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

Identifier: AC-09.2

Scope and Content Note

The records of the WHOI Office of the Director, 1940-1950 (Iselin) consist of over 10 boxes (12.5 linear feet) of material. The series are divided into three large groups of correspondence: NDRC (National Defense Research Committee) for 1940 and 1941, Institution (WHOI) for 1941-1945 and Navy for 1943-1945. It appears from the content of the files that the categories NDRC and Navy are used interchangeably. Both the Individuals and Personnel series contain individual name files and alphabetical files. There is an overlapping of directors’ records in Box 6 and some folders contain Bigelow and Iselin material. While containing mainly correspondence, the files also contain photographs, charts, printed material such as brochures, and photocopied news clippings. Two small series entitled Printing and Radios were added to the Subject Series. The Subject series, originally called Miscellaneous, was renamed during processing.


  • Majority of material found within 1940-1950

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 was a natural successor to the directorship, which he held from 1940-1950. In 1930 Iselin joined the Institution as general assistant to Henry Bigelow, and was also appointed master of the R/V Atlantis , a vessel he helped to design. A physical oceanographer at WHOI from 1932 to 1940, he was often the only scientist in residence at WHOI during the winter months. He commuted in his boat Risk from his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “The first winter I was at Woods Hole, I was the only person in the building except the janitor. I came in one morning in a northwest gale. I got off the boat, went into the office and put my pants on the radiator to dry. That was the day A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard, walked in for a visit.” 1 Before assuming the directorship, Iselin also served as Associate Professor of Oceanography at Harvard University, a Trustee of the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chief scientist aboard the Atlantis .

As the son of a prominent New York banking family, Columbus O’Donnell Iselin had a world of possibilities open to him. He also had a gift for mathematics, and Henry Bryant Bigelow, the man who became his mentor at Harvard University and who “fired him with an enthusiasm that never cooled,” 2 turned Iselin’s inquiring mind toward the problems of the ocean. Under Bigelow’s direction, Iselin outfitted his 78-foot schooner, Chance , for a summer cruise during his senior year and came back with data that resulted in four scientific papers and computations that would be adopted by the International Ice Patrol. This was the seminal voyage upon which Iselin later based his investigations in the western North Atlantic and theories on the Gulf Stream.

Iselin was a true “Renaissance man,” an intellect of intense curiosity who knew how to choose talent and guide its direction. He thoroughly believed in employing inspired amateurs, in a field where seamanship and science overlapped. As first master of the R/V Atlantis , he saw this talent in some of his original crew, ordinary seamen with extraordinary talents for observation. During Iselin’s first year as director, Alfred Woodcock, who later became a professor at the University of Hawaii, was one such inquirer. While observing the flight tactics of herring gulls, Woodcock was able to postulate on how convection occurred in the lower atmosphere from their use of updrafts.

As the Institution’s second director, Iselin was

Convinced that the US Navy needed a knowledge of its environment in the coming war, he (was) able to demonstrate that underwater sound location of submarines was influenced by the thermal characteristics of the ocean, thus laying the groundwork for the…anti-submarine warfare industry. Neither the German, nor the Japanese navies were aware of these developments during World War II.

Under Columbus Iselin’s guidance the study of ocean waves, air-sea interactions, submarine geology and other programs were actively pursued, programs that today have amassed great stores of knowledge of scientific as well as economic value.

In the lean post-war years, Iselin also encouraged the study of coastal waters, which largely had been avoided by oceanographers. These studies led to the first adequate theory on estuarine circulation, a work of great practical importance for pollution, coastal engineering and fishery problems.

Practically no aspect of the ocean, now so widely discussed…escaped his attention. As early as 1946, he encouraged the development of ocean buoy systems. The coupling of meteorology and oceanography, long-range weather forecasting as well as oceanographic forecasting, the possible moderation of climate and weather, international cooperation in science, education and naval warfare problems all were…discussed. 3


In 1940, the Institution acquired the 70-foot power vessel Anton Dohrn from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, and a small machine shop was set up in the basement of the Bigelow Laboratory. This summer could be considered the last normal period of pre-war laboratory research. As U.S. involvement in the war became imminent, the Institution offered its services to the government, which resulted in additional personnel. Five assistants and technicians, including Allyn Vine, worked under a National Defense Research Committee contract. The NDRC began backing research in subsurface warfare with all necessary funding. A contract from the Navy Department’s Bureau of Ships supported bacteriological and biological studies of marine fouling organisms. Gordon Riley (Marine Biologist), Bostwick Ketchum (Associate in Marine Biology), and Maurice Ewing (Associate in Submarine Geology) joined the staff, bringing the total number of personnel to sixty. The Bigelow Laboratory and cruises that year represented seventeen institutions.

…Almost overnight the number of qualified physical oceanographers in the country became entirely inadequate to deal with the several practical applications of their subject to modern warfare at sea.   From that time on the personnel problem has been our chief one.  The mistake that was made was that we did not at the outset undertake a teaching program. When the war began in earnest in December 1941 it was too late to organize such a program.…During the war period we have not been engaged in oceanographic research, but in the practical applications of physical oceanography. Thus geophysicists, geologists, meteorologists and biologists, to mention only a few types of investigators, all found a way to contribute to the work at hand. However, the stimulation to oceanography has been very considerable. Many investigators in allied fields have become genuinely interested in the ocean.  Improvements in instrumentation have resulted in a large mass of new observations which have been studied, both from the practical point of view and from the standpoint of pure oceanography.  Thus a number of important scientific advances have been made, but not nearly in proportion to the increase in our staff. 4

Six surveys of Georges Bank were undertaken to study factors influencing the survival of plankton during their planktonic stages. Concerns involved developing better understandings of lateral friction forces and small scale mixing processes. Physical oceanographers recognized the need to devise new approaches to the problem of circulation in shallow areas. “One promising method depends on combining the bathythermograph with a pressure-operated multiple water sampling device. Such an instrument has been built by Dr. Spilhaus and operates successfully while the Atlantis is at full speed.” 5 In 1940, two papers were published in the Papers in Physical Oceanography and Meteorology (PPOM) and thirty-five other contributions were published.


During 1941, the Institution changed its focus progressively throughout the year from regular research projects to those projects important to the war effort. The Atlantis continued to conduct fieldwork during eighteen cruises totaling 211 days at sea. Concern for the continuing availability of the Copenhagen standard sea water led to the preparation of a batch of satisfactory standard water in quantities sufficient for five of more years. Mary Sears, Gordon Riley, George Clarke and Dean Bumpus continued biological studies of factors influencing the productivity of Georges Bank based on Atlantis surveys of the area. Al Woodcock continued his convectional circulation studies whenever possible, and Maurice Ewing, with Mr. Hagelbarger’s assistance, was able to build two types of cameras for bottom study photography, which produced a number of photographs. Although the increasing commitment to warfare research programs limited biological work, the Bigelow Laboratory remained open to qualified investigators. The Atlantis, destined for a cruise in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, was considered to be at too great a risk due to the presence of enemy submarines and was moored at Lake Charles, Louisiana after a short cruise under Al Woodcock’s direction. Atlantis remained inactive until April 1945. “By February of 1941 the first major report ‘Sound Transmission in Sea Water’ written by C. O’D. Iselin and Maurice Ewing was published and served as the framework for much of the ensuing work.  In this, they discussed: development of the art of submarine signaling, physics of sound in sea water, oceanography of the surface layer, range and intensity of the direct beam, and variations in the thickness of wind stirred layer.” 6


In 1942, the top floor of the Bigelow Laboratory was turned over to a group led by Paul Fye and designated the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory (UERL), working for the NDRC. Over time, investigations into explosives became integrated into other areas of oceanic investigation and functioned as a tool in the broader areas of physical oceanography. Also, by 1942 Maurice Ewing, with the assistance of Allyn C. Vine and J. Lamar Worzel, had perfected Athelstan Spilhaus’ bathythermograph (BT) and it had become standard equipment on all research vessels and many escort ships. About 200 of these instruments were made and calibrated in Woods Hole before they were commercially manufactured. The more than 60,000 records gathered and processed from its use greatly enlarged the knowledge and study of the sound transmission phenomena. In addition to the modernization of the Anton Dohrn, the 41-ft. launch Mytilus was purchased followed by the 64-ft. motor-sailor Physalia in 1944 and the Reliance in 1945.  These were used as a coastal fleet, due to wartime restrictions.


The following were scientific inquiries undertaken during the years 1943,1944, and 1945 as cited in the annual report of the Institution for those years. Due to restrictions of classification, much of the war- related work conducted during Iselin’s directorship remained restricted until postwar publication and declassification.

  1. 1.Alfred Redfield supervised a group of about twenty persons studying antifouling paints and fouling organisms. Known as Project #1, the main technical objective involved the development of a quick and reliable way to test the antifouling characteristics of paints, and to learn how paints prevent fouling. A book entitledMarine Fouling and Its Prevention, published by theNavy Department in 1952 with a preface written by Iselin, summarized the work done at WHOI and became a standard reference in this field.
  2. 2. Temperature distribution in the surface layer of theNorth Atlantic. With the greatly improved bathythermograph,Frederick Fuglister directed the tabulation of average monthly values of temperature at various standard levels down to 200 meters for every 30-minute square in the North Atlantic. Iselin and Fuglister later collaborated on a report entitled “Some recent developments in the study of the Gulf Stream” [Journal of Marine Research, 1948, 7(3): 317-329.], adding to Iselin’s significant body of work on this area.
  3. 3. Sea, swell and surf. Maurice Ewing supervised the work to develop improved instrumentation to record sea and swell and to study surf conditions along the Atlantic coast.Arthur Klebba constructed a wave period analyzer which showed great promise for research, andGeorge Clarke,Kenneth Reynolds andGardner Emmons produced studies providing fairly accurate predictions of sea and swell conditions in the open ocean and surf on given beaches.
  4. 4. Air turbulence and convection over the ocean. Alfred Woodcock did war time studies of air motion and the performance of smoke screens over the water, as well as of thermal structures in the lower air over beaches, leading to a greater understanding of air-sea inter-relationships.Jeffries Wyman took over a group studying low level meteorological phenomenon over the ocean and the development of a variety of sensitive recording instruments.
  5. 5. Underwater acoustics. Maurice Ewing developed one of the most interesting systems in this field, under the code nameSOFAR for locating survivors at sea. The study of acoustical transmission in the so-called sound channel, a layer just below the main thermocline, had broad implications for air-sea rescue work, but required the study of the distribution of temperature and salinity at mid-depths, and the charting of submerged peaks.Henry C. Stetson prepared a considerable number of sediment charts for the Hydrographic Office after reexamining sedimentary data from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as many foreign areas.
  6. 6. Seismic refraction measurement in shallow water. Maurice Ewing andLamar Worzel did studies for theNaval Ordnance Laboratory using high quality instrumentation, and clarified many problems of transmission of sound waves both in water and through the bottom.

    The many seismograms obtained in the course of work provided excellent data for studies of the dispersion of the water wave, phenomena noted previously in which the higher frequency sound arrives ahead of the lower.…Dr. Pekeris has recently completed a theoretical study which establishes a complete and detailed explanation of the observed dispersion in terms of bottom structure and the depth of water.7

  7. 7. Underwater explosive phenomena.E. Bright Wilson of Harvard initiated investigations to use explosives in developing and calibrating better gauges for measuring the pressure waves. Work was transferred to Woods Hole under the direction of Paul Fye,Robert Cole andJ.”Spike” Coles.Arnold Arons also investigated these phenomena. A small laboratory housing chemicals and explosive magazines was secured onNonamesset Island, and theReliance was outfitted with instrumentation for explosive experiments. Much experience was gained in the use of electronic instrumentation, as well as the precise experiments at sea.

By the end of August, 1945 there were 335 people employed at the Institution.  In the midst of this radical growth, Columbus was able to bring order out of what could have been chaos, and emphasized the teamwork that prevailed in the organization. “…Columbus remained personally and technically involved in individual problems to an amazing extent.  He spent a great deal of time wandering around the lab, quietly observing, gently encouraging, and posing questions so pertinent that they frequently suggested solutions”. 8


In the post-war years beginning with 1946, Government subsidy of research continued to provide financial support for the Institution’s programs, as attempts were made to develop long-range program directions. The definition of oceanography became more expansive and scientific studies included all that went on, in, under, and over the sea.

The atomic bomb tests at Bikini provided grounds for various types of investigations and continued, undiminished government financial support. More than 40 staff members took part in different phases of these experiments helped by the return of staff from the Armed Forces and the recruitment of other qualified personnel. The costs of operating the Institution’s vessels became so high that WHOI needed government support to continue with fieldwork. This resulted in the narrowing of the field program. The alternative of returning to operation solely on income from endowment would have left the Institution with

…a small program of field observations in local waters. This unhappy situation has very much influenced the operations of the past year and has delayed the resumption of a balanced research program in which the analysis and publication of results keeps pace with the collection of new data. Facing the prospects of a greatly reduced field program within the next year or two, we have deliberately exerted every effort to keep our vessels busy accumulating observations. As a result, we have only a relatively small output of scientific publications to point to after an extremely busy year. 9

In 1946, seventeen contributions were made to Vol. 10, No. 1 of PPOM, in addition to thirty-eight numbered WHOI Technical Reports and numerous WHOI miscellaneous (unnumbered) reports. The Atlantis resumed her cruises and made six trips between January and November. Collaboration with the navy on the maintenance and operation of oceanographic vessels began with the government providing the machinery to replace the engine on Atlantis. This enabled the Institution to spend its funds upgrading the arrangement of the engine room, with the result that she was now far better equipped in these areas than when she was new. The navy provided WHOI with vessels such as the 127-ft. yacht Mentor , especially outfitted for acoustical research, which was maintained by civilian personnel. Other government owned vessels included Reliance and Claire , which were working under contracts. Other WHOI vessels in service included Balanus , a 72-ft. fishing boat, and the smaller Asterias and Mytilus .

Primary scientific programs conducted by the Institution during 1946 included:

  1. 1. Productivity of the sea, with the chief objective being the measurement of the factors underlying the productivity of coastal waters. Two concrete tanks were built to produce phytoplankton to further facilitate the study.
  2. 2. Studies of the pollution of sea water, including investigation of the distribution and extent of bacterial pollution, and investigation into the factors controlling the viability of coliform bacteria in the sea.
  3. 3. The biology of fouling organisms.
  4. 4. Geophysics of the continental shelves. A group of scientists occupied fifteen stations between theGulf of Maine andCape May, New Jersey for mapping projects.
  5. 5. Distribution of marine sediments. Sedimentary work was continued by aNavy study of that part of the Gulf of Maine lying directly offPortsmouth. About 700 samples were taken under the direction of Henry Stetson,Fred Phleger and Mr.Ericson.
  6. 6. Hydrography of theWestern North Atlantic. With new instrumentation and methods, such as loran and the new salinity recorder, efforts were renewed to determine the circulation and the distribution of temperature and salinity. A new contract with theOffice of Naval Research Financial provided support for continuing this fieldwork.
  7. 7. Marine meteorology. Multiple studies included a group headed byJeffries Wyman who worked on the exchanges of heat and water vapor between air and sea in the Trade Wind area. An analysis of observations made during the war of vertical soundings through the lowest 500 meters of air over the ocean revealed the types of vertical structure that occur in this part of the atmosphere.Raymond Montgomery studied the meteorological conditions to gather information about fog.
  8. 8. Development of oceanographic instruments.  Progress was made on the design and development of a wave recorder and wave period analyzer under the supervision ofArthur Klebba and a salinity-temperature-depth recorder under the supervision of Al Vine.
  9. 9.Pacific Ocean biology. Under the supervision ofCharles Fish and under contract with theOffice of Naval Research (ONR), the objectives involved assembling and analyzing all available data on zooplankton, reef building corals, fouling organisms, phosphorescence and sound-producing marine mammals, and providing further recommendations for new study from this analysis.
  10. 10. Underwater acoustics. UsingMentor andAtlantis, studies continued of environmental factors influencing the transmission of sound in seawater.George Woollard,Leonard Liebermann,J.B. Hersey and Maurice Ewing supervised various phases of these investigations.
  11. 11. Underwater explosive phenomena. The work of the Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory, under Paul Fye’s direction, continued to find the importance of explosives as a tool in oceanography, but that environment played an important role in the success of the experiments. The population density in the Woods Hole area, however, made it impractical to continue these experiments in this area, and the project ended in 1947.

Jan Hahn summarized Iselin’s unique contributions to both the Institution and to oceanography as a field:

In the immediate post-war years when government support was difficult to obtain, Columbus Iselin retained the nucleus of his team at low pay but high morale, but also encouraged others to leave for university positions or other marine laboratories, thus spreading the talent in many places…

…He foresaw the great post-war expansion in international fisheries and wrote and spoke extensively on fishery problems…he initiated the search for new fishery resources in deep water off the New England coast…he suggested the establishment of the marine equivalent of agricultural experimental stations. 10

Iselin served as a modest spur to the Institution’s direction and research and heightened the awareness of social problems as well as economic implications of scientific advances.

The shortage of laboratory space and housing became very evident at the Institution in 1946, particularly during the summer months. The Executive Committee authorized the purchase of property across the street from the main building, with frontage on Eel Pond, although a decision to evaluate future financial activity postponed any construction.


The cost of fieldwork and the operating expenses associated with the maintenance of a growing fleet of vessels caused great havoc to the 1947 budget. Operating costs had almost tripled since the pre-war period and the imbalance of need for vessels during the winter and summer months created the Institution’s main administrative problem, according to Iselin’s unpublished draft of the 1947 annual report.

Atlantis was engaged in eight scientific cruises (#144 - #151) during 1947, beginning with an investigation of the environmental conditions of the deposition of sediment in the northwest part of the Gulf of Mexico. Observations were made at 133 locations over 530 square miles of western Atlantic basin. Five scientific papers and reports were written relative to this cruise and the expedition was considered remarkably successful (see Cruise Reference Logs- Atlantis-1945-1950, WHOI Archives). Preparations for a Mediterranean cruise of Atlantis (Cruise #151) began in September and caused an expensive period of inactivity for the vessel until she departed on December 10, 1947. The cruise was also considered the most ambitious undertaking attempted and succeeded in gathering a broad range of statistical measurements, including 21,000 miles of continuous fathometer measurements. Martin Pollack was in charge of a scientific crew of nine and managed to include a member of the Hydrographic Office, J.N. Carruthers, for several weeks so he could observe cruise techniques first hand. At least twenty-three publications and technical reports resulted from this cruise.

The Ryan Foundation provided the Institution with $36,000, which helped to defray 40% of the cost of the Caryn . She was converted for oceanographic work and participated in two Bermuda cruises in 1947. The Institution maintained five additional vessels, two of which the Government owned. The boats, while being the Institution’s greatest assets, also presented administrative and financial problems yet to be resolved.

Government contracts from the Office of Naval Research, Hydrographic Office, and the Bureau of Ships, remained a stable source of funding, and explosives research received support under the able direction of Paul Fye and Arnold Arons. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with state conservation agencies, emerged as a source of funding for inquiry into the ecology of salt ponds and estuaries, which was a subject of great interest to Alfred Redfield.

Iselin noted that industrial contracts might be a possible source of income. Though the Institution had yet to formulate a policy regarding such funding, this money was being pursued if it applied to an investigation of interest to a qualified scientist. The National Lead Company made $40,000 available to the Institution in 1947, through the National Research Council, for the study of dispersion of commercial waste products in coastal water. The Institution primarily looked for funding with the prospect of continuing support and viewed this as a way to expand the scope of interesting study to both senior staff members and graduate students.

1947 also saw the continued growth of the Institution’s outreach, in terms of cooperation with other institutions, participation in scientific conferences, and public relations. Alfred Redfield and William Ford helped in the reorganization of the oceanographic program at the University of Washington, and the Institution provided advice and assistance in the establishment of the Institute for Fisheries Research in North Carolina and a similar project on the Chesapeake Bay. WHOI cooperated with the Fish and Wildlife Service in studies of dinoflagellates in coastal Florida, worked with Cuba on a planned oceanographic vessel, and provided assistance to the Bermuda Biological Station.

Several well-attended conferences took place at the Institution, bringing many visitors and the useful exchange of information to Woods Hole. Jan Hahn promoted WHOI’s public relations by supplying photographs and articles to major newspapers, news services and national magazines. In addition, the opening of an oceanographic exhibition, in space provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Woods Hole, was visited by approximately 4,000 people before going on display at the Hydrographic Office in Washington, DC.

Two papers were published in the PPOM, and the 1947 volume of Collected Reprints contained thirty-three papers. Thirty-nine numbered WHOI Technical Reports were published, in addition to numerous WHOI miscellaneous reports.

Housing and laboratory space remained a concern, and proposals were made for the Navy to finance a new laboratory building. WHOI acquired the Fay estate in Woods Hole, and made immediate plans to provide housing facilities for women in the “ Homestead building”.

Highlights of the scientific program for 1947 according to Iselin’s draft of the annual report for that year included:

  1. 1. The productivity of the sea.Gordon Riley succeeded in applying methods of statistical analysis to data describing the number of organisms present and the conditions of the environment as these changed throughout the year.Bostwick Ketchum andWilliam Ford continued the chemical exploration of the open sea based on data collected during four cruises made across the continental shelf and into deep water.
  2. 2. The ecology of coastal waters. This area of study gained importance asJohn Ayers worked inBarnstable Harbor, a typical salt marsh estuary, and Bostwick Ketchum examined the “Red Tide” phenomenon off the West Coast of Florida for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Evidence continued to accumulate regarding the increased fertility of coastal waters relative to the open sea.
  3. 3. Practical aspects of productivity.George Clarke’s group pursued the study of increasing the productivity of enclosed bodies of salt water with the addition of chemical fertilizers. In connection with this group,Harry Turner conducted experimental clam culture studies for the town ofBarnstable. This work brought the Institution in close contact with various Atlantic Coast conservation departments.
  4. 4. Studies of the pollution of seawater. Bostwick Ketchum’s group continued their studies on the bactericidal substance in seawater, and presented their results in a symposium the same year. The Institution was also consulted regarding the disposal of industrial waste and objectionable materials at sea.
  5. 5. WHOI delivered the manuscript ofMarine Fouling and Its Prevention to theBureau of Ships, culminating the Institution’s long term project in this area.
  6. 6. General marine biology. The extensive collection of growths on navigational buoys that were collected for studies on fouling provided exceptional data on the geographical study of marine animals.Louis Hutchins conducted multiple studies in this area. Mary Sears resumed her studies of plankton and Dr. Stephenson assisted in the study of organisms from the intertidal zone along the coasts of the United States.
  7. 7. Submarine geology.Fred Phleger’s work on the distribution of marine foraminifera received aid by a grant from theGeological Society of America to study an extensive core collection; the Office of Naval Research also provided a grant for this work, thereby establishing aMarine Foraminifera Laboratory.
  8. 8. Submarine geophysics.Brackett Hersey and Maurice Ewing developed a technique for observing the total thickness of the unconsolidated sediments on the bottom of the deep ocean without having to stop the vessel and involving the firing of a small surface charge. The new recording deep fathometers, installed on both theAtlantis and theCaryn, provided invaluable data in building the outline of geological province of theNorth Atlantic, as well as new biological data studied byHilary Moore.Alfred Woollard, under an ONR contract, used a new type of gravimeter in work to tie together the gravity network of the Northern Hemisphere.
  9. 9. Development of oceanographic instruments.William Von Arx, with the help ofHenry Stommel, developed the geomagnetic electrokinetograph, a means of measuring electrical potentials induced in the sea by the movement of the water in the earth’s magnetic field, thereby creating a practical way to measure ocean currents while a vessel is under way. However, the results of his scientific study were kept classified by the Navy while practical applications were explored [declassified as technical report WHOI-48-45]. Allyn Vine’s group, including Mr.John Holmes, made a great deal of progress in testing their temperature-salinity-depth recorders. Athelstan Spilhaus developed a new sea sampler, and William Ford designed and built a photoelectric colorimeter.
  10. 10. Marine meteorology. Al Woodcock completed his studies of the distribution and size of salt nuclei in the air over the ocean. ProfessorHaurwitz also made progress in this field and published several reports of his studies.
  11. 11. Physical oceanography. One of the main objectives continued to be studies of the ocean currents and the distribution of temperature and salinity in the sea.Fred Fuglister made a major contribution this year by producing a three-dimensional chart of the temperature distribution in a selected area of the western North Atlantic, including the Gulf Stream. This was of great value to the subsurface navigator, for the understanding of this chart turned the bathythermograph into a current meter. Henry Stommel had a very productive year and, among his studies, created a simplified mathematical model of the world’s oceans that could be employed to predict a tidal wave in deep water without observations. He visited theTidal Institute inLiverpool and spent a weekend inScotland with ProfessorL.F. Richardson, which resulted in experimentation and the publication of several papers, including a WHOI technical report (WHOI-48-38), which extended Richardson’s law of the spectrum of atmospheric turbulence to the sea.

As the laboratory grew, it became more difficult for Iselin to summarize the expanse of research for the annual report. The financial burdens facing the Institution also concerned him deeply. As an administrator, he was looking at a growing field, shrinking scientific salaries and the quest for alternatives to sole dependence on Government funding:

How much longer will it be practical to operate as during recent years?  How long can we expect able scientists to work at such a laboratory as this one which can do so little to give them financial security?  A few of them can gain security by taking teaching positions. Others can gain financial security by working directly for the Government. The fact that so few of the younger men are leaving us seems to indicate that they are not too worried about the future. They seem to feel as I do that if we can continue to be a productive laboratory, the future will take care of itself. 11


One of the administrative advances Iselin noted in his draft for the unpublished annual report for 1948 was that steps had been taken to establish more formal budgetary control. An established procedure existed for applying for funds from the Office of Naval Research, which provided over one-third of the Institution’s operating costs. Income from the Bureau of Ships equaled that provided by ONR, but with less “red tape” and advanced notice of the amount and nature of the work involved. Due to this naval support of oceanographic research, no other laboratory could claim as much expertise in the field of undersea warfare as WHOI. In 1948 Iselin received the Medal of Merit from President Truman in recognition of the Institution’s role in saving many ships and reducing the Navy’s fuel costs during the war.

Although government support of oceanographic research seemed secure for the time, the Institution had trouble finding future financial support outside of the government. (This problem plagued other laboratories around the country. A committee to advise the National Academy of Sciences in 1949 addressed this problem in length, almost twenty years after Henry Bigelow and Thomas Vaughan presented their survey of oceanography that resulted in the founding of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution). Iselin felt comfortable that prospects for modest expansion were favorable and that the Institution had emerged from the post-war period in good standing. He had confidence in the possibility of securing university connections for senior staff members to provide for their salaries, while long-term projects in specific areas of oceanography could find non-governmental funding.

Highlights of scientific programs conducted during the 1948-49 period included:

Physical Oceanography

Physical Oceanography:

  1. 1. The circulation of the ocean. Progress continued on studies of seasonal and geographical distribution of temperature and salinity. Dean Bumpus andMartin Pollak produced excellent reports resulting from their studies of recent Mediterranean cruise data. William Von Arx managed to publish his progress in measuring ocean currents by means of electrodes towed at subsurface levels, formerly classified by the Navy. He also had the unique opportunity to prepare a hydraulic model ofBarataria Bay for theFreeport Sulphur Co. in which the effects of tides, winds, and land drainage varied.
  2. 2. Sea and swell studies.Frank Mather’s report on the data collected during theMediterranean cruise of 1948 pointed out the weaknesses in the current techniques of forecasting and became the first accurate and sizable body of wave data collected at sea.Richard Seiwell’s presentation to the National Academy of Sciences created so much interest in his auto-correlation technique for studying ocean swell data that it resulted in a symposium for further study at Woods Hole in June. 
  3. 3. Underwater acoustics. Brackett Hersey’s group, although young in age, gained much experience at sea and produced work in the acoustical field. Instrumentation and training improved vastly in 1948, although the program faced setbacks due to Hersey’s diversion to work on a problem for the Chief of Naval Operations. Charles Fish andWilliam Schevill showed increased interest in the study of noises produced by whales, porpoises and fish.
  4. 4. Interaction between ocean and atmosphere. Prof. Haurwitz’s group studied the interchange of energy at the sea surface. Al Woodcock continued to explore distribution of salt nuclei as sea spray was thrown up into the air, and the important role they played in the heat exchange between sea and atmosphere.Raymond Montgomery continued his study of the theory of fog formation.
  5. 5. Tides. Alfred Redfield developed a simple method for analyzing the behavior of tides in embayments that filled a need for a useable method of interpreting the existing mass of tidal data.


  1. 1. Sedimentary studies. Fred Phleger,Parker Trask andHenry Stetson continued to study the extensive material collected from the Gulf of Mexico byAtlantis during the winter of 1947.
  2. 2. Geophysics of the ocean bottom. Nine refraction profiles were shot in deep water as a by-product of the various cruises in 1947 in a continued study of the western North Atlantic. Maurice Ewing led an active group fromColumbia University that continued to use WHOI’s vessels and shop services. Columbia’s increased financial contributions to his work allied Ewing’s program more with Columbia than with WHOI. Brackett Hersey’s group addressed more systematically some of the same projects initiated by Ewing, and started to develop their own methods and procedures.

Biological Oceanography:

  1. In the early years, WHOI had a deliberate policy to leave fisheries work to the Fish and Wildlife service. As a result, application of oceanographic information to fisheries projects had not been a field of investigation, although the Institution had increasing requests to provide expertise, information and services. Staff members interested in oceanic ecology did not have the opportunity to work at sea, and could only work on existing collections. Because of renewed interest, biologists began preparing for oceanic study. Biological studies underway at the Barnstable salt marsh estuary on methods of clam farming led to John Ayers’ study of the hydrography of this variety of tidal basin, and the geological history of the salt marsh. Continuing studies of bacteria of sewage in seawater also received more attention. In general, ways were sought to apply oceanographic knowledge to practical fishing problems as international agencies came to WHOI looking for answers to serious food shortages worldwide.

Chemical Oceanography:

  1. Study of the chemistry of seawater had been neglected, and the appointment of Francis Richards helped to remedy the absence of a staff member to head up work in oceanic chemistry. WHOI had outdated methods in this field and had only made advances in the development of rapid recording devices. Steps were taken to expand the study of the biology of the ocean, its composition and motions, and the ocean as a source of raw materials.

Over thirty papers were published, in addition to fifty-six WHOI technical reports, which the Institution began to number in 1948. Iselin collaborated with Fuglister on an article on “Some Recent Investigations of the Gulf Stream”.12 Mary Sears continued to file and catalog incoming reports, primarily unclassified, which were distributed as a result of government contracts. At this time there were over 1500 such reports, which constituted the Institution’s first non-WHOI document collection, a precursor to the WHOI Document Library.

Remodeling began on the Fay estate, and the Hall property across from the laboratory produced income until such time as additional laboratory space could be constructed, hopefully with funding support from the Navy. In his summation of the unpublished 1948 annual report Iselin’s mood is noticeably more optimistic than in the previous year.

I believe that we have emerged from the post-war period successfully. A continuing interest on the part of the government in oceanographic research seems a certainty, although the level may fall below that which has been maintained of recent years. We are finding among the younger men several whom have outstanding ability. The role of oceanography is now more generally appreciated among scientists. I believe that we have consolidated our gains and that it is well justified with modest expansion. A year ago I was in much more doubt than I am today.13

In his unpublished annual report for 1949, delivered at the end of his term of office in July 1950, Iselin reflected upon the progress of the Institution over the ten years of his directorship. At the time Iselin took office, the operating expenses of the Institution were approximately $150,000 per year, the amount of the endowment. By the end of 1945, expenses had grown to $1,000,000 as a result of government contracts. Although it seemed, at times, that the terms of the contracts worked out to the disadvantage of the Institution, auditors showed that from 1940-1950 WHOI received nearly $6,000,000 from the government, which exceeded the Institution’s out-of-pocket expenses. Work on government contracts also had the advantage of providing thousands of dollars of scientific equipment and instrumentation for general use in the laboratories, putting them on par with any research facility in the country.

In the “cold war” years after World War II, the government reaffirmed its commitment to long-term oceanographic research, both for military preparedness and scientific advancement. During Iselin’s directorship, the Institution also aided in the establishment of other laboratories and research groups along the East Coast. Maurice Ewing and Lamar Worzel joined Columbia and a strong alliance developed between the two institutions; WHOI provided the Atlantis for their oceanic research, and gained the support of a department specializing in geophysics and submarine geology at a major university.

The Institution contributed to the dissemination of knowledge and skills in the various fields of oceanography. WHOI also initiated many of the subsequent marine science programs in universities throughout the country, and provided training for many of the investigators in the field. By 1949, over 130 scientists had spent at least a year at the Institution, in addition to the many others who participated in summer programs. WHOI helped in the establishment and growth of programs at Yale, Brown, Cornell, Harvard, University of Florida, University of Rhode Island, as well as the Bermuda Biological Station and several other foreign oceanographic laboratories. WHOI also provided services to cooperating organizations by lending and building specialized instruments. Such work provided over $10,000 in revenue to the Institution in 1949 alone.

Wartime research had brought physics and oceanography together at the Institution and the benefit of the creative, free-flowing research teams that included scientists from a range of disciplines. Iselin noted that, in spite of financial pressures that the Director faced,

…They were exciting days for the scientists. Relieved from immediate pressures in the demand for practical applications and aided by new instruments and methods, we were able to learn that the Gulf Stream and other currents were much more complex, swifter and narrower than was formerly believed. The new knowledge led to a most successful multiple-ship survey in 1950 (known as Operation Cabot). The geophysicists learned to operate two vessels working jointly and ranged ahead in the systematic program of measuring the acoustical reflectivity of the bottom in deep water.14

The use of Atlantis had grown into a multi-task operation, and by 1949 she required 60 support people in addition to her crew. As instrumentation became more elaborate and sophisticated, the personnel needs increased. The cost of operating Atlantis and Caryn (half time) had risen to about $500,000 annually.

Iselin expressed his personal objectives for the direction of the Institution in his last [unpublished] annual report. In part, these were to 1) focus on study of the North Atlantic as a whole, rather than restricting study to localized regions. 2) seek government support of the most productive and senior members of the staff through professorships, which would ensure their continued work. 3) greatly expand the study of the chemistry of sea water and marine biology, as well as the study of marine sediments. 4) expand and develop the field of marine meteorology. 5) continue to publish results of research.

Iselin was in favor of the generous distribution of Institution publications to a select group of libraries and laboratories as a form of positive “advertising” and charity to fledgling groups. Over 40 papers were published in various scientific journals, including PPOM, during 1949 in addition to fifty-six WHOI numbered technical reports.

One of the projects undertaken in 1949 was unique in that it was an engineering rather than a scientific project. Roy Rather, who came to the Institution with experience in the oil industry, developed and tested a submarine detection device with the assistance of Allyn Vine, Willard Dow and others, which was a classified project at the time. This opened yet another avenue to obtaining financial support from industry for the Institution’s science.

This is how Columbus Iselin would leave the Institution under his first directorship, as a facility still true to its original objective to provide a setting in which university people from a variety of scientific disciplines relative to oceanography could conduct research, both at sea and in the laboratory, and work in a synergy with like-minded researchers. World War II had focused government attention on the benefits of oceanographic research, and its funding provided scientific advances that saved lives and opened areas of discovery that had a multitude of peacetime applications. This was a time of great ferment for the field of oceanography. Iselin set a tone of guidance and “pump-priming” that fostered high morale among staff and visiting scientists that made the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a virtual “parent” to oceanographic institutions and programs throughout the world.

Columbus O’Donnell Iselin later served a second short term as WHOI director from August 16, 1956 to May 31, 1958 prior to Dr. Fye’s appointment.

  1. 1 Daniel Behrman.The New World of the Oceans: Men and Oceanography (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1969), 290.
  2. 2 Daniel Behrman, ibid., 292.
  3. 3 Jan Hahn, "Columbus O’Donnell Iselin," The Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal Award Brochure, 1966. Biographical File, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.
  4. 4 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Report of the Director for the Years 1943, 1944, and 1945,"Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Years 1943, 1944, 1945 (1946):16-17.
  5. 5 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Eleventh Annual Report of the Director for the Year 1940,"Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Year 1940 (1941): 14.
  6. 6 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "WHOI History During the War Years, 1941-1950," n.d. Biographical File, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.
  7. 7 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Report of the Director for the Years 1943, 1944, and 1945,"Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Years 1943, 1944, 1945 (1946): 33.
  8. 8 Allyn C. Vine, "World War II at Woods Hole,"Oceanus 16, no.2 (1971): 41.
  9. 9 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Report of the Director,"Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Report for the Year 1946 (1947): 13.
  10. 10 Jan Hahn, "Columbus O’Donnell Iselin," The Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal Award Brochure, 1966. Biographical File, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.
  11. 11 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Nineteenth Annual Report of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for 1947-1948," 26. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.
  12. 12 Fritz Fuglister & Columbus O’D. Iselin, "Some Recent Investigations of the Gulf Stream,"Journal of Marine Research 7, no.3 (1948).
  13. 13 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Twentieth Annual Report of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for 1948-1949," 29. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Archives, Woods Hole, Mass.
  14. 14 Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, "Short History of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution," 29. Biographical File, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.


9.6 box(es) (12 linear feet)


The records consist of the administrative records of Columbus O'Donnell Iselin in his role as Director of WHOI from 1940-1950.


The Director’s collection is believed to be in its original arrangement, and consists of the following six series:

Custodial History

In 1960, the materials were moved from the Office of the Director to a new vault in the Blake Building. In 1971, both the Archives and the Data library moved to the Data and Earth Sample Center building, now the Crawford Building, on WHOI’s Quissett campus. In 1981, the Archives, containing the director’s files, moved to its current location in the basement of the McLean Building.

Acquisitions Information

The records of the WHOI Office of the Director, 1940-1950, were transferred to the WHOI Archives in 1960.

Related Material

Other sources documenting Iselin’s administration are available in the WHOI archives. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Annual Reports, both published and unpublished editions, provide a summation of yearly progress in financial, personnel, building, and scientific perspectives, although much of what was done at WHOI during the war years was classified information and not publicly available until recently. For scientific work during the period 1940-1950, more information is available in the Collected Reprints and also the WHOI Technical Reports of the period. An unpublished collection of articles entitled A Compilation of Articles on the Early History of WHOI – Its Founding, Growth and Development, (WHOI 1996 G43) contains ten articles and papers detailing parts of the Institution’s history.  On Almost Any Wind: The Saga of the Oceanographic Research Vessel Atlantis by Susan Schlee, 1978, details the early voyages of the vessel, which Iselin helped design and captain. Oceanography: The Past edited by Mary Sears and Daniel Merriman, 1980 makes a number of references to Iselin during his time as Director. A special issue of Oceanus Vol. XVI, No. 2, June 1971, dedicated to Columbus Iselin, is a collection of remembrances of the director and his years at WHOI. Iselin’s biographical file in the Archives also contains a short, unpublished history of WHOI written by Iselin.

Separated Material

The Columbus O’Donnell Iselin Collection (MC-16) in the Archives consists of his personal papers that also include approximately 1 linear foot of material for the years 1940 to 1950 that can be considered part of his Director’s files. Iselin had retained these materials as part of his personal papers after his directorship ended. 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 (MC-16, boxes 3-4).

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 Brenda Rocklage and Margot Garritt. A volunteer, Ruth Davis, did basic preservation work and also prepared a folder list that served as the initial finding aid for the first eighteen original file boxes of director’s files. 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), 1940-1950
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