As America moved towards war, the faculty of Columbia University moved with it. Far from being immune or skeptical of the war fervor, once hostilities began many members of Columbia’s faculty became avid supporters of the war effort. They did so with Nicholas Murray Butler’s none-too-subtle encouragement – and indeed, Butler was able to co-opt their enthusiasm to a great degree.
To cement the University’s association with the war effort, the administration hosted several general assemblies of the faculty during the war, during which various loyal faculty members spoke on war-related topics. General assembles were not new to Columbia, but these were different: the surviving transcripts reveal a carefully curated performance: a professor would rise and speak on such topics as civic obligations, or, in Butler's case, "The Present Crisis." There was no discussion or debate, a departure from previous assemblies. Butler emceed.
The most significant of these assemblies took place on February 5, 1917, and resulted in a total reorganization of the university according to a military scheme. It was not a subtle transformation: the new organizational units were referred to as “corps,” within which were “divisions.” Each corps was headed by a “chief officer” – usually a high-ranking professor, administrator, or dean. Among the leaders was, of course, Nicholas Murray Butler.
- 1917 Organization Scheme – Click to View
- I. Staff Corps – Chief Officer Nicholas Murray Butler
- II. Medical Corps – Chief Dean S. W. Lambert
- Division – Hospital: Dr. A. V. S. Lambert
- Division – Pharmacological: Dean H. H. Rusby
- Division – Dental: Dr. H. S. Dunning
- Division: Veterinary
- Division – Biological: Prof. F. S. Lee
- Division – Laboratory: Dr. H. Zinsser
- III. Legal Corps – Chief Dean H. F. Stone
- IV. Technical Corps – Chief Prof. M. I. Pupin
- Division – Minerals and Areas: Prof. R.M. Raymond
- Division – Chemistry: Prof. M.T. Bogert
- Division – Physics: Prof. G.B. Pegram
- Division – Mathematics and Astronomy: Prof. H.E. Hawkes
- Division – Engineering: Prof. C.E. Lucke
But the Assemblies had another goal: to facilitate cooperation between the government and the university “for patriotic service” more directly. Many of Columbia’s professors – perhaps as many as 300 – answered the call.
The reorganization assembly of February 5 created a committee to carry out its work, and this committee’s first order of business was to conduct a personnel survey. The survey was a strange creature: it was similar to a normal academic registration and enrollment card with a military twist, designed to “give a primary selective classification which makes it possible to ascertain at once the names and qualifications of those who may surely be counted upon for duty in one or another capacity.” It was sent out not only to the faculty and staff, but also to students and alumni.
This was not benign data gathering. Even though the survey noted that it was not in any way binding or related to official recruitment, its implication was clear. Columbia’s faculty, especially, was supposed to serve, and add their considerable intellectual abilities to the war effort. If they opposed the war, the administration wanted to know. If they were apathetic, the university wanted to make it abundantly clear to them that they were supposed to act – and that they would be watched, either way.
Towards the end the war, in 1918, the administration followed up on the first survey, sending around a questionnaire to each of Columbia’s departments asking for records of their professors’ involvement. Consequently, we know a great deal about what Columbia’s faculty did during the war. What follows is only a small sampling.
Above: The Chemical Engineering Department's response to the 1918 survey.
Faculty in the sciences served in direct capacities – and it was in the sciences that the full meaning of war mobilization of the university became most terribly fulfilled. Columbia scientists helped war production and, simply put, built weapons.
The university itself was a site of war production: a lab on campus was used to make gas masks. professors of Chemical Engineering taught in the military’s ordinance school, and helped produce acetone, toluene, biscuits, sulphuric acid – and bombs. Interestingly and perhaps disturbingly, one chemical engineering professor served on the committee for internment and prison labor. What he did there remains a mystery.
One mechanical engineering professor taught at Columbia’s Gas Engine school, and others acted as inspectors for the navy. Electrical Engineering professors taught and served at submarine bases and military training facilities of unspecified nature. A professor of metallurgy, Everett J. Hall, was responsible for creating a new refining process for metallic powders used in munitions; his efforts were so successful that he was cited by the United States government.
The physics department was particularly active: professors worked on advisory committees involved in the construction of submarines, aircraft, and wireless communication technologies. Professor Charles Lane Poor constructed a fast patrol boat for the navy, and designed airplane navigation tools; he also was involved in some sort of unspecified submarine defense work. Professor W.L. Severinghaus helps to design instruments for measuring airplane speed and altitude. George B. Pengram, was similarly involved, writing that, "I myself designed the optical parts of some instruments, especially telescope objectives with the new kinds of glass which were being made in this country, gun sights, range finders, periscope count azimuth telescope systems, goggles telescopes for aviators, a quartz photographic lens for copying documents in invisible ink, and numerous other minor appurtenances."
And then there was Marston Taylor Bogert, a professor in the Biological Engineering department who served in the army’s Chemical Warfare Service. In this capacity, he was Chairman of the Army Committee on Chlorine and Chlorine Products. Chlorine gas was used during the First World War to devastating effect; it stung the lungs as it destroyed their internal tissues, and in large and concentrated doses, asphyxiated combatants. Those it didn’t kill, it could blind.
The Humanities and Social Sciences
Above: An English Professor's letter to Nicholas Murray Butler, reprinted in the Columbia Alumni News
Despite their relative lack of skills that might easily lend themselves to war production, faculty in the humanities and social sciences were no less involved than those in the sciences. This involvement took many forms.
One of the more common duties for faculty members of all departments was service on the local draft exemption boards. As privileged and learned members of society, many of Columbia’s professors were appointed to this duty, which meant arbitrating between life and what was quite likely death for New York’s citizens, and sometimes their own students.
Some departments were more active than others. The English department by and large abstained from involvement – only six of the 35 members of the department were involved in the war effort according to the 1918 survey. Still, one of the six involved, Professor Jefferson B. Fletcher, won the Italian Croix de Guerre – he drove ambulances on the Western Front.
Members of the History department served in various capacities. One professor wrote propaganda for the Committee on Public Information, including an article distributed in Latin America on why the Latin American nations should stay neutral or remain with the Entente powers – an issue of particular concern after the Zimmerman Note. The now-infamous historian of Reconstruction William A. Dunning taught in the Student Officer Training Corps; another historian wrote a “public syllabus” for the CPI. Many members were involved in conducting research of some unspecified nature related to the war effort.
The language departments were similarly engaged. The German Languages department, perhaps subject to additional scrutiny, did a great deal of work for the government, offering faculty who worked as censors, propaganda writers for the CPI, and screeners for the army’s German translators. The Romance Languages department was similar, training translators to serve in the French Army as liaisons. Other French professors offered instruction to army recruits.
The famed economist E.R.A. Seligman was one of Columbia’s more visible war-associated faculty, and was heavily integrated into Butler's administrative apparatus as head of the graduate school. He also served on a finance committee, and was heavily involved in debates about how to finance the war effort. Seligman was not without his reservations, however. One small printed comment from the famed economist admitted that Seligman was not entirely comfortable with the war’s repression of labor organization. Fellow members of the Economics department also served by gathering statistics for the government.
The Philosophy department offered up several members who wrote material for the CPI. One Columbia philosopher also offered a series of lectures to military psychiatrists on how to mentally test recruits and draftees.
This, in fact, became the role of Psychology department, and indeed the larger discipline of psychology during the war – to assess and then maintain the “man-power efficiency” of the United States Army. Psychologists across the Atlantic tried to ready men for combat, and prevent what was then known as shell-shock. Columbia’s psychologists helped in this effort, preparing what they called “mental and performance tests” for recruits to determine their relative “emotional stability” – that is, their capacity to withstand the horrors of war – as well as their intelligence and thus proper place within the military machinery. One professor, R. S. Woodworth, helped to devise these tests nationally as part of the National Research Council. Another, A. T. Poffenberger, was the chief psychological examiner at Camp Greenleaf.
Above: An two brief essays published by psychology faculty on their discipline and the war effort.
The Professional Schools
The departments that are part of what we now would call the professional schools boasted a high degree of involvement with the war effort. Some departments mobilized almost entirely: most of the faculty of what was called the Extension School – something similar to a more open School of General Studies – left to serve directly in the military. Others, like the Journalism school, retooled themselves to suit the new national purpose: the department ideologically shifted so as to at least appear more vital to the national mobilization; its director, Talcott Williams, wrote to alumni that it was the newspaper’s role to unite the republic, especially against enemies within – like what he called “American bolshevism.”