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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

was created.

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

be razed.

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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