National Archives Resources for the History of Science

by Robyn Dexter and Meg Phillips, National Archives and Records Administration

The U.S.’s National Archives and Records Administration (colloquially the National Archives, or NARA) may not be the first place that leaps to mind when you’re thinking about the history of science, but we actually hold all kinds of surprising records that document scientific activity. Permanent records from hundreds of federal agencies doing all sorts of work make their way to the archives and are used by researchers in many unusual fields. While we have buildings in Washington, DC and College Park, Maryland, NARA also collects archival records from the Federal government in twelve field locations, plus Presidential Libraries and affiliated archival facilities. NARA’s holdings crisscross the nation from Seattle to Atlanta, New York to Yorba Linda; see our research rooms at http://www.archives.gov/locations/. These National Archives facilities are a resource for all kinds of researchers, including historians of science.

The items featured in this article provide a tiny snapshot of the Federal agency records that help tell the story of the government’s involvement in science and medicine. To dive deeper, explore our website (www.archives.gov) and the National Archives Catalog, then plan a research visit by emailing us so we can advise you on records that might shed light on your topic. Although a growing number of records are available online, the majority are only available by researching in person. We list the archival record group (or RG number) for the records mentioned to help you follow up on items that pique your interest. (Contacting us will help us send your question to the right person.)

To get a sense of the wide scope of our scientific holdings, consider that the National Archives holds records from the Office of Scientific Research and Development (RG 227), US Patent and Trademark Office (RG 241), the National Science Foundation (RG 307), the National Institute of Science and Technology, or NIST (RG 167), the Coast and Geodetic Survey (RG 23), the Army Corps of Engineers (RG 77), and the Chief of Ordnance (RG 156; check out Reports on Powder, Ammunition, Chemicals, and on Small Arms Experiments). Many presidential libraries also hold science files in White House Central Files. We hold records from the Department of Energy (RG 434) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institutes of Health (RG 443), the Weather Bureau (RG 27), and many more!

In addition to the history of science, NARA supports current scientific research with archival records, too. For example, NARA participates with NOAA and many others on the “Old Weather” project, where the public can help transcribe historic ships’ logs, including valuable weather observations that scientists can use. (See http://www.oldweather.org/ to participate.)
We invited archivists across the agency to highlight some of their favorite science records to give you a few examples of textual records and images in the collection. Archivists know and love their records: one archivist asked us to include a heartfelt plea for some researcher to give the Records of the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine (RG 67) the attention they deserve. What follows are the rest of their responses:

  • The Records of the Forest Service (RG 95) contain a collection of photographs dating from 1897 to 1980 documenting the agency’s activities in the management and protection of national forests and grasslands. There are also images of Forest Service cooperative projects with other government agencies. For example, prior to the first moonwalk astronaut Walter Cunningham worked with NASA scientists and Forest Service personnel to test the dexterity of a human in a spacesuit by navigating lava flows, which simulated the Moon’s surface. 61,111 of these photographs are available online at http://research.archives.gov/description/651890
  • The Surgeon General’s Office (RG 112) has a useful series of correspondence related to the U. S. Army’s World War I hospitals, laboratories, posts, camps, stations, and departments in the United States and Europe. (The box list for close to 1000 boxes has been posted at http://research.archives.gov/description/719020). Camp Lee’s work in the influenza outbreak of 1918 – 1919 provides a rich source of research material in this collection.
  • Another fascinating but underused collection was produced by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (RG 227). This office was created as a result of WWII to bring together the brightest minds in military and civilian research for military purposes. These records reflect a time when no idea was outside the range of possibility, funding was generous, and a sense of purpose drove research. Research and development could be dangerous, and scientists occasionally lost their lives. The Director’s Budget and Finance series (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16955604) contains letters to surviving spouses that talk about the work and how the victim’s sacrifice helped the war effort. Because of the secret nature of the work, these letters often did not come until years after the war was over.
  • “Pig in a Capsule” available at https://research.archives.gov/id/6734335

    “Pig in a Capsule” available at https://research.archives.gov/id/6734335

    A staff favorite from the National Archives at Fort Worth is “Pig in Capsule” (although those of us who watched The Muppet Show call it “Pigs in Space.”) A part of the NASA (RG 255) series “Source Files on Project Mercury,” this is a pen and ink drawing by G. C. Johnson and J. W. Wilkey. The housing was a theoretical design to take a pig into space and keep it safe upon re-entry. http://research.archives.gov/description/6734335

  • The National Archives at Atlanta is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (RG 442) Public Health Service’s “Tuskegee Syphilis Study Administrative Records.” Ninety-five images of records from this collection are available online, including a photograph of nurse Eunice Rivers Laurie’s hands as she labels a vial of blood. http://research.archives.gov/description/824613

This is merely a sample of NARA records that document the history of science and the Federal government’s extensive involvement in scientific research. These records hold many untold stories and document little-known but important programs. We invite you to explore the catalog and contact one of the National Archives locations around the country to see if NARA has records that can help your research.