Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory and Ohiri Field (Harvard University)

13 Frisbie Place, Cambridge, and 95 North Harvard Street, Allston

Beginning in 1941, research on incendiary weapons development took place in the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge. The third-floor lab—”a glass-walled room-within-a-room” in the words of historian Robert Neer—was under the direction of Dr. Louis Fieser, a professor of organic chemistry. An official, top-secret project of the U.S. Department of War, Fieser’s work was listed as “Anonymous Research No. 4” in Harvard’s records.

Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory, 1929-1931. Credit: HUV 2329 (BP 51), Harvard University Archives.

The research was the offspring of what was a marriage of sorts between academia, the U.S. military, and weapons manufacturers brought about by the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). Established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, the NDRC sought to enhance research on, and development of, military weaponry by building linkages between civilian researchers, the Pentagon, and industry. It was the brainchild of Vannever Bush, one of the founders of Raytheon (today Raytheon Technologies headquartered in Waltham*) and an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bush designated James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard, as the head of “Division B,” which was responsible for bombs, fuels, gases, and chemical problems.

Soon after the NDRC’s founding, Harvard assigned Fieser two rooms in the basement of the Converse Chemistry Laboratory (at 12 Oxford Street) to conduct research on explosives. As the research of Fieser and his team progressed, it shifted from poison gas to incendiary gels, requiring a move to the nearby Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory.

On July 4, 1942, Fieser and his fellow researchers brought the fruits of their labor to the Harvard soccer field, near the university tennis courts and the Harvard Business School, across the Charles River in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. University workers had prepared the field, digging a circle 60 feet in diameter, which firefighters from the City of Cambridge proceeded to fill with water. Fieser and others then carefully placed a 70-pound bomb containing white phosphorous and 45 pounds of jellied gasoline on a metal stand in the middle of the shallow pond. After Fieser flipped a switch, “a spectacular, billowing, 2,100-degree-Fahrenheit cloud arose over the field,” writes Neer. “Napalm bombs had arrived in the world.”  

July 4, 1942, Harvard soccer field. The first outdoor test of napalm. Source: Harvard Magazine.

The success of the test reflected how Fieser and his team had invented not only napalm, but a way to scatter the gruesome substance over a wide area, while igniting it. Liquid and gel incendiary weapons have a long, even ancient, history. What makes napalm an especially effective (and terrifying) weapon is that it is sticky and it burns at an extremely high temperature.

Louis Fieser, April 1965, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Source: Public Domain.

The U.S. military used napalm to horrific effect in Japan during World War II and in the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Pentagon also used the weapon during its invasion of Iraq in 2003. For such reasons, napalm is symbolic for many of the horrors of war and of U.S. military power in particular.

The Wolcott Gibbs Laboratory was constructed in 1911-1912. A couple of weeks before it opened, The Harvard Crimson described the building as “the most perfectly planned and equipped physical-chemical laboratory in the world.” Harvard demolished the facility in 1999 to allow for the construction of the Bauer Life Sciences Building, which now stands on the site.

As for the Harvard soccer field, it was renovated and named Ohiri Field in 1983. (It is unclear if Ohiri Field sits on the exact same site as the old soccer field, but, most likely, at the very least, it overlaps with it.) Until 2010, Ohiri Field served as the primary home field for the Harvard men’s and women’s soccer teams. Since the opening of a new stadium called Jordan Field, Ohiri Field has served as the secondary home for the two teams.

Ohiri Field (undated) with Harvard Stadium, which sits on the other side of North Harvard Street, in the background. Source: Harvard Athletics.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard station. Enter Frisbie Place (a walkway that is diagonally across from where Quincy Street intersects Kirkland ) at Kirkland Street. The part of Frisbie Place where Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory once stood is a now a combination of a courtyard and, at its northern end, the Bauer Life Sciences Building (0.4 miles, about an 8-minute walk.) From there, Ohiri Field is a one-mile (approximately 20-minute) walk. MBTA buses from Harvard Square also pass in front of Ohiri Field.

To learn more:

Anonymous, “Gibbs Laboratory Ready,” The Harvard Crimson, December 20, 1912.

Louis F. Fieser, The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1964.

Robert M. Neer, Napalm: An American Biography, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

*Regarding Raytheon, see the site entry in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.


Thanks to the Harvard University Archives and to Baker Library Special Collections (Harvard Business School) for their assistance.

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