Saturday, March 12, 2011

The (Bentley) Glass is More than Half Full: An Interview With Audra Wolfe

In keeping with my interest in archives, last week I interviewed Audra Wolfe about her experiences cataloging the papers of geneticist Bentley Glass which are held at the American Philosophical Society. This work is funded by a National Science Foundation Scholar's grant. Audra is a historian and editor based in Philadelphia. When not knee-deep in other people’s manuscripts, she’s working on a textbook on Cold War science for Johns Hopkins University Press and is also a food blogger and canning expert (see here)

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RADIN: Why Bentley Glass?

WOLFE: Bentley Glass is one of those people who shows up as a bit player all over the history of the Cold War. I first noticed him in his role as chair of the Biological Sciences Curriculum study, one of the major post-Sputnik attempts to reform American science education. But once I knew the name, I started seeing references to him in the oddest places: the nuclear test ban debate and fallout, Pugwash, debates over civil liberties and academic freedom, Lysenkoism, space science, the new reproductive technologies. And of course he built the excellent genetics collection at the American Philosophical Society (APS). Who was this guy?

What struck me about Glass—what seemed to make him a worthwhile subject for further study—was that he seemed to be breaking all the rules for Cold War scientists. Here was a guy who had participated in any number of interracial civil rights groups in Baltimore, who was the president of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU for ten years, who frequently spoke out against “excessive” nuclear testing (though note that he refused to sign Linus Pauling’s petitions), and was one of the most prominent defenders of academic freedom in the late 1950s—yet he apparently had no problem getting a Q security clearance or getting his AEC grants renewed. When we think of scientists who protested government policies in the 1940s and 1950s, we tend to think of people like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Condon, Linus Pauling, or H. J. Muller—all of whom were “punished” in one way or another for speaking their minds. Yet here was Bentley Glass, with a thriving career, a clearance, and a passport.

RADIN: I understand there's been almost no historical work on Glass and from what you’ve told me, his papers are a mess. How do you imagine that the cataloging of this archive will support scholarship on Cold War science?

WOLFE: That’s a really good question, and it’s something I ask myself every day that I’m at the APS. And it’s certainly true that the Internet makes it much more possible to investigate someone like Glass, who was frequently quoted in regional newspapers, than it has ever been before. Many of the items in his collection, especially the institutional records, are duplicated in other archives. Even so, I’m convinced that there are at least three categories of findings that can’t be found any other way.

First, at the most basic level, are corrections to the published records. The papers are full of exchanges between scientists and journalists about what is an accurate representation of their work or beliefs. The point isn’t that the archives can somehow give us a glimpse of eternal truth, but rather that they can show us friction points, places where scientists’ views of reality don’t mesh with those of the larger public.

I’m also finding the archives a useful way to get a sense of the global range (in both senses of the term) of Glass’s activities. I am continually surprised by the sheer volume of material related to such unexpected organizations as the National Council of Churches and Pugwash. It’s also rather enlightening to see the same people, over and over again, working together in different roles.

But by far the most unique resource in the Glass papers is a category of documents I think of as “letters from strangers.” Glass maintained a vigorous public profile. Besides the newspapers interviews and magazine profiles, he was a familiar figure on the lecture circuit. Random people wrote to him constantly. Most of these letters fall into the category of “concerned citizens” wanting to know Glass’s opinion on fallout or genetic defects. They write to congratulate him for refusing to take a loyalty oath, or to chide him for endangering Americans by calling for disarmament. Some of them start to verge on metacriticism—my favorites are the ones that ask Glass to reflect on the role of the scientist as a political figure. These are remarkable documents that, at least for the moment, can only be accessed by investing hours in the archives.

RADIN: What’s your favorite thing you’ve found so far?

WOLFE: A pen used by the mayor of Baltimore to sign the city’s Civil Rights Ordinance. Glass played a pivotal role in getting this passed by refusing to hold the American Association of University Professor’s annual meeting in Baltimore (he was president at the time) while the city had segregationist hotel accommodation laws on the books.

RADIN: So, is the "story" we have about Cold War science wrong, or is it "something about Glass"?

WOLFE: Both, I think. Ask me next year.

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A searchable, folder-level list of the Glass papers is available on request. For more information, e-mail Audra at audrajwolfe@gmail.com

5 comments:

  1. It sounds as if Glass should have written a how-to manual: _How to be a Cold War Radical Scientist, and Get Away with It!_

    Great interview, Joanna. Thanks for bringing Wolfe and her work on Glass to our attention. I do appreciate the framing. So often, the extremes of debate often get the most attention. That's reasonable: they frame the debate. Yet often the most important changes stem from those operating within the frame, from the edges of the center.

    Also: I love the phrase, "knee deep in other people's manuscripts." Wolfe's gig must be---in my imagination---fascinating. You get to read all manner of great material and then make it better, all without having to be the one who gives projects the thumbs up or the thumbs down.

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  2. I have to say, Glass's bio makes him sound a bit like a guy I've been thinking about a lot lately: J. McKeen Cattell.

    Both were eminent scientists in their own areas, both suffered from (or have at least been colored by) their political commitments, and both spanned weird divides within and between disciplines in terms of their editorial and administrative commitments.

    My question is: do we have a term or a language for dealing with these disciplinary weirdos that goes beyond the "maverick" (Dietrich et al.) or even "boundary-work" (e.g. Bordogna on James)? Can we balance their *conscious* efforts to defy or navigate growing barriers within and around science against the strength of those disciplinary forces themselves to define "outsiders" and "insiders" regardless of the actors' efforts?

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  3. Hank -- this is such an interesting point. In a previous intellectual life I did some research on materials scientists who moved beyond the 'lab' to work within government, where they lobbied for responsible nanotechnology. I took to calling them 'socially-concerned scientists' but was never satisfied by the phrase. What you are suggesting is something more capacious, and I think that's the right direction. I'll go even further (at the risk of re-opening that can of worms) and posit that this seems to be a node where structure and agency intersect with high-stakes consequences!

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  4. Thanks so much for your comment (and yes, Dan, I love what I do.) I have very much been struggling with what to call Glass. First of all, he's sort of the opposite of radical, given what can only be called his passion for scientific administration. I've been calling him a public intellectual, but I've been surprised at the amount of resistance I've encountered with that term. Melinda Gormley has proposed "activist scientist," but I'm not quite sure that works either.

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  5. I don't think it fits all that well, but I'll throw Charles Rosenberg's "research entrepreneur" into the mix. He defined the type in _No Other Gods_ to characterize "leaders...forced to mediate between the world of science on the one hand and, on the other, the social and economic realities of a particular state constituency." (159)

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