Bringing together government professionals, academics, consultants, students, and citizens interested in understanding federal history work and the historical development of the federal government.


Medicine – Science

Reprinted from The Federalist (No. 42, Summer 2014),

Tracking Arctic Climate Changes

How do we reach back in time to gain a longer perspective of climate variations? It turns out that U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships’ logs since the early 1800s hold hourly recorded data about temperature and weather conditions worldwide. A group of scientists and archivists have teamed up with interested citizens and are working together on the Old Weather project ( in an effort to recover that information, create datasets, and produce computerized “visualizations” of climate variations over the decades. Research Scientist Kevin R. Wood, with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO), says that the project seeks “to transform old data to big data.”Greenland weather--web

The main objective of the project is to foster better understanding of changing climate conditions over the long term, in the Arctic and world-wide. In the Arctic, the annual cycle of sea ice freezing and melting is now out of balance, and the old sea ice, once 3½ meters thick, is disappearing. Wood is one of the lead scientists of the project, made possible by a joint venture between the U.S. National Archives, which preserves the logs and hosts the digitization efforts, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Thousands of citizen volunteers are participating in Old Weather world-wide, transcribing the hand-written weather data and tracking particular events recorded in the logs, and creating detailed ship histories. Each ship’s log transcription is cross-checked at least three times before being added to one of the global data sets managed by the U.S. National Climatic Data Center. The project also captures details of historic events from the logs, such as the dire circumstances of the USS Jeannette in its 1879–1881 attempt to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait, and its eventual destruction in the ice. Thus far, the project has completed the logs of 43 vessels, digitizing 350,000 pages, and transcribing well over one million old (but new to science) weather reports. The results have been impressive, and supercomputers can now, for the first time, use historical data like this to reconstruct weather-related events in the past like the extraordinary melting of the Greenland ice cap in 1889. (See the visualization at

The project is helping us understand weather’s impact on human societies. The data has enabled production of “long-period reanalysis datasets” and visualization for the period 1871 to 2012 that will “place current atmospheric circulation patterns into a historical perspective.” Such visualizations wi

Jeannette Sept. 1879

Jeannette Sept. 1879

ll permit analysis of weather and climate events in the past, such as for example, heat waves, impacts of El Niño, and anomalous winter conditions in the United States and elsewhere around the world. See the Twentieth Century Reanalysis ( Join the effort to recover historical weather data at, and view detailed ship histories and historical photographs at A video of the project is at

— Benjamin Guterman

Log page from the Jeannette

Log page from the Jeannette










“Ethically Impossible”: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948

Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Washington, DC
September 2011

Report on STD Research in Guatemala, 1946-48

Available from

Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues
1425 New York Avenue NW, Suite C-100
Washington, DC 20005

This report examines a study funded by the U.S. Public Health Service in Guatemala in 1946–48 on sexually transmitted diseases using experiments that were “clearly unethical.” President Barrack Obama charged the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in November 2010 to research and report on the Guatemalan experiments after he learned of the experiments that deliberately infected the subjects with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid. The subjects included soldiers, patients from a state-run psychiatric hospital, and commercial sex workers. Serology experiments, not involving exposure, continued in 1953, even using children.

The President also asked the Commission to review current practices in human subject research to safeguard “the health and well-being of participants in scientific studies supported by the federal government.”

The commission sought to discover to what U.S. officials and medical professionals knew of the “research protocols” employed and how the studies conformed or diverged from contemporary medical practices. The Commission used the original records, now at the National Archives, originally donated by Dr. John C. Cutler, director of the studies in Guatemala. Commission members also reviewed materials in other collections, including at the University of Pittsburgh Archives and library of the Pan American Health Organization. Much of the record is Dr. Cutler’s accounts written years after the tests. The Commission warns that the report should be read “with an awareness of the inherent limitations of fact finding based in large part on one person’s recollections, particularly those of one who played a primary role in the research.”

The Guatemalan studies were sponsored by the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (PASB) with a National Institute of Health grant. The PASB built a research facility and laboratory in Guatemala City with agreements from the Guatemalan Government that gave it authority to work with many government officials. In all, 1,308 were exposed to STD, and 678 were treated. The researchers also conducted diagnostic testing on 5,128 subjects who included soldiers, prisoners, psychiatric patients, children, leprosy patients, and Air Force personnel at the U.S. base in Guatemala. The diagnostic testing continued through 1953, including “blood draws as well as lumbar and cisternal punctures.”

The report concedes that  “ethical norms and practices were evolving, but concludes that the experiments in Guatemala starkly reveal that, despite awareness on the part of government officials and independent medical experts of then existing ethical standards to protect against using individuals as a mere means to serve scientific and government ends, those standards were violated. The events in Guatemala serve as a cautionary tale of how the quest for scientific knowledge without regard to relevant ethical standards can blind researchers to the humanity the people they enlist into research.”

This is the first report, “a historical account and ethical assessment of the Guatemala experiments.” The second report “will address contemporary standards for protecting human research subjects around the world.”


Women “Computers” in Aeronautical Research

Women worked as human “computers” at the Langley Research Center and Glenn Research Center from 1935 to 1970. At that time, the term referred to people, not machines, and the work involved performing mathematical equations and calculations by hand. The Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) was the main research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the precursor to NASA). With the high demand for wartime research and later early aeronautical research, the Laboratory found that women could fulfill research needs with the loss of men to the military. They could relieve engineers of the essential, but time-consuming work of computation.

The Center sought women with college degrees, particularly in the sciences. Hiring practices were innovative, allowing for women “to continue employment once married and even while raising a family, [which] were fairly unique in comparison to many jobs available to women at the time.” But African American women faced segregated facilities, including segregated dining and bathroom facilities, and barriers to other professional jobs. One woman recalled not being allowed to work in the chemistry division because African Americans were not employed there, and was reassigned to the West Computers.

By 1946, about 400 women worked at Langley. They primarily read film, ran calculations, and plotted data. During wind tunnel tests, for example, manometer boards measured pressure changes using liquid-filled tubes. The “computers” then read photographic films of the readings and recorded the data on worksheets. The work was done by hand, using slide rules, curves, magnifying glasses, and basic calculating machines. Their work was critical in devising computing methods and techniques specific to aeronautics and aerospace research. See a fuller story and images at

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