International Grants: RCSA and the American University of Beirut
Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) made its first grant to the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1950. It was a prosperous and transitional time for the Foundation.
The Williams-Waterman Fund for the Combat of Dietary Diseases—financing and implementing the fortification of rice with thiamine, niacin and iron—was at its height, funding over 50 projects internationally each year. In 1950, RCSA supported projects in Yugoslavia; Southern India; Taiwan, China; Cuba; and Bataan Province in the Philippines. Robert R. Williams, who discovered Vitamin B1, accomplished its synthesis and used the monies generated by his discovery to support the Fund, had a lifelong interest in underdeveloped parts of the world and encouraged RCSA to expand its reach.
RCSA’s Patent Management Department was managing patents for almost 50 universities and organizations, including a contract with MIT to obtain patents on MIT inventions, license the patents, and pursue infringers. The National Science Foundation was created in 1950, providing support in many of the same areas RCSA had previously funded. In addition, RCSA’s founder, Frederick Gardner Cottrell, had died in 1948 and the Foundation was working to redefine itself.
All these factors may have contributed to the Foundation’s decision to begin supporting research in Lebanon, perhaps envisioning an international influence on the sciences.
ORIGINS OF AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT
The year 1862 was marked with changes in the United States. The first income tax was levied; Congress passed the Homestead Act; the U.S. Mint was established in Denver; the Department of Agriculture was created; Congress outlawed polygamy; the bowling ball was invented! And, of course, the country was in the midst of civil war.
The same year, the American Board of Foreign Missions asked Daniel Bliss, a missionary and teacher, to establish a college in Lebanon which would make higher education, as well as medical training, available to elite Christian students. The Board of Foreign Missions, established in 1810 by Congregationalists who were recent graduates of Williams College, was America’s first foreign mission society. Although surrounded by Muslim countries, the majority of Lebanon’s population was then Christian. American missionary activity had been under way in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine since 1820.
Bliss’ work for the Board of Foreign Missions resulted in the founding of Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut) which was established in 1866 under a charter with the State of New York.
At a ceremony commemorating the hanging of the bell on the tower of AUB’s administration building on December 7, 1871, Bliss said, “This College is for all conditions and classes of men without regard for color, nationality, race or religion. A man white, black or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many Gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.” The first classes were held on December 3, 1866. Bliss served as the school’s president, as well as its treasurer and professor of Bible studies and ethics.
Almost 20 years later, at commencement services in 1882, Dr. Edwin Lewis, professor of chemistry and geology at the college, presented a speech titled “Knowledge, Science and Wisdom,” in which he praised the work of three prominent scientists of the day: Sir Charles Lyell, Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin. Angered by Lewis’ speech, in which he called Darwin’s work “. . . an example of the transformation of knowledge into science by long and careful examination and accurate thinking,” Daniel Bliss prohibited the teaching of the Theory of Evolution on campus. A long, bitter battle ensued over freedom of expression and over the next few years nearly half the senior faculty (including Lewis) resigned, many students were suspended, and enrollment plunged. The event incited the first incident of student protest in the Arab world.
Bliss led the school for 36 years, while its population grew from 16 to over 600 students. Today, the school has around 9,000 students. Although it began as a Christian school, Syrian Protestant College was secularized early in the 20th century, assuming a relatively liberal atmosphere. Classes were conducted in Arabic for the first 17 years, but English later became the language of instruction. In 1920, when the name of the school was changed to American University of Beirut (AUB), the school became coeducational and all religious requirements were eliminated. Since then, Arabs from many countries have also attended the University and generations of Middle Eastern physicians have received their training there.
RCSA LENDS SUPPORT TO AUB SCIENCE
RCSA’s first grant to AUB was made under the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Grants program which was established in 1946 to provide incentive for scientists to return to academic pursuits following World War II. During the war, science had been dominated by war-related research funded by the government. During that time, RCSA had suspended its grants programs and focused its energy on wartime pursuits with projects such as Research Construction Company, a model shop for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory. The monies that would have funded grants during the war had accrued and $2.5 million were earmarked to fund the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Grants program for five years. [Note: The Frederick Gardner Cottrell Grant Program was extended beyond the initial five years when the opportunities it afforded to beginning investigators were acknowledged. The last award under this grant program was made in 1989.]
The principal investigator of the first grant to AUB was Robert H. Linnell who had received a Ph.D. in 1950 from University of Rochester where he studied under photochemistry pioneer Albert Noyes Jr. In a letter of support for Linnell’s RCSA grant proposal, Stanley Kerr discussed the condition of the chemistry department at AUB, noting, “Having been Professor of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine at the American University of Beirut for 25 years, I have had ample opportunity to witness the course of events in the Department of Chemistry. Members of that department have been unable to engage in research because of the pressure of undergraduate teaching and, I must confess, because of the conviction of the Dean that teaching rather than research was the more important.” Kerr continued, “Linnell goes to Beirut with the promise that this policy is to be reversed, and that he will have a light teaching schedule and facilities for research. Hence I regard his success or failure in initiating a research program to be of vital importance. His success will certainly mark the beginning of a decent graduate program in that department of the University, which should represent the best in American education.”
Linnell received $2,000 from RCSA to support his study of the thermal decomposition of nitrogen heterocyclic compounds; in 1952 and 1953, Linnell received additional grants for $11,600 and $3,500, respectively.
According to a 1960 letter written by Costas Issidorides, then-associate professor of chemistry at AUB, to Alfred Kelleher, then-program officer for RCSA in New York, “The Department of Chemistry was [at the time of Linnell’s first grant] a small service department for the school of medicine and engineering. Teaching loads were excessively heavy and the department was poorly equipped for investigative work.” Issidorides continued, “The first Research Corporation grant to Professor Robert H. Linnell … marked the beginning of a new period which slowly revolutionized the department.”
Lebanon has been called the “gateway to the Middle East.” A country with rich natural and cultural resources, its location, between Europe, Africa and Asia, makes it vulnerable to conflict and assault from many sides. After World War I, Lebanon came under French rule. Lebanon gained independence in 1943 and French troops withdrew from the country three years later. Beirut became the country’s capital and Lebanon experienced growth, prosperity and peace during its early years of independence.
The 1950s were troubled years in the Middle East. After the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, Palestinian refugees began moving to Lebanon, sometimes launching attacks against Israel from Lebanon. Hostilities between Christians and Muslims resulted in periodic retaliation, bringing violence to Lebanon and dividing the population into many factions. In 1952, those hostilities resulted in a nonviolent strike and a brief civil war took place in 1958. Around the same time, Gamal Abdul Nasser, of Egypt, introduced the idea of Arab nationalism: the unification of all Arab countries as a single nation. The West had long dominated the Middle East, and Nasser wanted to see Arab nations obtain autonomy. Although Lebanon’s population was predominantly Muslim, Christians dominated the country’s political structure, leading to claims that Muslim interests were not given proper weight.
In June of 1958, Costas Issidorides wrote to Alfred Kelleher, “Bob Linnell is right in saying that the newspapers in the States probably gave exaggerated accounts of the situation here. However, it is also true that for a period of several days things in Lebanon looked pretty grim. The situation is still far from being normal, but at least the feeling of impending disaster is fortunately gone. Many people here are finally waking up to realize that under the cover of nationalism lurk forces which are beyond their control.” Although some student protesters at AUB took up Nasser’s call and demanded changes in the school’s curriculum and administration, Issidorides continued, “The fact that AUB students attended classes regularly during all this period is very significant. A few years ago they would have been among the first to go on strike and to participate in the demonstrations against ‘imperialism.’ This year they remained calm and displayed unusual maturity in evaluating the situation. Many people I know, who were ardently pro-Nasser until a few months ago, do not seem to be so sure about him anymore. Now that the choice is theirs, they begin to realize that the West has not always been so bad after all….Let’s hope that nothing will ‘blow up.’”
Costas Issidorides received his first RCSA grant in 1953. He would receive subsequent grants in 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958 and 1959. Issidorides was born in Athens, Greece, and attended University of Iowa and Harvard. He taught and conducted research in organic chemistry at the American University of Beirut from 1952 until 1986 and was awarded Lebanon's highest medal of honor, the National Order of the Cedar, for the discovery of the internationally acclaimed Beirut Reaction, together with his colleague Professor Mahkluf Haddadin. Issidorides later taught at UC Davis.
In 1963, Issidorides submitted a proposal to RCSA for a Department Development Award for, according to RCSA’s Summer 1975 Quarterly Bulletin, “further promotion of the tradition of research and scholarship, consolidation of research groups, involvement of research assistants and postdoctoral research fellows, and recruitment of additional personnel” at AUB’s Chemistry Department. The grant made possible the appointment of Makhluf Haddadin as a research associate in organic chemistry. Haddadin studied at American University of Beirut and University of Colorado, Boulder. Working together on a basic project aimed at finding a new synthetic route to multicyclic nitrogen oxides via enamines, Drs. Issidorides and Haddadin discovered a method of synthesizing a whole series of new chemical compounds with wide-ranging therapeutic effects. They published an article on procedure they discovered, which became known as the “Beirut Reaction,” in a 1965 issue of Tetrahedron Letters, the international journal of research papers in the field of organic chemistry.
When Pfizer pharmaceutical corporation expressed interest in licensing the invention, Dr. Issidorides wrote to Research Corporation and, according to correspondence with Dr. Haddadin in January 2013, “Research Corporation wrote us back saying: ‘Although the money for your research came from a grant from Research Corporation, you are free to go anywhere you wish with this invention; however ,Research Corporation has an agreement with your University to promote research discoveries (patent, protect and market for an established fee) as it has with many American Universities in the USA.’ We decided to go the Research Corporation track. So we assigned all patents (some 45 in 25 countries) to research Corporation (for one dollar and good will). Research Corporation negotiated an agreement with Pfizer which produced a Quinoxaline 1,4-Dioxide, marketed under the trade name ‘Mecadox or Carbadox,’” to combat swine dysentery and salmonella. The drug received FDA approval in 1973 and reached the U.S. market the same year. Between 1973 and 1986, the Beirut Reaction had earned millions of dollars for both AUB and RCSA. Since then, the Beirut Reaction has been employed in the development of hundreds of antibacterial and anticancer drugs.
Recounting the history of the project, Drs. Issidiorides and Haddadin wrote in AUB’s 1975 annual report, “It is nowadays fashionable to talk about relevance in our educational programs, especially regarding the interaction between academic institutions, industry and the community at large. But relevance is elusive and often appears on the scene uninvited. What started off at AUB as a research project dealing with the oxidation of an esoteric class of compounds known as enamines ended up disguised as a product sold to animal growers in Prairie City, Iowa or Osaka, Japan.
“If this is relevance, no one purposely looked for it. Research Corporation’s unrestricted grant to the Chemistry Department in 1963 was not given in return for relevant research, and those who worked on the Beirut Reaction knew little about swine dysentery, and even less about salmonellosis. Yet things worked out as they did by a combination of propitious timing, luck and, above all, a great deal of effort and experimental work, without which neither relevance nor serendipity could ever be of any major consequence.”
In all, 23 grants were made to AUB between 1950 and 1966, totaling over $250,000 (close to $2 million in today’s dollars). No additional grants were made to AUB after 1966. It is not clear whether RCSA decided to discontinue its association with AUB due to the unrest in the country, whether RCSA decided that funding for science was within the means of the Lebanese government, or whether scientists at AUB simply stopped submitting grant proposals.