The Chemistry Department

The history of the BNL Chemistry Department is, like the Department itself, not an isolated entity. Therefore, before we discuss the Department's history it is important to understand the context of the Department within the Laboratory and the relationship of the Laboratory to its parent funding agency and the U.S. Government.

Where did Brookhaven come from?

At the close of World War II, the U.S. government had spent twenty billion (1945!) dollars (Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, Stephen I. Schwartz, Brookings Institution Press 1998), and  had committed the efforts of 600,000 persons (Now it Can Be Told, Leslie M. Groves, Harper, New York, 1962) for the Manhattan Engineer District to development a fission weapon. The government wanted to preserve its investment via the establishment of a permanent body of expertise upon which to call in times of need and to develop further applications for nuclear energy.

The National Laboratories were thus founded shortly after the war. The responsibilities of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) were assumed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (the AEC) on January 1, 1947. A system of government-owned laboratories operated by private contractors was established, comprising both existing Manhattan Project Laboratories, such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then operated by Union Carbide Corporation, and newly founded laboratories, such as Brookhaven, then operated by a consortium of northeast research universities (Norman F. Ramsey, Early History of Associated Universities and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Brookhaven Lecture Number 55, March 30, 1966). This novel tripartite arrangement was unique: it permitted the Laboratories to draw on the resources of the Federal Government while semi-autonomously conducting their own affairs under the watchful eye of a nongovernmental contractor that employed the workers in each Laboratory. Effectively, it put strict government regulation at arm's length so that research could flourish, while the Federal Government, (which paid the bills), could still exercise its influence to make sure that the research performed was of use to the Government. Each Laboratory had its own unique mission. Since the Laboratory was supported by the Atomic Energy Commission, basic research programs in the Chemistry Department shared a common connection to some aspect of atomic energy.

In April, 1951, just as the Laboratory was wrapping up startup operations and beginning to settle into its ongoing research role, the Laboratory produced its first report to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, entitled, "The Brookhaven Program". Some Excerpts from the Foreword are instructive about the general objectives of the Laboratory and the philosophy in which they were established.

"Brookhaven National Laboratory is a regional research center in which the laboratory staff and scientists of the northeastern United States carry out fundamental and applied research in the nuclear sciences and related subjects as an integral part of the Atomic Energy Commission's nationwide program."

"General Objectives of the Laboratory [(1951) ed.]

The primary objectives of the Laboratory program are:

1. To seek new knowledge in the nuclear sciences and related fields with emphasis on programs that require such large-scale research tools as nuclear reactors, accelerators, and special laboratories which are beyond the scope of most or all individual institutions.

2. To encourage appropriate use of its facilities by scientists of college, university and industrial laboratories of the northeastern area.

3. To assist the Atomic Energy Commission in the solution of such programmatic problems as are mutually agreed upon and which utilize the Laboratory's unique facilities or the special talents of its staff.

4. To make use of the Laboratory as an important and unique auxiliary in the training of scientists and engineers and to otherwise assist in the dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge."

We'll arbitrarily divide the history of the Chemistry Department into three sections, based primarily on the quantity and type of records available. Prior to 1968, a series of "Annual Reports" exist, in which the scientific work of the Laboratory is summarized in rather great detail. Between 1968 and 1976,  the Annual Reports gave way to Brookhaven Highlights, which covered much the same material, but at a considerably more summary level. After 1977, the funding documents, (which have had various uninteresting government designations) exist, and can be used as source material. Where possible, references to the primary scientific literature are given. Follow the links below to find out more about the history of the Chemistry Department.

The Chemistry Department 1947-1967

The Chemistry Department 1968-1976

The Chemistry Department 1977-present

Nuclear Chemistry in the Chemistry Department

The Chemistry Department and the Nobel Prize

The Conception and the Construction of The Chemistry Building

Chemistry's Greatest Hits

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Last Modified: June 28, 2012