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Francis Otto Schmitt papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0154

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Francis Otto Schmitt papers document Schmitt's contribution to scientific research and teaching. The core of the collection describes his influence on the development of the interdisciplinary field of neuroscience, and his role as founder and director of the Neurosciences Research Program. There is also considerable material about Schmitt's efforts to disseminate his work through teaching and research at MIT, and through his involvement with numerous professional and non-scientific organizations. There is little personal material and, with the exception of a few folders, the bulk of this collection describes Schmitt's professional work after his time at Washington University

Schmitt's teaching at MIT is documented in course material for classes on nerve, tissue ultrastructure, and memory. The material dates from 1937 to 1963 and includes pertinent reprints in addition to syllabi and class handouts. Although little of Schmitt's teaching materials survive, what does exist illustrates his continuing interest in the study of nerve, memory, and tissue ultrastructure—the brain—and his method of conveying his work to his students and involving them in his research. Schmitt's research actively influenced his teaching, and his research material complements his teaching files. He vigorously pursued federal and private funds to support his research on nerve and ultrastructure. Grant aplications and progress reports to various funding agencies illustrate Schmitt's very successful efforts to fund his team of scientists and graduate students.

The research Schmitt conducted was a group effort. Although he recorded and saved research ideas when they occurred to him, Schmitt pursued his ideas with his team of scientists and his colleagues. The reading lists Schmitt produced for his research unit, unit meeting notes, information about unit members, information on shipments of squid (on which so much of the research took place), research photographs and notes, and the large reprint file he gathered and retained on ultrastructure all point to the dynamics and centrality of the group process in Schmitt's research.

As a dedicated and successful scientist, Schmitt involved himself in many professional activities and relationships. He regularly attended meetings of the scientific and learned associations to which he belonged, or was invited, and frequently presented papers on the research being done in his laboratory. Schmitt communicated with his peers, mailing reprints of his work and in turn receiving those of others. He served on committees, advisory councils, and trustee boards of his professional organizations and on those of government and private agencies. Among the most significant of his professional activities was his work with the National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He served on many committees for the NAS. Among the most significant was the Biology Council which examined the role of instruments in the teaching of modern biology. For NIH, Schmitt served on a number of committees including the Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry Study Sections. Schmitt served as a scientist in several capacities for Boston area hospitals. He served as an advisor to the Massachusetts General Hospital from 1947, and as a trustee from 1959.

Schmitt wrote many scientific articles based on his research, and he lectured to both scientific and lay audiences. He had a talent for being able to communicate his findings both to his colleagues and to non-scientists. A church-going man, Schmitt gave many lectures to church-related audiences during the early l960s in which he explained and defended the scientific theory of evolution.

Series 7 documents Schmitt's founding of, and nearly continuous involvement with, the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) and the Neurosciences Research Foundation (NRF). These records complement the official records of the NRP (AC 107 in the Institute Archives). Begun as the Mens Project in l961, an outgrowth of Schmitt's research and courses taught on memory, the NRP was born on February 1, 1962. Schmitt founded the NRP to serve as what is now known as an invisible college to facilitate, promote, discuss, and disseminate important research by scientists and engineers from various disciplines in the area of brain function. These records document Schmitt's contributions to the scores of interdisciplinary, inter-university, and international meetings Schmitt, his staff, and the NRP Associates planned and implemented to further brain science research. Although sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the NRP relied upon external funding sources for its daily operations and programs. Schmitt founded the NRF to provide funds for NRP activities not covered by government monies, but the majority of NRP operations were funded by federal and private funds. Seeking these funds for the NRP was a time-consuming and increaingly competitive endeavor, as is evidenced in these records. As the funding climate became more competitive, the search for funds became increasingly difficult. Funding is the primary reason the NRP moved to The Rockefeller University in 1981, as they offered more institutional support.

More information about Schmitt's role in the Neurosicences Research Program is contained in the records of the NRP, AC 107, which also includes a lengthy administrative history of the NRP. The collections should be used together to obtain a more complete picture of Schmitt's career and the history of the NRP.


  • 1942 - 1982


Access note

This collection is open.

Intellectual Property Rights

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Separate written application for permission to publish must be made to Distinctive Collections. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection.

Biographical note


The Biology Department is proud to host the Francis O. Schmitt Lecture in honor of Dr. Schmitt who was a Professor of Biology, and held the position of Head of the Department from 1942-1955. When Dr. Schmitt assumed the Head, the Department included just a handful of faculty. Under his leadership, Biology was developed into a major Department at MIT. He also ran his lab’s research program, in the biochemistry and biophysics of nerves, and in neurosciences, over the same period.

Dr. Schmitt was appointed Institute Professor in 1955, a distinguished academic post awarded by MIT which recognizes outstanding achievement. He provided leadership to a number of scientific organizations, including serving on the boards of both MGH and McLean Hospital. He also founded the Neurosciences Research Program in 1962, which gave a focus through conferences and publications to research in the neurosciences throughout the world.


MIT News Office obituary:

Francis Otto Schmitt was born November 23, 1903, and died October 3, 1995. He attended St. Louis public schools and during high school became interested in chemistry. Schmitt entered Washington University in 1920 as a premedical student and studied under Caswell Grave, J. P. Visscher, and S. W. Geiser, among others. Between his junior and senior years at Washington University, Schmitt studied general physiology at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with a half-tuition scholarship. There, Robert Chambers introduced Schmitt to microdissection. Later that summer, at Chambers's invitation, Schmitt went to Salisbury Cove Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, to help Chambers carry out experimental work in preparation for a chapter for Cowdry's General Cytology. During his senior year, Schmitt continued to do cytological research and in 1924 published his first article, co-authored by Caswell Grave, "A Mechanism for the Coordination of the Movement of Cilia of Epithelia," in Science. Also with Grave, he wrote "A Mechanism for the Coordination and Regulation of Ciliary Movement As Revealed by Micro-dissection and Cytological Studies of Ciliated Cells in Mollusks," which appeared in the Journal of Morphology. Schmitt graduated from Washington University in 1924 with final honors and was made a member of Sigma Xi.

Interested in X-ray diffraction and tissue ultrastructure, and impressed with Washington University's facilities and Joseph Erlanger, Schmitt decided in 1924 to pursue his graduate studies in the physiology department at the Washington University Medical School, turning down a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. The first two years of his graduate training included both pre-clinical studies for the M.D. and research for the Ph.D. (Schmitt's father wanted him to be a surgeon.) After two years, Schmitt ceased his medical studies, with his father's agreement, and concentrated on his X-ray diffraction work on muscle and studies of kidney function. During this time Schmitt studied and worked with Herbert S. Gasser, George Bishop, Harvey Lester White, Arthur I. Kendall, and Joseph Erlanger. It was under Erlanger that Schmitt did his doctoral research. Erlanger assigned Schmitt the topic "The Irritability of Heart Muscle" for his thesis research, and in June 1927 Schmitt received his Ph.D. in Medical Science.

Schmitt pursued post-doctoral studies in three locations. With a National Research Council fellowship, he worked in the chemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley in 1927-1928 under G. N. Lewis. For seven weeks in 1928 he went to London to further his work on lipids in the laboratories of J. C. Drummond at University College, with the assistance of N. K. Adam and B. C. J. G. Knight. In 1929 Schmitt completed his post-doctoral studies at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Biologie in Berlin, first in the laboratory of Otto Warburg studying oxidation theory, then in the laboratory of Otto Meyerhof studying the gaseous metabolism of nerves.

Schmitt returned to Washington University in 1929 as assistant professor of zoology. Thereafter, he moved up in the ranks, becoming associate professor in 1934, professor in 1938, and in 1940, upon the retirement of Caswell Grave, Schmitt was made head of the zoology department. During these years Schmitt benefited from the assistance of and collaboration with his brother Otto, a physicist. Another significant collaborator was Richard S. Bear with whom Schmitt worked from 1935 to 1940. Schmitt and Bear investigated nerve structure using polarization optics and X-ray diffraction.

In 1941 Schmitt was asked by Karl Taylor Compton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to join the faculty of the biology department. Schmitt joined the MIT staff as professor of biology, and in 1942, when biology department head S. C. Prescott retired, Schmitt assumed his responsibilities.

During World War II Schmitt's laboratory was devoted to research on burns, wound healing, and the production of synthetic surgical gut which could be used in military field hospitals. The remainder of Schmitt's work during the 1940s was devoted to groundbreaking research using electron microscopy. In 1941 the first electron microscope to be used in an academic biology department was installed at MIT. With C. E. Hall and M. A. Jakus, Schmitt studied the ultrastructure of nerve, collagen, muscle, and other fibrous proteins, making the department a preeminent center for investigation of ultrastructure. R. S. Bear, who had come to MIT with Schmitt, continued to collaborate with him on these studies.

Under Schmitt's administration, MIT's biology department grew and became distinguished in the areas of biophysics and biochemistry. In 1955, Schmitt was made Institute Professor in recognition of his exemplary achievements at the Institute. One of only three persons to have received that honor up to that time, Schmitt was released from his administrative responsibilities to enable him to devote himself exclusively to advanced teaching and research.

As a result of his multidisciplinary research interests, Schmitt founded the Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) in 1962. An interdisciplinary, inter-university organization, the NRP was Schmitt's means for promoting research in what he considered the last frontier of science, the brain and brain function. Comprised of staff and an international group of "Associates," outside experts who worked closely with the staff, the NRP's function was to hold meetings on very current topics and problems in the area of brain research and to publish quickly the results gleaned from those meetings. Bi-monthly three-day Work Sessions, semi-annual Stated Meetings, and occasional Intensive Study Programs, as well as other lectures and colloquia, were the vehicles for bringing together prominent scientists and engineers in various areas of science to discuss problems pertaining to the brain. Individuals from diverse disciplines who rarely interacted with each other professionally were invited to meet and discuss brain function. The NRP was established at the House of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Although largely supported by federal and private funds, the NRP enjoyed an academic affiliation with MIT.

In 1974 Schmitt became Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, and Foundation Scientist at the NRP. The invisible college he founded had grown, developed, and flourished under his leadership. For the next seven years, Schmitt continued to be a vital part of the NRP, helping to guide and inspire its mission. By 1981 the NRP was in need of more space and a more secure financial base. When the Rockefeller University offered facilities and economic stability, the NRP moved to New York City. Schmitt remained at MIT to continue his research in molecular genetics.

Schmitt received many awards and honorary degrees, including the Alsop Award of the American Leather Chemists Association in 1947, the Albert Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association in 1956, the T. Duckett Jones Award of the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation in 1963, the Sc.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1950, the Sc.D. from Washington University in 1952, the Sc.D. from the University of Chicago in 1957, the Sc.D. from Valparaiso University in 1959, the M.D. (h.c.) from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1964, the LL.D. from Wittenberg University in 1966, and the Sc.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981.

Schmitt is a member of many scientific and learned associations including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Société Philomatique de Paris, and the Electron Microscope Society of America, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Schmitt served as a member of the National Advisory Health Council of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council of the National Institutes of Health from 1969 to 1971. He was a trustee of the Massachusetts General Hospital beginning in 1947. He was a scientific advisor to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary from 1957 to 1964 and a member of the Board of Scientific Consultants for the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research from 1963 to 1975.

Schmitt married Barbara Hecker in 1927, and they had three children, David Francis, Robert Hecker, and Marion Elizabeth. Barbara Hecker Schmitt died in 1975.


123.1 Cubic Feet (123 record cartons, 1 audiocassette)

Language of Materials



The Francis Otto Schmitt Papers document Schmitt’s contribution to scientific research and his teaching. The core of the collection describes his influence on the development of the interdisciplinary field of neuroscience, and his role as founder and director of the Neurosciences Research Program. There is also considerable material about Schmitt’s efforts to disseminate his work through teaching and research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and through his involvement with numerous professional and non-scientific organizations. There is little personal material and, with the exception of a few folders, the bulk of this collection describes Schmitt’s professional work after his time at Washington University.

The materials in boxes 96-127 were received after the first large transfer of materials was processed and generally have not been integrated physically into early series. They include correspondence spanning F. O. Schmitt's professional life and his research notebooks, 1922-1947; materials documenting his work as a student and later as a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis; and materials concerning his years as head of the Neurosciences Research Program at MIT.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.
Preliminary Inventory to the Papers of Francis Otto Schmitt
Ready For Review
Partially processed by Barbara Trippel Simmons and Gregory Pano
Copyright 1983
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of materials received in 1982 was funded by a grant from the Neurosciences Research Foundation.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
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