Bentley Glass Project

The American geneticist H. Bentley Glass is the most famous scientist you’ve never heard of. An administrator par excellence, Glass served as the president of numerous professional organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Society of Naturalists, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Biological Abstracts, and the National Association of Biology Teachers; edited the Quarterly Review of Biology for over forty years; spearheaded a major effort to reform American biology textbooks (the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, or BSCS); and ended his career as Academic Vice-President of the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY–Stony Brook). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a key player in scientific and political debates surrounding fallout and atomic radiation, serving on both the Genetics Panel of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Radiation (1955–1964) and the AEC’s Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine (1955–1963, Chair, 1962–1963).

And these are only his professional activities. During a period when most American scientists either retreated to their laboratories or attempted to influence public life through federal advisory channels, Glass maintained an active life as a public figure and defender of individual liberties. He served on the Board of School Commissioners for the City of Baltimore in the midst of battles over school segregation (1954–1958), led the Maryland Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for ten years (1955–1965), and advised the Democratic National Committee during the 1960 presidential election. He was a ubiquitous figure on the lecture circuit and in the op-ed pages. His political activities were not limited to the domestic arena: by 1958, he had become one of the leading American figures in the Pugwash Movement for international disarmament and involved himself in any number of international development projects. Between 1957 and 1965, he was one of the most famous scientists in the United States, his notoriety in genetics surpassed only by that of his graduate school advisor, H. J. Muller.

Glass was also a packrat. In 2000, his personal papers—all 170 linear feet of them—were transferred to the American Philosophical Society, where they now make up one of the largest collections in the history of genetics archive that he himself helped build. Though still largely unprocessed, the Glass Papers are an extraordinary resource for scholars interested in history of postwar science. The documents in this collection are essential for scholars researching academic freedom, anti-Communism, science education, postwar eugenics, medical genetics, national science policy, nuclear disarmament, organizational politics, scientific publishing, or the radiation and fallout debates. Though less rich, the materials on civil rights, international development, space exploration, scientific humanism, and Vietnam-era university administration will doubtless prove useful for scholars interested in these topics.

In 2010, I was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES No. 1026715) to research Glass’s life and work. The research conducted as part of that grant now forms the core of my next project, on the role of science in “soft” diplomacy from approximately 1955 to 1973. A more immediate outcome of the NSF grant was the production of a folder-level survey of the entire 241-box collection at the APS. It is hoped that this finding aid will not only make this remarkable collection accessible to other scholars, but will also assist the APS in processing the collection. Interested researchers wishing to learn more are invited to either contact me directly (audrajwolfe at gmail dot com) or write to the Charles Greifenstein, Manuscripts Librarian at the APS, at manuscripts at amphilsoc dot org.


This text is adapted from an article on Glass’s papers that appeared as Audra J. Wolfe, “The Organization Man and the Archive: A Look at the Bentley Glass Papers,” Journal of the History of Biology 44 (2011): 147–151.