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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the June 5, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Forrestal Campus’ Golden Anniversary
In 1951 a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune called
Princeton University’s purchase of 825 acres of land straddling Route
1 just north of Princeton "the second Louisiana Purchase."
The quote is reported in Princeton’s James Forrestal Campus: Fifty
Years of Sponsored Research, a new book by J.I. Merritt (Princeton,
Class of 1966). The publication of the book coincides with the 50th
anniversary of one of the Forrestal Campus’s most visible institutions,
the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (see page 4).
Those 825 acres, purchased in large part to provide a home for the
university’s burgeoning aeronautical engineering department, doubled
the size of the university’s landholdings. Merritt calls the Forrestal
Campus "Princeton University’s version of the research triangle,"
and says its creation was prompted by the Korean War and Cold War
Merritt, a former editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, quotes Harold
Dodds, president of the university at the time the Forrestal Center
was dedicated, as saying that, while the center "came into being
at a time of national emergency and in some respects was the creature
of that emergency, its long-range concern is the peacetime welfare
of a peacetime people."
Land for the Forrestal Center became available suddenly just at the
time that the university’s aeronautical research department, growing
by leaps and bounds, was fast outgrowing its "make-do" cinder
block buildings near Carnegie Lake, and was casting about for a new
home. Fundraising was about to begin for the construction of a new
building just north of Palmer Stadium, when the Rockefeller Institute
for Medical Research decided to vacate its campus north of Princeton
and move its operations to New York City.
Laurence Rockefeller (Princeton University, Class of 1932) facilitated
negotiations between his family’s foundation and the university, and
government agencies endorsed the idea of an aeronautical research
center at Princeton, pledging continued funding. Still, Merritt reports,
some trustees balked at the price — $1.5 million for the land
and $500,000 for renovation and conversion of facilities — and
questioned the wisdom of doubling the university’s landholdings.
Another issue was the name of the center. James Forrestal (Princeton
University, Class of 1915) was the first secretary of the U.S. Department
of Defense. During World War II, Forrestal served as Under Secretary
of the Navy. He was passionate about scientific research, particularly
in the field of electronics and atomic energy, and saw the necessity
of incorporating pure science into the country’s defense program.
A successful financier, he had been recruited by Franklin Delano Roosevelt
to get the Navy in shape for World War II. After the war ended, many
of his friends returned to Wall Street, but Forrestal stayed on in
Washington, because, writes Merritt, he was "worried to the point
of obsession about the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe."
He played a major role in the reorganization of government embodied
in the National Security Act of 1947, which placed the three military
services under a single Secretary of Defense and created the National
Security Council to coordinate actions by the armed forces and the
Department of State.
Despite these achievements, the end of Forrestal’s career was marred,
Merritt reports, by "interservice rivalries he felt powerless
to control . . . a vendetta against him by journalists Drew Pearson
and Walter Winchell . . . and his descent into paranoia." Forrestal,
the first person to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of Defense,
was replaced by President Truman in 1949, was admitted to Bethesda
Hospital soon thereafter for treatment of depression, and committed
suicide while a patient there.
In the end, wealthy, powerful backers pushed through
the purchase of the former Rockefeller site, and Forrestal’s accomplishments
and devotion to his alma mater were deemed to supersede the mental
illness that marred the last months of his life. The Forrestal Center
Among its most famous works was Project Matterhorn, nuclear fusion
research that both helped the United States’ to develop an H-bomb
and tried to harness nuclear power for generating electricity. Another
massive project was the Princeton-Penn Accelerator, an atom smasher
that was a device for probing the secrets of nuclear physics. In operation
for approximately nine years, beginning in 1964, the accelerator made
significant contributions to nuclear physics.
The university’s aeronautical department used the Forrestal Center
for, among other things, research into low-speed aerodynamics, and
into the design features of helicopters and other aircraft capable
of vertical or near-vertical flight. A 750-foot, one-of-a-kind Long
Track test building was constructed to focus on the problems of aircraft
flying at between zero and 60 knots.
While Merritt writes that programs in aerospace and in plasma and
atomic physics dominated the activities at Forrestal Center, he also
writes about projects involving physical chemistry, including work
that helped to lay the groundwork for chemotherapy. There was also
work on subjects as diverse as products derived from the adrenal gland
and on the range of hearing in animals.
With interest in the environment on the rise in the late-1960s, the
Forrestal Center gained another major research facility, the Geophysical
Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which was funded and run by the government
to use supercomputers to model global climate.
By the late-1960s pressure was building to return aerospace engineering
to the university’s main campus, which occurred, bit-by-bit, for the
next several years. At about the same time, the university, which
by then had doubled the size its landholdings north of Princeton to
about 1,600 acres, began commercial development of the area.
Writes Merritt: "University administrators assured Forrestal scientists
that the venture would not adversely affect them. It was perhaps inevitable,
however, that Forrestal’s commercial development did not prove entirely
compatible with some of the AMS department’s operations." He gives
an example the discomfort of employees of the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, the first commercial tenants in the center, at finding
themselves in the flight path of planes taking off from the Forrestal
airstrip. Funding for research requiring the airstrip ended in 1982,
and six years later 1,000 feet were sold to the adjacent Squibb Corporation.
At the same time, the university announced that the Long Track would
Today, Merritt observes, "the core of the James Forrestal Campus
— the area that in the 1960s supported Princeton’s aerospace and
chemical kinetics work — has a forlorn air about it, at least
for anyone who knew it in its bustling heyday." Still, he adds,
three research centers remain — the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory,
the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department’s Gas Dynamics
Laboratory, and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
Writing as one stage of geopolitical danger ended, and just before
another began, Merritt ends his fascinating narrative by stating that
the dismantling of defense-related projects at Forrestal would have
pleased Forrestal, indicating as it did that the United States had
prevailed in the Cold War.
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
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