The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 4, S1430-4171(00)04403-6, 10.1007/s008970403a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

American National Biography. Published under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies; John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, General Editors. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999. 24 volumes, 23,040 pp. 19.5 ´ 25.9 cm. $2,500. ISBN 0-19-520635-5.

Reviewed by George B. Kauffman, California State University Fresno,

This definitive, authoritative, and comprehensive biographical dictionary presenting the lives that have directly or indirectly shaped the life of the United States is the product of a decade of the most recent scholarly historical writing, editing, and editorial development. As the first American biographical dictionary of such extensive scope to appear in more than 60 years and the first resource of its kind to recognize fully the multitude of contexts—social, cultural, ethnic, political, military, religious, and technological—it is a publishing event of national significance that will be of interest not only to historians and a general audience but also to scientists, chemists, chemical educators, and historians of science.

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the foremost private humanities organization in the United States, is a nonprofit organization representing 61 learned societies in the humanities and social sciences. Established to promote study, research, and positive productive relationships among national societies that are dedicated to these fields, it continually promotes the creation of reference works, of which, its latest, the American National Biography, it considers to be “the crowning achievement of its efforts at the end of the twentieth century.”

The ANB was conceived as the successor to an earlier ACLS project, one of the first undertaken after the council’s founding in 1919, the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB), first published in 20 volumes between 1926 and 1937, with 10 supplementary volumes extending the series to 1980. In 1986 John A. Garraty, Professor of History at Columbia University and Editor of DAB Supplements 4–8 dating from the early 1970s onward, proposed that the ACLS should sponsor an entirely new biographical work. He argued that because the supplements dealt with more recent periods of American history, they could not serve to update the roughly 15,000 articles in the original nor could they conveniently include the many important figures who had been omitted from the original. (In recent decades historians intent on examining the past “from the bottom up” have emphasized the experiences of ordinary men and women, often members of ethnic groups or racial minorities that were neglected by previous scholars). Garraty was later joined as General Editor of what was to become the ANB by Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, the coeducational liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University.

Since the original publisher of the DAB, Charles Scribner’s Sons, had been taken over by a larger firm that was not interested in producing a new biographical dictionary, the ACLS sought a publisher with the capacity for undertaking such a vast project, to carry it off with the requisite professional standards, and to deal with the potential for an electronic edition. The ACLS chose Oxford University Press (OUP), with its long record of academic publishing and its exceptionally strong list of authors in American history. Although the OUP invested several million dollars and many years of labor by a huge staff, the ACLS was forced to raise more than three million dollars to pay the authors and editors. In a striking example of the potential for private–public–governmental collaboration in major humanities efforts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funds in the form of sizable grants.

Biography is indispensable to historical understanding, but while the value of a national biographical reference work has endured, its character has changed considerably since the DAB was published. During the last six decades the number of professional historians has increased dramatically, and the discipline has expanded its horizons with the development of new research methods, the discovery of new primary sources, and the growth of new fields of study such as the history of African–Americans and other minorities, women, immigrants, workers, and others. Thus virtually all aspects of the past are now seen from a different perspective and with new interpretations.

Compared to the DAB, the ANB has substantially broadened the criteria for the inclusion of subjects. An American was redefined as “someone whose significant actions occurred during his or her residence within what is now the United States or whose life or career directly influenced the course of American history.” “Significance” now included “achievement (superior accomplishment as judged by contemporaries), fame (celebrity or notoriety), or influence (effect on one’s own time despite lack of public notice).” Even some “ordinary” persons were included if they left behind autobiographies, diaries, or other artifacts that have attracted posthumous attention. At the margins, priority was given to persons, especially women and minorities, about whom new information or new ways of interpreting old data had become available.

An editorial advisory board of fourteen scholars from twelve leading universities and two historical societies helped to develop the basic design of the project, the nineteen senior editors identified and shaped the substantive areas to be covered, and the 232 associate editors recruited the authors and reviewed their manuscripts to produce what is undoubtedly this generation’s major reference work in American biography. Nearly 30,000 potential subjects from all walks of life, going back to the Viking explorers of the New World, were classified into categories, mostly occupational, and considered for inclusion by associate editors, each assigned to a topical category. More than 17,500 men and women, including persons who died as recently as 1995, were finally selected for biographies. For these persons, essays of from 750 to 7,000 words, including bibliographies and archival sources and alphabetically arranged from theatrical producer Alexander A. Aarons to scientist and television pioneer Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, were commissioned from almost 6,100 authors drawn from nearly every discipline and every state in the nation (The original DAB was written by only about one-third the number of contributors, viz., 2,243 authors). Reviewing, revising, fact-checking (by 91 fact-checkers), and copyediting (by 36 copyeditors) was a necessary but time-consuming and expensive process.

Among the numerous scientists included are 192 persons classified as chemists, ranging alphabetically from Roger Adams to William Gould Young and chronologically from early luminaries such as Robert Hare (1781–1858), Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), Benjamin Silliman (1779–1864), and James Woodhouse (1770–1809) to recently deceased chemists such as John Christian Bailar, Jr. (1904–1991), Joseph Oakland Hirschfelder (1911–1990), and Linus Carl Pauling (1901–1994). In keeping with the emphasis on minorities, five women (Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898–1979), Rachel Littler Bodley (1831–1888), Mary Elliott Hill (1907–1969), Mary Engle Pennington (1872–1952), and Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842–1911)), some entries written by women, and at least two African–Americans (1977 American Chemical Society president Henry Aaron Hill (1915–1979) and Percy Lavon Julian (1899–1975)) are included. The seven chemical engineers include such well-known names as Herman Frasch (1851–1914) of sulfur production fame, Eugene Jules Houdry (1892–1962), and 1912–1913 American Chemical Society president Arthur Dehon Little (1863–1935). The sixteen chemical industry leaders include familiar names such as Henry Belin du Pont (1898–1970), Caesar Augustin Grasselli (1850–1927), Elon Huntington Hooker (1869–1938), Edward Mallinckrodt (1845–1928), Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. (1878–1967), and Roy Joseph Plunkett, the discoverer of polytetrafluoroethylene (1910–1994).

Additional occupational classifications under which chemists or chemistry-related persons are found, the number of entries, and, in some cases, typical examples include: biochemists (54); crystallographer (only one, Robert Brainard Corey); educators (almost 800 entries); explosives manufacturers (4); geochemists (2); historians of science (34, including chemistry bibliographer Henry Carrington Bolton and first American Chemical Society president (1876) John William Draper); industrialists (101, including Edward Goodrich Acheson, several du Ponts, and Herbert Henry Dow); inventors (223, including 1924 American Chemical president Leo Hendrik Baekeland, Frederick Gardner Cottrell, George Eastman, Charles Goodyear, Charles Martin Hall, and 1932 Nobel chemistry laureate Irving Langmuir); metallurgists (15); mineralogists (12, including American Chemical Society presidents Frederick Augustus Genth (1880) and John Lawrence Smith (1877)); Nobel laureates (106); phytochemist (only one, Edward Kremers); pharmaceutical industry leaders (7, including George Wilhelm Merck), rubber industry leaders (11, including Benjamin Franklin Goodrich and Franklin Augustus Seiberling); science educators (34); scientific organization administrators (55, including Elmer Keiser Bolton, Vannevar Bush, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatieff); and spectroscopists (2).

An extremely important feature of any encyclopedia or biographical dictionary is the amount of detail in the index or indices. The five easy-to-use indices, totalling 628 triple-column pages, occupy almost 70% of the final volume. These are devoted to subjects (biographees) (108 pp), contributors with a list of biographies by each (183 pp), subjects by birthplace in the United States (50 states and the District of Columbia) (94 pp), subjects by birthplace outside the United States (90 countries, “Unknown Country,” and “At Sea”) (23 pp), and subjects by almost every conceivable occupation and realm of renown even eccentrics and brothelkeepers (220 pp). (Because many of the biographees had more than one occupation or achieved fame in several areas, they are found under several rubrics.)

The ACLS and OUP intend to use the latest advances in computer technology to accomodate virtually limitless additions and revisions, thus keeping the ANB, in both print and electronic editions, the most current and comprehensive reference work of American biography well into the twenty-first century. They have established a Center for American Biography “to update and enlarge the ANB so that generations ahead can continue to turn to a standard, reliable source of biographical information.” Additional information on this “living record of influential American lives” is available at OUP’s web site: