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Historical Science Collections from WWII to the Postwar Period

This blog post is authored by Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., Research Specialist in the Science Section.

Signing of the Japanese surrender document aboard the U.S.S. “Missouri” in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945. //www.loc.gov/item/2013648116/?loclr=blogadm

August 15th marks the 75th anniversary of the day Japan announced their surrender to the Allies, thus marking the end of WWII (the formal surrender was on September 2, 1945) . During the war, the countries involved pushed to advance scientific, technological and medical (STM) research for the war effort. U.S. intelligence was aware of a variety of projects being conducted in enemy countries, including Germany and Japan. Immediately following the end of the war, the U.S. government and Allied countries sent experts to labs, headquarters and companies working on such projects and obtained a substantial number of documents deposited in the CIA’s Washington Document Center. The collections were then integrated into the Library of Congress collections. At the Library, those documents are known as “captured documents.” In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. government returned the documents to Germany and Japan. However, the Library still has microfilm and microfiche copies of the documents, as well as some hard copy originals.

The items included original photos, reports, correspondence and manuscripts on scientific, technological and medical research conducted by Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan and Fascist Italy. The collections include: German & Japanese Air Technical Documents; Japanese Biological Weapons Unit Reports (in English and Japanese); Field Intelligence Agency Technical (FIAT) documents from Germany; and the newly created Public Board (PB) Collections held individual reports from Germany and Japan. Currently, the majority of those items are kept in the Technical Reports and Standards Section of the Science, Technology and Business Division, with the rest stored throughout the Library in the Asian Division; Manuscript Division; Rare Book Division; Prints and Photographs Division; Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division; and the Music Division.

Richard C. Patterson, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Commerce, and Vannevar Bush, President of the Carnegie Institute photographed before the hearings of the Temporary National Economic Committee. (Jan 17, 1939) //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016874817/?loclr=blogadm

During WWII, the United States also pursued a wide range of STM projects, including the Manhattan Project led by Vannevar Bush under the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The projects were conducted at major universities in the U.S. and in select companies. The scientific reports of the OSRD were transferred to the Library of Congress soon after the end of the WWII, excluding the materials on the Manhattan Project, which were still highly classified. Bush believed in the undeniable value of the peaceful use of these highly sophisticated STM research materials, yet it took over 20 years for these documents to be fully declassified, due to the ensuing Cold War. In 1966, these documents were declassified and opened to the public. This contributed to the development of several commercial products, including the microwave oven.

Testing insecticide for malaria-carrying mosquito at malaria control laboratory, Wilson Dam, Alabama (1942). //www.loc.gov/item/2017832481/?loclr=blogadm

The OSRD collections have been partially digitized and are available onsite at the Science Reading Room on a stand-alone computer: ”Stacks.” A portion of official business documents and correspondence of the OSRD are located at the National Archives II.

Historians and other researchers have found the OSRD collections invaluable with their scholarly pursuits.  In 2011, the Library invited Leo B. Slater, historian at the National Science Foundation, to speak about research for his book “War and Disease : Biomedical Research on Malaria in the Twentieth Century (2009).” A recording of his presentation “Malaria & War: The U.S. Antimalarial Program in World War II”  is available online.

Some of the OSRD research projects were adapted as new projects and continued to obtain data throughout the postwar period up to today. Such projects include nuclear, biological and chemical weapons studies and studies of the biological effects of radiation. In 1946, two human geneticists, James Neel and William Jack Schull, submitted a proposal to the National Academies of Sciences to continue the study of the biological effects of radiation under Warren Stafford, part of the Manhattan Project. They succeeded in creating the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) to monitor survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ABCC later changed its name to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), as the funding structure changed. The Library of Congress holds several original reports from the ABCC and RERF. William Jack Schull was invited to speak at the Library in 2011 and his presentation “Health Risks of Atomic Bomb Exposure” is available online.

The Library of Congress is actively digitizing these materials from WWII, and each Division has been creating finding aids for the collections:


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