In 1930, a young Ph.D. physicist named Allen V. Astin secured his first position at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), now known as NIST. By 1951, he had risen through the ranks to become the director of NBS. It was Astin’s leadership of the bureau through the tumultuous AD-X2 battery additive scandal that solidified his and NIST’s reputation for honesty and integrity.
Hear his sons, John Astin and Alexander W. Astin, share their stories about NBS in the mid-20th century and what it was like as college students to experience having their father fired and then reinstated for his refusal to alter NBS results. John is known for his iconic role as Gomez Addams in TV’s “The Addams Family” series. He is now at Johns Hopkins University as Homewood Professor of the Arts and director of the Theatre Arts and Studies Program. Alexander is the Allan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Emeritus and Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. This was recorded July 31st, 2018.
Good morning. Welcome to today’s special colloquium.
Here at NIST, we have four core values we hold dear: perseverance, integrity, inclusivity and excellence. Today, we are going to hear about a former NIST director who truly embodied these core values: Allen V. Astin.
We are especially fortunate to learn about him from two people who knew him very well—his sons, John and Alexander, or Sandy, Astin.
Allen Astin joined NIST, which was known as the National Bureau of Standards, in 1930 as a young Ph.D. physicist upon completing his postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.
In 1951, he would become NIST’s acting director, and was confirmed as director in May 1952. He ultimately served in that role until 1969, making him the second-longest-serving director in NIST’s history.
He held the position during a very challenging time in NIST’s history: the AD-X2 battery additive scandal, which stretched over several years.
For those of you who don’t know this story, it all began when a battery additive called AD-X2 went on the market in the mid-1940s from a California company called Pioneers with the claim that it would extend battery life. A few years earlier, NIST researchers had already determined and published a report that commercial additives, including the ingredients of AD-X2, did nothing to improve battery performance.
But under intense political pressure, NIST conducted additional testing—as always, with careful controls—and again found that additives, including AD-X2, were not effective in restoring batteries or extending their lives. Confusing the situation was that researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also tested this additive, which they surprisingly reported to be effective in revitalizing certain batteries.
Claiming government collusion with big business and unfair treatment of small companies, and with support from members of the Senate, the manufacturer of AD-X2 instigated two high-level investigations into the NIST testing program.
The growing political uproar led to the forced resignation of Director Astin.
A furious debate ensued in the American newspapers and the science community about whether politics should play a role in an agency whose charter calls for unbiased scientific results. Hundreds of NBS staff members threatened to follow Allen Astin out the door.
The NBS Visiting Committee, which included corporate leaders and members of the National Academy of Sciences, demanded that Allen Astin be reinstated. Through it all, Dr. Astin and NIST stood by its testing methods, which were vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences in 1953. A spokesperson from MIT then also denied their own previous conclusions when required to testify before Congress.
After the National Academy’s study, and 5 months after demanding he resign, Director Astin was returned to his position at NIST, with the full support of the Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks.
It was Astin’s leadership of the bureau through this time that solidified both his and NIST’s reputation for honesty and integrity.
This is a reputation we continue to protect and value highly more than 60 years later. To this day, the story of NBS Director Allen Astin and his example of integrity is told to all new employees as part of their orientation to NIST.
We also share the speech that Allen Astin gave at the meeting of the American Physical Society in May of 1953, an organization that stood by him and NBS. Astin gave that speech during the time he had been forced to resign. And he spoke poetically about “the romance of precision measurement” in words that still ring true today about NIST.
Since 1984, NIST annually bestows the Allen V. Astin Prize for excellence in metrology.
Now, I am pleased to welcome Dr. Astin’s sons, John and Sandy, who will offer their personal perspectives on their father’s life, both from that difficult time, as well as other stories.
You may recognize John Astin for his iconic role as Gomez Addams in “The Addams Family” TV series. He is now at Johns Hopkins University as Homewood Professor of the Arts and director of the Theatre Arts and Studies Program.
John is also a former NISTer, having spent the summer of 1949 as a student intern in the NBS math department—before moving on to summer work with the Census Bureau.
Sandy is the Allan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Emeritus and Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
We’re delighted also that other members of the Astin family have joined with us at NIST here today.
Welcome, John and Sandy Astin.