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Columbus O'Donnell Iselin papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-16

Scope and Content Note

The Columbus O'Donnell Iselin papers consist of 34 boxes of documents spanning 1904-1971. The files contain manuscripts, letters, schoolbooks, logbooks, memoranda, lectures, speeches, reprinted articles, magazine clippings, photographs, charts, reports, and data. The papers primarily reflect his scientific interests and multifaceted involvement in the international oceanographic community through writing, lecturing and in an advisory capacity as Physical Oceanographer for the Institution. The bulk of the papers span the years from 1932-1965.


  • 1904-1971

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

Columbus O’Donnell Iselin was born in New Rochelle, New York on September 25, 1904 to an affluent family of bankers and philanthropists. He had a nautical heritage, became an adept sailor at an early age, and was said to have built his first boat at age eleven.

After a preparatory school education at St. Marks in Southboro, Massachusetts, he entered Harvard in 1922 as a mathematics major, but his eagerness to read in the marine sciences led him to Dr. Henry Bigelow, Harvard’s great marine biologist. Bigelow became his lifelong mentor and under his guidance, Iselin took his schooner Chance and a student crew on a cruise from Labrador to Bermuda in 1926, collecting specimens and data about the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. The four scientific papers published as a result of this cruise gained Iselin his first wide attention. The Chance data confirmed Norwegian theories concerning the movement of icebergs and was incorporated by the International Ice Patrol.

When Bigelow’s new project of an oceanographic institution in Woods Hole became a reality in 1930, Iselin was hired as General Assistant and the first year round employee at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as well as Master of the new high-seas research vessel Atlantis , whose design and construction he supervised. During the years 1931-40, as Physical Oceanographer at Woods Hole he supervised the Atlantis in her exploration of the Gulf Stream. In 1940 he was appointed Director of WHOI upon Dr. Bigelow’s retirement, a position he retained for ten years, resuming it briefly from 1956-58.

For a period of twenty years, beginning in the nineteen-thirties, the description of the Gulf Stream and the physical characteristics of the Western North Atlantic resulting from the studies of Iselin and the scientists he guided was his most direct contribution to physical oceanography. He published four classic papers between 1936 and 1948.

During World War II, Iselin worked with Maurice Ewing on underwater sound transmission in submarine detection, and introduced the bathythermograph’s use by the Navy in that endeavor. He received the Medal of Merit in 1948 for service to his country.

During the postwar years, Iselin was on the board of the National Academy of Science’s Committee for Undersea Warfare, and was also a founding member of the N.A.T.O. Subcommittee on Oceanographic Research (SCOR), where he played an important part in initiating the International Indian Ocean Expedition. He founded the Ocean Resource Institute with Francis Minot to support the causes of New England marine resources. Iselin was involved, through writing and speaking on a national and international level, in helping to resolve the economic and social problems arising from exploitation of the sea. He remained active in many organizations until his death in 1971.


34 boxes (19 lin. ft.)


The papers of Columbus O'Donnell Iselin reflect his scientific interests and multifaceted involvement in the international oceanographic community through writing, lecturing and in an advisory capacity as Physical Oceanographer for the Institution. The bulk of the papers span the years from 1932-1965.


The papers are arranged in six series:

Custodial History

There is no record of the original accession of the bulk of Iselin’s material to its current location in the WHOI Data Library and Archives, but it is believed that it was transferred from his institution office after his death. There were three subsequent additions to the collection. The accession of a suitcase containing personal files, log books, school books, papers and lectures given at Harvard and M.I.T. was transferred from Iselin’s home and given to Allyn Vine, who sorted through the material, and gave it to the archives on September 26, 1984. Account books, ledgers, receipts and letters pertaining to the Eastern Shipbuilding Corp., a Nova Scotia shipbuilding business in which Iselin was invested between 1930-35, were found in the Bigelow building attic and brought to the archives in September 1986. Iselin’s niece, Susanne S. Doyle, contributed some Iselin family papers, photographs, and glass slides in 1995.

Acquisitions Information

Received in several accessions, including one on September 26, 1984, one in September 1986, and one in 1995. The date of the original accession is not documented, but is believed to have been donated after Iselin's death.

Related Material

Additional biographical material relating to Columbus O’Donnell Iselin can be found in his biographical file in the Archives vault. Refer also to the collection of Iselin as Director of WHOI, as well as the Director’s files of Henry Bigelow, Edward Smith and Paul Fye.

Separated Material

Books and reports were added to the library collection as appropriate. Logbooks and data pertaining to specific cruises were removed to the cruise files in the Archives vault.

Processing Information

Processed by Brenda Rocklage. Processing of this collection was partly supported by a grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics. During processing basic preservation measures were taken, staples and metal clips were removed, acidic and fragile papers were photocopied, and papers were put in acid free folders. Since the original order of the materials could not be determined, the collection was organized into four (4) series for clarity, retaining the titles of folder when known and the overall chronological order in which they had been placed.

A Guide to the Columbus O'Donnell Iselin papers, 1904-1971
Brenda Rocklage
April 2001
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