Bronk, Detlev Wulf

views updated May 23 2018


(b. New York City, 13 August 1887; d. New York City, 17 November 1975)


The son of Mitchell Bronk, a Baptist minister, and Cynthia Brewster Bronk, Detlev Wulf Bronk was a pioneer biophysicist in the United States and, after World War II, an influential leader of and spokesman for the national scientific establishment. He was foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences (1945–1950) and simultaneously chairman of the National Research Council (1946–1950). From 1950 to 1962 Bronk was president of the Academy; president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1950; chairman of the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation from 1956 to 1964; and a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1956 to 1964. Bronk was president of the Johns Hopkins University from 1949 to 1953; in the latter year he became president of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Science, which he converted to a graduate university. Rockefeller University. He retired in 1968. Bronk’s pre-World War II experiences in research and administration provided the opportunities for his later ascent, as well as much of the style and viewpoints evident in his various administrative roles.

Bronk grew up in New Jersey and New York and remained a Baptist throughout his life. After enrolling in Swarthmore College, he served in the U.S. Navy’s air arm during World War I. acquiring an interest, manifested during World War II. in scientific mobilization. In 1920 he graduated from Swarthmore with a B.S. in electrical engineering. In September 1921 Bronk married Helen Alexander Ramsey, who had been a fellow student at Swarthmore. Turning to physics, he received an M.S. in 1922 from the University of Michigan. By 1924 he was intent on applying physics and mathematics to physiology, receiving a Ph.D. in 1926 from the University of Michigan. Bronk’s career until 1949 was linked to the University of Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, Swarthmore, with the exception of the academic year 1940–1941, when he joined the faculty of the Cornell Medical School in New York City. From 1939 to 1951 Rronk was editor of Journal of Cellular and Comparative Physiology (now Journal of Cellular Physiology).

In 1927 Bronk defined his goal thus: “I do not wish to become a physicist working in physiology but rather a well-rounded physiologist with a physical and mathematical background.”1 To attain this goal, he obtained a National Research Council fellowship and studied at Cambridge with Edgar D. Adrian and at London with Archibald V. Hill in 1927–1928. He collaborated with Adrian on the successful isolation of an individual motor nerve, devising an electrode to transmit the signals to the amplifier. Bronk later described his research as encompassing the “properties and activity of the single neuron, explained in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry” and how the nerve cells are integrated into a whole.2 Bronk’s most notable contributions were in the study of the regulation of the cardiovascular system. He was especially concerned with the development of electrical and optical instrumentation for physiological research.

After his return from England, Bronk organized the Eldridge Reeves Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics at the University of Pennsylvania, well endowed by the standards of that era. Here he did experimental work until 1938 or 1939, when administration claimed his energies. Under Bronk’s leadership the Johnson Foundation had a significant role in expanding the field. Two future Nobelists, Ragnar A. Granit and H. Keffer Hartline. worked there. Fiscal stringencies at Pennsylvania caused a one-year move to Cornell by Bronk and his coworkers in neurophysiology. Similarly. Bronk took his closest Johnson Foundation colleagues to the Johns Hopkins University and, subsequently, to the Rockefeller Institute. In 1938 Bronk had written that progress in neurophysiology resulted from the work of a “small group of friends” at the Johnson Foundation and elsewhere.3 The concept of the essentiality of small elite groups of interacting researchers would greatly influence his science policy views.

In the decade before World War II. Bronk became increasingly visible in the scientific community as investigator, administrator, and spokesman on the conduct and purpose of research, These and later oral and written pronouncements usually displayed the degree of his reading, a shallow but wide-ranging erudition. Given his research, Bronk defined life as adaptation, or “a modification of cellular structure by the environment,” which occurred periodically or at least not continuously.4 From the experience of his field, a merger of the physical and the biological. Bronk decried overspecialization, calling for a correlation—better still, “a synthesis of the sciences” particularly to include broader cultural values. The last required the presence of the humanities. In these writings Bronk was curiously old-fashioned, justifying the study of the single nerve cell as evading the mind-matter dichotomy and justifying the search for the’’essential unity of science [as]… the final objective of every natural philosopher,”5

Since man was part of the system of science and its data, Bronk saw biophysics as important for understanding research itself as well as the devices increasingly ubiquitous in a modern society. Biophysics also helped adaptation to changing environments. Repeatedly he decried the image of man conquering nature, favoring an adaptation to what research disclosed. This he identified with the coming biotechnic civilization of the writings of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford. He declared that the goal of a humanitarian society was to “satisfy the biological requirements of the individual,” a rather paternalistic, conservative conclusion.6 His later career, in an environment of “big science” and large-scale military support for research, largely differed in substance from the language of his early policy pronouncements and did not quite match later statements.

When World War II broke out, Bronk moved to the national stage. From 1942 to 1946, he was coordinator of research for the air surgeon general, serving in 1945 with Theodor von Karman’s group planning the U.S. Air Force’s peacetime research posture. In 1945–1946 he held executive positions of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. Bronk’s elevation to presidency of the Academy in 1950, in the only contested election in that organization’s history, enabled him to sit at the center of national science policy for a dozen years afterward.

In 1947 Academicians at Indiana University. dissatisfied with the conservative policy of President Frank B. Jewett and fearing a continuation in the management of the body, polled the Academy’s members on who should succeed Jewett. They and others resented aspects of the wartime leadership and wanted a greater voice for members outside the traditional leading institutions. They believed the times called for activist leadership. However, the leader in the poll, Linus Pauling, withdrew his name after nomination from the floor, clearing the way for the election of Alfred N. Richards.

In 1950 the members of the Section of Chemistry of the Academy decided to oppose the official nomination of James B. Conant to succeed Richards by supporting Bronk. Contemporary sources indicate they were incensed with Conant’s “authoritarian” behavior during the war. Refusing to honor Bronk’s withdrawal from the floor and joined by similarly motivated Academicians, particularly among the mathematicians and geneticists, the insurgent chemists, led by Harold C. Urey. Wendell Latimer. Victor La Mer, and Joel Hildebrand, gained seventyseven votes for Bronk to seventy-one for Conant on the ballot. Reached by phone, Conant withdrew and afterward blamed Bronk for the “treachery.” The evidence known so far can support Bronk’s denial of complicity, Bronk’s successes as foreign secretary and as chairman of the National Research Council were in his favor, as was his straddling of the physical-biological science divide.7

In his multiple roles within the national science establishment, Bronk had only modest success in deflecting policies to give greater support to nonmilitary research, particularly in biological fields. His was a policy of reacting against threats to the autonomy and integrity of the research community while taking care that basic research obtained a slice of whatever programs current exigencies brought into being. Bronk also tried to expand the support of research to new and rising institutions while eschewing geographical distribution of funds.

Bronk’s belief in supporting the elect few had greater success in his role as educator. At Johns Hopkins he tried unsuccessfully to create an environment where individuals could advance from high school to real research at their own pace without regard to formalities of courses and credits. In transforming the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Science into Rockefeller University, Bronk was recreating the ideal of the prewar Johnson Foundation on a much expanded fiscal scale and with a deliberate attempt to go far beyond the traditional biomedical fields. In the absence of undergraduates, he partially succeeded. Fiscal stringencies, however, forced his successor, Frederick Seitz, to narrow the scope of the Rockefeller University, although not back to its pre-Bronk limits.


1. Frank Brink. Detlev Wulf Bronk,” p. 16. From original in box 82. of Bronk Papers. 303-U in Rockefeller Archive Center. North Tarrytown. N.Y.

2. D. W. Bronk. “The Cellular Organization of Nervous Function,” in Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 4th ser., 6 (1938–1939), 103–147, esp. 103 f.

3.Ibid., p. 103.

4.Ibid., p. 106: Bronk, “The Physical and Chemical Basis of Nerve Action.” 1941 Priestley Lecture at Pennsylvania State College. Unpublished, edited from stenographic record.

5. Bronk. “Relation of Physics to the Biological Sciences,” in Journal of Applied Physics, 9 (March 1938), 139–142.

6. Bronk, “The Nervous Regulation of Visceral Processes,” In, Maurice B. Visscher, ed., Chemistry and Medicine (Minneapolis, 1940; repr. Freeport, N.Y., 1967), 261–275: Bronk.’ Relation at Physics…’

7. MacInness diary. April 27. 1950, in D. A. MacInness Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center: Edwin Bidwell Wilson to Bronk, May 1. 1950. Bronk Papers, box 84 of 303-U: and Rexmond C. Cochrane. The National Academy of Sciences: The First Hundred Years (Washington, D. C. 1978, 515–516. Speculation that Conant’s defeat came about because of the H-bomb controvert seems most unlikely in view of the evidence of long-standing dissent within the Academy arising from other causes.


The best single introduction to Bronk’s life and works is Frank Brink. Jr., “Detlev Wulf Bronk,” Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 50 (1979), 3–87. Brink was one of the neurophysiologists from the Johnson Foundation who accompanied Bronk to the Cornell Medical School, to Johns Hopkins, and then to the Rockefeller Institute. He played an active role in the latter’s transformation into a university. (See his “Detlev Bronk and the Development of the Graduate Education Program,” in Institute to University, a Seventy-fifth Anniversary Colloquium, June 8, 1976 [New York, 1977], 69–78. The biographical memoir has an excellent bibliography of Bronk’s writing that lacks the Priestley lectures (see note 4), There are a sprinkling of minor errors. More consequential is the uncritical, hagiographic tone intruding from time to time. Britton Chance’s necrology in Year Book of the American Philosophical Society (1978), 54–66, is excellent for conveying the personal characteristics of the man. It has the unintended ironic virtue of preceding the necrology for James B. Conant.

The best sources for Bronk’s career are the various collections in the Rockefeller Archive Center. North Tarrytown. N.Y. Besides the official files of his service as president of Rockefeller University, they range backward in time to his ancestors in the past century and up to his last days. One collection (303.1) is an extensive correspondence file stretching from before World War II to the 1970’s The largest and richest is 303-U, which includes extensive files of his days at the Johnson Foundation, records of his World War II activities, and personal and subject files covering much of his career. Bronk also saved drafts and notes for papers and talks, and a set of laboratory records. There are runs of correspondence with Adrian and Hill. as well as other worthies. Although an effort was made after his death to return NAS and NRC files, broadly defined, to the Archives of the National Academy, much survives in 303-U on his actions on the national level from 1945 to 1962, The various series of Central Policy files of NAS-NRC from 1946 to 1962, in the Archives of the National Academy of Sciences, are replete with evidences of Bronk’s activities, No separate Bronk archive record exists in the Johns Hopkins Archives. Records of his tenure are dispersed through the single block of records of the Office of the President covering the presidencies of Remsen through Bronk.

Nathan Reingold