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James Stacy Coles papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-08

Scope and Content Note

The J.S. Coles’ papers span the years 1936, and 1941 to 1994. Materials include correspondence, reports, photographs, patent information, meeting notes, publications, university lecture notes and a dissertation.

Files relate to Coles’ research with the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory (UERL) at WHOI, statistical methods for explosives research, Coles’ activity reports, his role as a member on the WHOI Trustee Committee for Educational Policy, his presidency of WHOI’s Associate Program and his involvement with various committees of the WHOI Board of Trustees. Other materials include his undergraduate lecture notes and reports and Ph.D. dissertation from Columbia University, and the establishment of a graduate program in oceanography at Brown University, among other subjects.


  • 1936-1993

Language of Materials

The records are in



Open/Restricted: most materials in the collection are available for research; some materials may only be viewed with permission of the Archivist.


Copyright: Permission to publish material from the collection must be authorized by the Institution Archivist.

Biographical Information

James Stacy “Spike” Coles was born June 3, 1913 in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, to Edwin Stacy and Emavieve Rose Coles. His father was the owner and editor of the weekly newspaper. He graduated from the local high school and in 1934 from the Mansfield State Teachers College with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. “My career in chemistry began as a Christmas gift of a CHEMCRAFT set when I was in the seventh grade,” he once wrote. “As a student in the local teachers college I took all of the physics, chemistry and mathematics that was offered. I transferred as many credits as Columbia University would accept.” He went on to earn three degrees from Columbia, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1936, a master’s degree in physical chemistry in 1939, and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1941.

During his graduate studies at Columbia University he served on the faculty of the City College of New York as an instructor in chemistry from 1936 to 1941. After earning his doctorate in 1941 he accepted an appointment as an instructor and later as assistant professor of chemistry at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1943 he joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution staff, working with fellow chemist Paul Fye and others trying to improve the underwater ignition and explosive power of depth charges, depth bombs and torpedo warheads. This research was critical to the Allied anti-submarine warfare efforts in the North Atlantic and elsewhere. His Institution experience led to service with the U.S. Naval technical Mission in Europe as a civilian technician, and he traveled extensively in Germany at the end of the war to interrogate German scientists and assess the value of their research in terms of its effects on the United States. As a result of his service he was presented the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance Development Award in 1945 and the President’s Certificate of Merit in 1947.

In 1946 Coles joined the chemistry faculty at Brown University as Assistant Professor of Chemistry. The following year he was appointed Executive Officer for the Department of Chemistry, and served on the Board of Counselors within the College. In 1949 he was promoted to Associate Professor of Chemistry and in 1951 became Acting Dean of the College. He resigned from that position the following year to become the ninth President of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

When he was named President of Bowdoin College, his predecessor, the late Kenneth C.M. Sills, called him “a scientist who is deeply interested in the humanities and who will be a stout advocate of a liberal education.” During his 15-year stewardship between 1952 and 1967 Bowdoin met rapidly the rapidly changing demands of society and students by adopting curriculum innovations, expanding the size of its faculty and improving its facilities at a faster pace than during the comparable period in the college’s history. One of the most significant innovations was the establishment in 1964 of the Senior Center Program of integrated study and environment for all members of the senior class. Widespread publicity resulted, with Newsweek magazine calling the center’s 16-story residence unit “Spike’s Peak,” a reference undergraduates had made to the tallest campus building. Coles was named President Emeritus of Bowdoin College in 1968, and in 1980 the college christened the Senior Center Coles Tower in his honor.

From 1954 to 1957 Coles served as Civilian Aide for the State of Maine to the Secretary of the Army. He served as chair of an advisory commission on higher education in Maine during 1965-1967 whose work resulted in the creation of the University of Maine system. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Education of the U.S. National Committee for the International Geophysical Year held during 1957-1958. During an eight-week trip in the summer of 1960 he surveyed scientific and engineering education in the universities of Brazil as a member of a special committee of the National Academy of Sciences.

Coles left Bowdoin College in 1967 to become chief executive of the Research Corporation, a private foundation devoted to the advancement of science and technology through support of basic scientific research by individuals and non-profit institutions. He served Research Corporation as President for 14 years until his retirement in 1982. During his tenure as President the organization grew from a professional staff of 14 to 22 as assets more than quadrupled from $11 million to more than $46 million. Major growth occurred in the foundation’s invention administration program, an operation program for evaluating, patenting and licensing inventions from nonprofit institutions. Following his retirement in 1982 he served as chairman of the firm’s Executive Committee until 1984, and in 1985 he was elected Emeritus Director. The Board of Directors cited his “notable contribution to the advancement of higher education and academic science that extends over many decades and across national boundaries” and noted that “his dedication to that which is best in education, in science and in society has been a source of inspiration to his fellow Directors, friends, colleagues and co-workers.”

Coles was a longtime supporter and former employee of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which he served for many years as a Trustee and Member of the Corporation. He was a member of many committees, and from 1982 to 1988 served as President of the Institution’s Associates Program, a program he joined in 1954. “Spike” Coles joined the Institution staff in 1943 as a research group leader, and later supervisor, for the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory [UERL], where he worked until 1946 and during the summers of 1947 and 1948. He was elected a Member of the Corporation and a Trustee in 1952, serving as a Member until 1984 and as a Trustee in 1986. He was a member of the Executive Committee from 1956-1962. Coles was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee that appointed Paul Fye to succeed Columbus Iselin. He was Chairman of the Educational Committee from 1964-1967, and he was a member of the Visiting Committee for the Department of Chemistry in 1968. During his many years of service to WHOI he served on other committees, including the Advisory, Audit, Nominating, Wage Review, and Investment Committees and the Employees’ Retirement Trust.

He served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He was Director of such organizations as the Council on Library Resources, Inc.; Chemical Fund, Inc.; the EDO Corporation; the Atlantic Foundation; Pennwalt Corporation; Medical Care Development, Inc. and Virginia Chemicals, Inc. He served as a Trustee and as Treasurer of Independent Colleges Funds of America, Inc.; as a Trustee and Overseer at Bowdoin College; as a Trustee of Columbia University Press; and was a member of the boards of Mansfield (PA) Foundation and General Theological Seminary in New York.

His many professional memberships included the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, Honorary Member of the American Institute of Chemists, Society of Sigma Xi, Council on Foreign Relations and many other organizations. He was the author of several books and many articles, addresses and reports.

James Coles was President Emeritus of Bowdoin College and Director Emeritus of the Research Corporation when he died on June 13, 1996 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, after a long illness. A memorial service was held June 15, 1996, at Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole, MA. He is survived by his wife, Dr. Cecily Cannan Selby, of New York City and Woods Hole, MA; three children from his 1938 marriage to Martha Louise Reed: a daughter, Ann Stacy Coles of Brookline, MA; two sons, James Reed Coles of Harpswell, Maine, and Christopher Coles of Santa Monica, CA, and three stepchildren: Norman Selby, William Selby and Russell Selby, all of New York City.

[Shelley Lauzon, News Office]


1 box (.75 lin. ft.)


The James Stacy Coles’ papers include material related to Coles’ research with the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory (UERL), his role as a member on the WHOI Trustee Committee for Educational Policy and as president of WHOI’s Associate Program, and his involvement with various committees of the WHOI Board of Trustees, among other subjects.


Arranged in a single series:

List of Series:

Custodial History

The custodial history of the papers is undocumented.

Acquisitions Information

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives received the papers of James “Spike” Coles’ in 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998 from Coles’ widow, Cecily Cannan Selby. Additional materials that were found in the archives and added to the collection consist of Trustee’s Education Policy Committee files from the mid-1960s.

Related Material

Additional materials relating to J. C. Coles are in the Records of the Directors (Paul Fye), (including box 18, 19, 29, 32), and in the WHOI Archives biographical files. The bulk of James Coles’ papers are at Bowdoin College.

Processing Information

Processed by Margot Brown Garritt. The papers were put into acid-free folders and box and labeled. Acidic and fragile papers were photocopied. Newspaper clippings about Coles’ work at Brown University and Bowdoin College were photocopied and added to his biographical file.

A Guide to the the James Stacy Coles papers, 1936-1993
Margot Brown Garritt
September 1997
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish

Repository Details

Part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Data Library and Archives Repository