Francis O. Schmitt was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903 and received an A.B. in 1924 and a Ph.D. in medical science in 1927 from Washington University. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but Schmitt dropped his medical studies to concentrate instead on research in chemistry and biology. He came to MIT in 1941 at the request of President Karl Taylor Compton, who wanted to develop a first-rate research program in molecular biology. Schmitt headed the MIT Department of Biology from 1942 to 1955, at which time he was appointed Institute Professor and relieved of administrative duties so that he could concentrate fully on research.
Schmitt headed a distinguished research program at MIT on the biophysics and biochemistry of nerves. In order to understand better the functioning of the human nervous system, Schmitt studied the animal nerve cell. In most species nerves are small and hard to get at, but the squid has extraordinarily large nerve fibers from which it is possible to extract with relative ease pure axoplasm, the inner core of the nerve fiber, for chemical analysis. This is the material Schmitt's group studied, and orchestrating the regular delivery of properly frozen or, even better, a fresh supply of squid was an ongoing concern through the decades of Schmitt's research and could be quite complicated, as the letters shown here indicate. Whenever possible, squid specimens were delivered to MIT every day and kept alive in circulating seawater until they were ready to be dissected. In 1957, Schmitt made arrangements to have giant squid specially caught off the coast of Chile and shipped to MIT. The photograph seen here shows a giant squid over 21 feet long, which was caught off the coast of Newfoundland in 1965.
In 1962 Schmitt founded the Neurosciences Research Program, an interdisciplinary, inter-university organization dedicated to the study of the brain and brain function. Scientists and engineers from diverse disciplines came together regularly to investigate the physiochemical and biophysical bases of mental processes such as memory, learning, and consciousness. The program established by Schmitt provided a focus for research in neurosciences throughout the world. MIT sponsored the Neurosciences Research Program until 1982.
The Francis O. Schmitt Papers (MC 154) contain extensive documentation of his research, teaching, and professional activities. The Neurosciences Research Program Records (AC 107) include information about the development of the neurosciences, l962-l982, and the history of the NRP at MIT. The Archives also houses a third collection, an oral history (MC 226) on Dr. Schmitt and the history of the biological sciences consisting of thirty-four interviews with students, colleagues, and friends. All three collections are available for research in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.
Processing of the Francis O. Schmitt collection was funded by a grant from the Neurosciences Research Foundation. Processing of the Neurosciences Research Program collection was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Title II-C.
Object of the Month: July 2006
MIT Institute Archives