Colorful fish on the tiles and 50 volumes of the Journal of Biological Chemistry to peruse (while otherwise occupied) in an upper floor bathroom, a winding grand entrance hall and staircase, elegant marble fireplaces (and a decorative half-round window) in some of the offices and meeting rooms, and beautiful gardens and grounds, gloriously in bloom with dogwood and azaleas … all this is a part of Beaumont House, the mansion and grounds that were the home of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for over 50 years and that I visited on the last Saturday in April. In the following week, the moving vans rolled up to the front door, and the society decamped for more modern digs a few miles farther north on Rockville Pike, leaving the only permanent home it had ever known.
As Barbara Gordon, executive director and by far the member of the ASBMB staff with the most memories (she started with the society in 1972), took me on a poignant tour of some of the more obscure corners of the building, I was struck by the many meetings and activities of historical interest that had transpired there and the myriad scientists of renown who had been involved with them. During the society’s occupancy, biochemistry and later molecular biology experienced nearly exponential growth, becoming arguably the central sciences of biological research (1).
Beaumont House was also the home of the Journal of Biological Chemistry during all those years, and it enjoyed the same growth and expansion as the society. Indeed, it was, in the end, a need for more room that really necessitated the move to a space designed for modern office practices and needs. Nostalgia aside, the old house and outbuildings were built for residential purposes, and converting them to office space had produced some interesting compromises that sadly no longer suited the society’s needs. As we wandered down the narrow back staircase originally intended for use by servants or stuck our heads in various closets and crawl spaces, it was much easier to imagine it as a setting for some “dark and stormy night” thriller than the home of a learned society.
The Acquisition of the Hawley Estate by APS
The Hawley mansion was the centerpiece of a nearly 40-acre estate located on Rockville Pike less than a mile north of the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md. (Fig 1). It was designed by Irwin S. Porter and erected in 1929. The purchase of the Hawley estate and its conversion to a campus home for societies with biological and biomedical interests were mainly due to the efforts of Milton O. Lee, an individual prominent in the history of both the American Physiological Society and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (2).
Lee was hired by APS in 1947 as the managing editor of publications and as executive officer of that society. At the same time, APS and the federation moved their offices into space at the National Academy Building on Constitution Avenue at no cost, due largely to the generosity of Detlev Bronk, president of the academy and a member of APS. As a result, Lee also became executive secretary of FASEB.
However, the academy soon decided to collect rent ($12,000/year), and this concerned both organizations. Accordingly, the APS formed a Committee on Society Headquarters and began to look for a permanent home elsewhere. It apparently was the intention of the committee to locate the offices in central Washington (convenient to Union Station and eventually National – now Reagan – Airport), but it was largely stymied by limited options and high prices.
However, after Lee and members of the committee viewed the Hawley estate in Bethesda, a 38-acre property with a fieldstone mansion and outbuildings, the possibilities were clearly evident to most. Ultimately, it was bought outright by the APS at a price of $225,000, with most of the money coming from the APS publication reserves.
A part of the land was then sold to the state (for widening Rockville Pike) and to a developer, who used the land to build residential housing. The APS Board of Publication Trustees then sold the remaining 12 acres and buildings to the federation and loaned it money to close the deal. It cost the federation, then composed of only six societies, $100,000, which was raised from its reserve fund and a mortgage from the Riggs Rational Bank of Washington. K.K. Chen, then president of the federation, also raised more than $24,000 from industry and a few private donors who assisted in the purchase and in the required renovations that followed. The APS and federation took occupancy in August 1954. The first federation board meeting was held there in January the next year.
Professor R.H. Chittenden, the first president of the ASBMB, at the Beaumont Memorial at Lebanon, Conn. (Coleman’s Photo Service, New Haven.) p. 83, History of the American Physiological Society: The Third Quarter Century 1937-1962, by Wallace O. Fen. 1963.Photo courtesy of the American Physiological Society.
The eponymous William Beaumont
The name of the building was changed soon after to Beaumont House for physician and pioneering physiologist and biochemist William Beaumont (3). Beaumont was born in Connecticut in 1785 and received medical training as an apprentice in Vermont. It was while serving in the army at Fort Mackinac that he was serendipitously called on to treat a trapper, Alexis St. Martin, who had suffered a shotgun wound in the stomach.
To the surprise of Beaumont, St. Martin survived his injuries but with a fistula in his stomach that never completely healed. Beaumont seized on this opportunity to conduct a series of experiments over several years on digestion and the nature of gastric juices, which established that this process was basically chemical, not mechanical. Beaumont died in 1853 and is buried in St. Louis; St. Martin lived until 1880.
Hanging in the conference room of Beaumont House in what was once the living room is an oil sketch by Dean Cornwell of Beaumont treating St. Martin. The original, larger painting is on permanent display at a museum devoted to Beaumont on Mackinac Island. Cornwell’s rendition has looked down on many a meeting as the plans and aspirations of the society were discussed and re-discussed in this room for 50-odd years (Figs 2 and 3).
Enter the ASBC
During the fall of 1953, as the APS committee was considering possible locations for the moving of its headquarters, Phil Handler and D. Wright Wilson, secretary and president of the American Society of Biological Chemists at that time, exchanged several letters about the possibilities for the ASBC in these matters. In a letter dated Nov. 2, 1953, Wilson noted, “I believe last year  the Federation was talking about buying property.” He went on to say, “I think probably the Biochemists will be up against a proposition in the near future because I doubt if Universities will agree to donate space for the Journal’s Publication Department.” He raised the possibility that the ASBC might wish to consider being financially involved in the Hawley deal.
Handler replied that he had just discussed the Hawley estate purchase with Milton Lee, who wanted to know his opinion. Handler noted that he had expressed personal interest but thought that as long as Rudolf Anderson was the managing editor of the JBC, “we … should not want to make a change.” However, he also said that after Anderson, a “permanent editorial office might be a valuable thing to have.”
Not stated in these remarks was the totally autocratic control that Anderson exercised over the journal and its finances and his unwillingness to consider any change in the way they were managed. Thus, it was the location of the journal activities at Yale University and Anderson’s position as managing editor that effectively kept the ASBC from being more directly involved in the purchase of the Hawley estate. However, these events undoubtedly contributed to bringing the Anderson editorship to an end a couple of years later.
In 1955, the ASBC Council, noting the purchase and occupancy of Beaumont House by APS and the federation was complete, resolved to explore the transfer of its pertinent documents and materials to a fireproof vault to be housed in the new federation headquarters (1). The next year, the ASBC Council, now wrestling more directly with the complicated problems engendered by the finances of the journal on the one hand and those of the society on the other and confronted with the realization that “the burden of this office [Secretary] has grown to such an extent that the Society no longer has the right to impose upon one of its members to the extent now demanded,” resolved that when a new managing editor was appointed, the headquarters of the society should be located at Beaumont House, including the publication activities, and that “the possibility should be explored of a combined Managing Editor and Executive Secretary” (1).
Indeed, Anderson retired in 1958, and John Edsall of Harvard University became editor of the journal. Edsall made it quite clear that he didn’t care for the business end of running the JBC, and Bob Harte was hired shortly thereafter as the first executive officer and managing editor of the journal in part to relieve Edsall of those chores. With those changes, the society set up its permanent office at Beaumont House. When it first moved in, it shared the space with the federation as well as other societies, but this changed quickly when it became clear that more space would be needed to meet the growing demands on the federation facilities.
Thus, the Milton O. Lee building was erected and opened in 1962. Eventually, the ASBC became the sole occupant of the original buildings, as all other FASEB and non-FASEB societies relocated to the more recently constructed buildings on the FASEB grounds, a trend that continued into the next century.
The Beaumont House is now more than 80 years old, and it is beginning to show its age. Although solidly built, chipping paint, water stains and other signs that some serious maintenance and even some restoration is sorely needed are all too evident. Indeed, there were carpenters and painters banging and scraping away as we took our stroll through the halls of Beaumont House one last time. At the risk of being overly palaeolatric, it has served the ASBC (and ASBMB) well, and one can only hope the next tenants will grow and prosper during their residency as the society did.
- 1. R. A. Bradshaw, C. C. Hancock, and N. Kresge (2009) The ASBMB Centennial History: 100 Years of the Chemistry of Life, ASBMB, Bethesda, Md., 91 – 92.
- 2. J. R. Brobeck, O. E. Reynolds, and T. A. Appel (eds) (1987) History of the American Physiological Society: The First Century 1887 – 1987, APS, Bethesda, Md., 79 – 84.
- 3. http://www.james.com/beaumont/dr_life.htm
Ralph A. Bradshaw (email@example.com) is co-editor of Molecular & Cellular Proteomics and the ASBMB historian.