Kicking Joe McCarthy Out of the Lab

In April 1954, I was one of thousands of biomedical scientists who gathered as usual for the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). On this occasion, however, we received an unexpected shock. Rumors were circulating—with circumstantial detail that left little doubt as to their truth—that some highly regarded investigators, previously supported in their unclassified research by the U.S. Public Health Service, had found their grant appl

By | June 29, 1987

In April 1954, I was one of thousands of biomedical scientists who gathered as usual for the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). On this occasion, however, we received an unexpected shock. Rumors were circulating—with circumstantial detail that left little doubt as to their truth—that some highly regarded investigators, previously supported in their unclassified research by the U.S. Public Health Service, had found their grant applications rejected without explanation or their existing grants revoked. All they could learn was that these decisions were based on in-formation in their security files from unknown informers. The nature and sources of the charges were not revealed to them; the scientists had no opportunity for rebuttal. Such rejection—in terms of lost funding and clouded reputations—could be disastrous for the investigator and for other people supported by the grant. The scientific community was buzzing: who would be the next victim?

At this moment, as it happened, newspapers reported that Robert Oppenheimer was under investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission as an alleged security risk. That, of course, was a different kind of problem, but it came as another powerful blow. For many of us, these events brought to a head the unsubstantiated rumors of subversion, supposedly by Communists planted in our midst, that had been fanned into flame by Sen. Joe McCarthy. Although he never did uncover a genuine Communist in the government, he succeeded by his accusations in getting a number of (generally quite innocent) people forced out of their jobs. In April 1954 we could not know that McCarthy's career of denunciations was to fade away in a few months. Fear, especially among bureaucrats in the lower echelons of government, was pervasive. Security agents were under pressure to show their anticommunist zeal by noting any evidence suggesting possible subversive tendencies in people they were watching.

For scientists gathered at the FASEB meeting, the sense of outrage was acute. The American Society of Biological Chemists was the first of FASEB's constituent societies to take collective action. Before its business meeting, a small group of us—I remember that it included Wendell Stanley, Philip Handler and me—met for two or three hours and drafted a resolution, addressed to the National Academy of Sciences, to protest what we perceived as a threat to scientific research and to scientists' human rights. The resolution asked the Academy to investigate the issue and, if our concerns proved valid, to press the government for corrective action. When presented at the business meeting of the biochemists, the resolution received a unanimous vote of support among some 600 members present. We then dispatched it to Detlev Bronk, president of NAS.

Such urgent protests by scientists prompted an official statement from Secretary Oveta Cuip Hobby of the Department f Health, Education and Welfare (of which Public Health Service was a part). In this she said, "...where it is established to the satisfaction of this Department that the individual has engaged or is engaging in subversive activities, or that there is serious question of his loyalty to the United States, it is the practice of the Department to deny support.

"If the subject is an applicant, the grant is not awarded. If the subject is an investigator responsible for a grant-supported project or is the recipient of salary from the grant, the grant is terminated unless the sponsoring institution desires to appoint an acceptable substitute." She added that not more than 30 people out of some 2,000 holding USPHS grants were affected.

Secretary Hobby, I should add, did not initiate this policy, which began in June 1952 during the Democratic administration of President Truman. There was no indication, in the policy as stated, that an accused person had the right to challenge his accusers, or any recognition that security measures imposed on persons working on classified projects were irrelevant for those doing unclassified research.

At the National Academy, Bronk was responsive to the biochemists and other protesters but he needed a direct request from President Eisenhower's office to take effective action. This came in a letter (no doubt drafted by Bronk himself) from Sherman Adams, then Eisenhower's closest adviser, writing on the president's behalf and asking the Academy to proceed. In March 1955 Bronk assembled an excellent committee to investigate the problem; headed by Julius Stratton, then vice president and provost of MIT it included several distinguished scientists and a lawyer who was intimately familiar with problems of science and technology. Its responsibility was to recommend policies regarding loyalty questions as they related to holders of government grants and contracts for unclassified research.

In the meantime more trouble had surfaced. A member of the biology department at the California Institute of Technology had had a grant revoked, and the local reaction was powerful. George Beadle, then chairman, convened the department, which resolved to have no more dealings with the Public Health Service until the policy of revoking grants was reversed. I published an article in Science setting forth what was going on and formulating what I held to be a proper philosophy for dealing with such is-sues. I also declared that I would not ask for or accept grants from the USPHS until the situation was corrected. I happened to be in a situation in which I could make such a declaration without risking damage to my co-workers, since I had only a very small research group and we were adequately supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which as far as I know never got involved with security considerations in supporting unclassified research.

Happily the NAS committee's report, when it appeared, was strong and clear. Grants for unclassified research, it said, should be based on the investigator's scientific merit. If there was reason to believe that an investigator was involved in subversive activity, the place to challenge him was in court, where he (or she) could confront his accusers, respond to charges and have a fair hearing. Eisenhower issued a directive putting the report into effect, and the reprehensible practices I have described did in fact disappear. The magnificent record of the USPHS in supporting research was only briefly troubled by this episode, which arose from the extraneous activities of the security division at HEW.

I present this bit of history as both a reminder and a warning. The present administration has expanded the area of secrecy and restricted the flow of certain kinds of unclassified information in a manner sharply different from that of its predecessors. Fortunately we have not seen violations of the human rights of scientists such as those that occurred in 1952-55. Yet human nature is fallible and memories are short. In the cycle of human events, similar things may occur again. We must be prepared to deal with them promptly if they do.

John T Edsall is professor of biochemistry emeritus at Harvard University. His present concerns include the history of physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology.

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