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Happy Birthday, Marvin McFarland!

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This post was written by Constance Carter, former head of the Science Reference Section of the Science, Technology, and Business Division. Following her retirement from the Library after 50 years of service, she now volunteers for the Division full time. Connie is also author of a number of blog posts for Inside Adams including The School Garden Army in the First World War,” “Roosevelt, Muir, and The Camping Trip,” “Getting Around: Presidential Wheels” among others.

Marvin McFarland (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

The Marvin McFarland Fund was created in 1990 to enable his Division, now named the Science, Technology and Business Division, to promote scholarship, sponsor educational lectures, and further the use of the Library’s collections by providing greater access through publications and electronic media.   Donations to the Marvin McFarland Fund in his memory can be made online at or by check at Celebrate science with a gift to the McFarland Fund.

The fund is an altogether fitting memorial as McFarland unabashedly encouraged staff research, the creation of collection guides, and the forming of relationships with researchers.  He set rigorous standards for reference service, requiring us to read shelves and memorize titles in the reference collection.  He also led the charge to digitize the science reference collection; the titles coded by McFarland and the reference staff became the first online SCORPIO reference collection file, taking its place beside the Congressional Research Service’s citation file.  Reference guides, such as the LC Science Tracer Bullet series, Len Bruno’s The Tradition of Science: Landmarks of Western Science in the Collections of the Library of Congress , and Current Antarctic Literature were compiled under his guidance and supervision.

McFarland, renowned for his knowledge of the history of aeronautics and the lives of its pioneers, was a mentor to a host of young aviation historians, including LC’s Len Bruno and the Smithsonian Institution’s Tom Crouch.  He generously shared his wealth of knowledge on this subject as well as his friendships with the relatives of many aeronautical pioneers, including Elaine Chanute Hodges and Ivonette Wright Miller with his mentees. McFarland’s interest in aeronautics sprang from a World War II stint in the European headquarters of General Carl Spaatz as archivist historian.  While in Paris, he began to teach himself aeronautical history and met, for the first time, Charles Lindbergh.

Marvin McFarland, curator and editor (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

McFarland came to the Library’s Aeronautics Division from the Pentagon as a special consultant to curate the recently acquired papers of General Spaatz.  He then took on the editing of The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright: Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and other Papers of Octave Chanute (1953), with the assistance of the staff of that Division. While there were many excellent reviews of the Papers, the one written by Brenden Gill in the February 13, 1954, issue of the New Yorker was superb.   He notes, “McFarland is no ordinary editor, and what he had given us are not “papers” but a history, and from time to time an almost unbearably exciting one.  Benignly, seeming scarcely to be present at all, he weaves out of what might have been a bewildering snarl of letters, diaries, notebooks, and logs an account so direct and easy to follow that, though the two volumes total well over twelve hundred pages, few readers are likely to suggest that they contain a page too many.” David G. McCullough in his Wright Brothers notes “Like so many who have taken up the study of the Wrights, I am greatly indebted as well to the landmark work of the late Marvin W. McFarland … his extensive footnotes alone are of matchless value.”

Meeting of the National Referral Center Advisory Committee, March 15, 1966. Left: Marvin McFarland, Chief, Science & Technology Division. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

McFarland contributed several articles on Charles Lindbergh to U.S. Air Services: Feature Aeronautical Magazine, Commercial and Military, including “Lindbergh’s Gift to Library of Congress”  in July 1954.  This article discusses the merits of Lindbergh’s handwritten drafts and typescript revisions of The Spirit of St. Louis, presented to the Library on the 27th anniversary of the historic first nonstop flight from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh called upon McFarland to provide counsel and research assistance to his friends and associates.   In his The Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh and the American Dream, Kenneth S. Davis notes:  “I owe a special debt to Marvin W. McFarland … who found himself between two fires when I applied to him for help.  He had an official obligation to the Library and its clients; he had a personal obligation to his friend, Charles Lindbergh; and has satisfied both obligations by facilitating my research while vehemently disagreeing with certain of my conclusions, causing me to test the latter carefully and, on occasion, to modify them.”

Science & Technology Reading Room (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

McFarland, retired from the Library of Congress as Chief of the Science and Technology Division in 1980 after 38 years of Federal Service with more than 30 of these at the Library of Congress.  He authored two chapters in The American Heritage History of Flight (1968), The Wright Brothers: Heirs of Prometheus (1978) and served as technical advisor to the NBC documentary, “The Winds of Kitty Hawk” (1978). Because of his work with the Library’s collections and his ability to act as an intermediary between the richness of the Library’s collections and individual creative minds, McFarland is fondly remembered by the many staff members who had the pleasure of working with him and whose careers he encouraged.


Comments (4)

  1. I was fortunate to have met and later correspond with Marvin for several years before his death. His work on the Wright Papers gave us a truly remarkable result, containing a great deal of information – I do not know of any comparable books.

    I would like to obtain copies of our correspondence, that I assume still exists. Also, as I remember, there are some the papers (largely diaries) that are not included in the publications. I would like to have copies – or at least look at. Marvin wanted to collaborate (he offered the possibility privately, so I doubt that there exists a record.

    I am a member of the Library of Congress, I believe, although I have not been to DC since I joined last March!

    Incidentally, I am retired after more than forty years on the faculty of the California institute of Technology.

    Thank you for your efforts,

    Fred Culick

  2. Hello! I’m Marvin W. McFarlands youngest son Robert. I just discovered this blog in search of more info on my Grandfather as well as my father. Very honored and grateful to see this about my dad and his work at the Library and his contribution to aeronautical research, science and history.



  3. Mr. McFarland and Mr. Culick – I gave Connie your contact information and hope she was able to get in touch and help you out.

  4. I certainly agree with the complimentary remarks concerning McFarland and his unparalleled work on the Wright Brothers.I sought copies of correspondence I exchanged with him over a short time before his death. We had agreed informally to write a paper together. I was surprised to learn the the Library has no record of our correspondence. I will appreciate being notified if our letters are found in the future.

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