during WWII. You might wish to read up on the Committee on Medical Research, which was part of the OSRD. Check out the two volume set Advances in military medicine, made by American investigators, 1948 for more information. Your local library can get you a copy of this work.

  5. Delma Watkins
    December 28, 2012 at 4:14 am

    That was a pretty interesting post, will be looking forward to your future updates.

  6. Michael Clark
    December 28, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Thanksfor sharing this knowledgeable content,will be looking forward to your future updates.

  7. Ronald Neely
    January 31, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing, very useful post!

  8. Raymond Glover
    May 16, 2013 at 6:10 am

    Good post. This is really inspiring. Thank you.

  9. Jeremy Wagar
    October 25, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Great info thanks for sharing

  10. Jeffrey King
    August 8, 2014 at 8:25 am

    I have found a lot of informative stuff in your article.Thanks for sharing this..

  11. RichardReed
    August 20, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Great concept, and great article.

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