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WHOI Office of the Director records, (Columbus O'Donnell Iselin),

Identifier: AC-09.4

Scope and Content Note

All materials from the Office of Director, Columbus Iselin, August 16, 1956 to May 31, 1958, were assimilated into the records of Paul Fye’s administration, 1958-1977. Materials from Iselin’s interim administration can be found in boxes 19 to 25, 28-29, and includes material from the 1940s during his first tenure as director. Folders that are restricted, specifically personnel files, have ‘R’ placed at the end of the folder title or series name.


  • 1956-1958

Language of Materials

The records are in



Closed/Restricted: materials are only available to the Office of Origin for thirty years, after which they may only be viewed by the Office of Origin or with permission of the Archivist.


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

Administrative History

Columbus O’Donnell Iselin (1906-1971), the second director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (1940-1950), agreed to a temporary term as director from 1956-1958 after Admiral Edward H. Smith retired on August 15, 1956. In the annual report for 1956, Iselin wrote, “we have gradually become aware of the great importance of the future of oceanography on the International Geophysical Year [IGY]…this was the main reason why I reluctantly agreed to resume temporarily the administrative responsibility for our research program.” 1 Although most staff members initially showed little concern about this major event in the earth sciences, enthusiasm for the program continued to mount in 1957, as prospects of real international cooperation in oceanography and the recording of date on the long-period changes in geophysical phenomena became apparent.

Another notable event during Iselin’s short term as director was Project Nobska.

At Woods Hole, summer studies of scientific and technical problems are as common as seagulls, mainly because the National Academy of Sciences makes its summer headquarters there. But the most important summer study ever held was convened in the mid-1950s by Columbus Iselin, the director… It was called Project Nobska, after the lighthouse just east of the village, and it was attended by a mixed group of naval officers, physicians, engineers and oceanographers. They concluded that it should be possible for a nuclear-powered submarine to carry, and to launch from well below the sea surface, a battery of long-range, inertially guided ballistic missiles, provided these missiles were not too large and were propelled by solid state fuels. Out of this study came the Polaris submarines, and later, their Russian opposite numbers, that were able to roam at will, with little fear of detection, deep within the oceans. Because they are nearly invulnerable and are capable of submerged operation for months on end, the Polaris submarines and their successors, with their terrible weapons, would have probably more to do with keeping the peace between the Soviet Union and the United States in the past 20 years than all the diplomats and politicians put together. 2

The development of atomic energy raised new concerns for oceanography. Bostwick Ketchum and Allyn Vine served as members of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to consider the effects of atomic radiation on oceanography and fisheries. In addition, scientists received a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct research on coastal plankton populations.

During 1957 WHOI underwent financial hardships as funds, normally available through the military services to support basic research, steadily declined. The extra appropriations from IGY, however, enabled the Institution to end the year with only a minor deficit. Another determining factor in the budget problems included the inflationary cost of conducting oceanography. The government began to realize the ineffectiveness of research under a system that resulted in widely fluctuating annual budgets. The National Academy of Sciences- National Research Council established a new Committee on Oceanography (NASCO) to study the needs of oceanography in the US and make recommendations on how to meet these needs. Professor Harrison Brown chaired the new group, which received financial support from the Office of Naval Research, the US Fish Wildlife Commission, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

In February 1958 Mr. Raymond Stevens, President of the Corporation of WHOI, made two announcements naming Paul M. Fye the new director of WHOI (a position he assumed in July), and Iselin the first Henry Bryant Bigelow Oceanographer, a chair recently founded by the WHOI Board of Trustees. Stevens said how fortunate WHOI also was to have the continued services of Iselin, who played a vital role in the development of WHOI and the science of oceanography. Through his skilled efforts and farsightedness WHOI became a leading ocean research institution making significant contributions to knowledge of the seas and the welfare of the nation in peace and in war. Iselin stepped down from his second term as director on May 31, 1958.

Iselin continued to do research, publish and lecture until l965 and in 1966 received the Henry B. Bigelow Medal in Oceanography. After a lengthy illness, he died on January 5, 1971. Paul Fye, in his Columbus O’Donnell Iselin Memorial Lecture delivered to the Marine Technology Society on Sept. 11, 1972, articulated the feelings of many of those who had known or been inspired by Iselin: “Every great adventure has had its great leaders. Columbus O’Donnell Iselin was one of the greats of oceanography. Since the days of Iselin and Bigelow, oceanography in Woods Hole and indeed in the whole nation has had a fair wind.” 3

  1. 1 Columbus O’D. Iselin, ‘Director’s report,’Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Year 1956 (1957): 10.
  2. 2 Roger Revelle, “The Oceanographic and How It Grew,” inOceanography: The Past (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1980), 22.
  3. 3 Paul M. Fye, “Ocean Policy and Scientific Freedom.” Columbus O’Donnell Iselin Memorial Lecture to the Marine Technology Society, 11 September 1972, Biographical File, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.


4.2 box(es) (5.25 linear feet)


Records from Columbus Iselin's second term as Director were assimilated into the WHOI Office of the Director records, Paul Fye.


Records are chronologically and alphabetically arranged. Materials from Iselin’s administration are in the following series of Office of the Director (Paul Fye): Executive records, Grants and Contracts, Institutions, Reports, Activities, Individuals, Personnel, and Ships and Planes.

Custodial History

The records of Columbus Iselin's second term as Director were retained in the Office of the Director until transferred to the WHOI Archives during the administration of Paul M. Fye.

Acquisitions Information

The archival records of Columbus O’D. Iselin, WHOI Director, 1956-1958, were absorbed into the administrative records of his successor, Paul M. Fye, and sent to the archives in the 1970s.

Related Material

Additional information about the history of WHOI during Columbus Iselin’s second term as director can be found in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Annual Report for the years 1956-1957, which details the yearly scientific activities of the Institution as well as its physical growth. An unpublished collection of articles entitled A Compilation of Articles on the Early History of WHOI - Its Founding, Growth and Development (WHOI TR-1996 G43), contains ten articles and unpublished papers highlighting some significant events in the Institution’s history. On Almost Any Wind: The Saga of the Oceanographic Research Vessel Atlantis by Susan Schlee, 1978, details the activities of Atlantis and the newly converted Coast Guard cutter, Crawford , during the International Geophysical Year, and makes reference to Iselin’s directorship. Oceanography: The Past, edited by Mary Sears and Daniel Merriman, 1980, contains many chapters about the Institution. The Biographical Files in the WHOI Archives also contains information about Iselin. The records for Office of the Director (C. Iselin) for 1940-1950 document Iselin’s previous tenure as WHOI director.

In addition to the Iselin’s records as director of WHOI, the Archives also houses his papers (MC-16). Approximately 1 linear foot of material dating from 1940 to 1950 can be considered part of his Director’s files. Correspondence, documents, reports, speeches and articles, prepared in his capacity as the Institution’s Director (many of them handwritten manuscripts), have been itemized in a finding aid to the Iselin collection (boxes 3-4).

Separated Material

Series from the Office of the Director (P. Fye)

Series I: Executive - Materials from Iselin’s administration are in boxes 19, 20, and 96. The series is arranged chronologically then alphabetically and covers the years 1953 and onward. The series consists of correspondence, meeting minutes, memoranda and notes, and contains information about meetings, committees, buildings, programs, policies, fellowships, research vessels, and personnel. The series also contains information on a search for a new director to replace Iselin (box 19, f.60; box 20, f.13).

Series II: Grants and Contracts - Records from Iselin’s tenure are in boxes 20, 26-29, 37. The series spans the years 1942 to 1968 with the bulk of other material dating from 1953 and onward. Files are arranged chronologically then alphabetically by grant source, and contain correspondence, memoranda, research proposals, and reports regarding specific government contracts but not the contract itself. The predominant grant-supporting agencies include the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. The files contain a chronology for Project SWOP, part of an Office of Naval Research grant 769 (box 20, f. 38). Falling within this series are Terminated Contracts: Original, executed, dating from 1942-1963 (boxes 28, 29), which contain contract files from various government branches, predominantly from the Air Force, Bureau of Aeronautics, Bureau of Ordnance, Bureau of Ships, Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Naval Research, and US Weather Bureau. The Activities series records for 1954-1959 also contain numerous files on National Science Foundation grants (box 22, ff.10-35).

Series III: Institutions - Records from Iselin’s administration are in box 20. The series spans the years 1951 and onward and consists of four folders of correspondence, memos and reports arranged alphabetically. The correspondence relates solely to government offices and people regarding contract-generated publications.

Series IV: Reports - Iselin records in this series are in box 20. Previously called Contract Reports under Smith’s administration, the series contains six folders dating from 1948 to 1957. Materials are alphabetically arranged, and consist of memos and correspondence relating to the publication and distribution of government contracts and reports, including requests for contract extensions.

Series V: Activities - Iselin records are located in boxes 21 to 23. The series documents activities both internal to, and outside of the Institution. Materials consist of correspondence, grants, minutes, memoranda, bulletins, notes, reports, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings. Records are filed chronologically by year then alphabetically, and cover the years 1951 onward. The records contain information relating to government agencies and offices; US Senate and House of Representatives; corporations and foundations; committees; academic institutions; scientific organizations and institutions; WHOI property, ships, expeditions, and department administration; grants; personnel; community relations; and some personal files. The series includes files of National Science Foundation grants (box 20 ff.10-35). There are letters from Roger Revelle, director of Scripps, to WHOI directors Iselin and Fye (box 23, f.3. There is information about the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which took place in the mid-1950s during Iselin’s tenure (box 21, ff. 42).

Series VI: Individuals - Iselin records are in boxes 23 and 24. Records date from 1952 onward, and consist of files on people. Materials are in chronological order, then arranged by alphabetical grouping and by individual names. Materials include correspondence, photographs, brochures, reports and newspaper articles. The series includes letters and a cruise track sent from Val Worthington to Iselin concerning work aboard Crawford and Discovery II in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), with mention of George Deacon and Swallow (box 24, f.12).

Series VII: Personnel (Restricted) - Iselin records are in box 24. The series spans the years 1949 onward. Materials are in chronological arrangement by year, then alphabetically by individual names and alphabetical grouping. The series contains correspondence, manuscripts, notes, curriculum vitae, and memoranda. There are also ‘retiree’ files that are found throughout the series. The file on Iselin, 1949-1959, contains copies of the following papers by Iselin, including some handwritten manuscripts (box 24, f.19):

  1. 1. On the past, present and future of oceanography,  April 1958
  2. 2. Brief history of meteorology at WHOI. Sep. 1957
  3. 3. Maurice F. Maury, pathfinder of the seas; address to Newcomen society, June 6, 1957
  4. 4. A new discovery in physical oceanography, April 1959
  5. 5. Oceanography and the Bureau of Ships, (including manuscript) July 31, 1958
  6. 6. Oceanography and the Navy,(including manuscript) July 1, 1958
  7. 7. New research vessels, undated
  8. 8. Oceanography in the government, (including manuscript) May 12, 1958
  9. 9. Introduction of a report to be written by the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography (NASCO), (manuscript) June 1958

Series VIII: Ships and Planes - Iselin records are in boxes 24 and 25. The series spans the years 1954 onward and is arranged chronologically then alphabetically by ships then planes.

Processing Information

Processing of the collection was partly supported by a Grant-in-Aid from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. Processed by Margot Garritt. While processing the collection, folder titles were often abbreviated, however in the box listing they were spelled out for clarification.

A Guide to the WHOI Office of the Director records, (Columbus O'Donnell Iselin), 1956-1958
Margot Garritt
December 1998
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