This section contains a historical essay about the Gordon Research Conferences organization. Use the links below or in the main menu to navigate between the different sections of the essay.

Foundations, Leadership, and Growth
The chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University began hosting an intermittent set of summer meetings in the late 1920s. By then, Hopkins under Ira Remsen had already pioneered research-based chemistry education in the United States and its chemistry department was at the crossroads of theoretical and applied research. Beginning in 1931, summer sessions were held on an annual basis to present new findings in chemistry and related fields. Graduate students could take the sessions for credit, and prominent academics from across the country soon appealed to chemistry professor Donald H. Andrews, and later to Neil Elbridge Gordon for permission to attend.

Gordon had displayed an early affinity both for chemistry and for organizing meetings while in high school in upstate New York. He organized an after-school science club at which "papers provoked animated discussion which continued long past the time for adjournment." Following undergraduate study at Syracuse with a major in mathematics and minor in chemistry, Gordon earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1917. By 1928 he was back at Hopkins as the Garvan Chair of Chemical Education. In the interim he had begun to influence the field by prompting the American Chemical Society to create a Section of Chemical Education in 1921, by launching the Journal of Chemical Education in 1924, and by publishing a textbook, Introductory Chemistry, in 1927. He soon took the lead in organizing the conferences, narrowed their focus to one topic per session, and broadened participation to include scientists from industry and government testing labs. Topics for the week-long conferences in the early years included the Raman effect and molecular structure, colloidal chemistry, catalysis, x-ray crystallography, and organic chemistry.

Seeking a more remote location, Gordon relocated the series in 1934 to Gibson Island, Maryland, located some 30 miles from Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay. The research conferences met at the Gibson Island Club during the summers of 1934, 1935, and 1936. Advertised as a way to learn about "frontier problems" in topics such as heavy hydrogen, vitamins, nuclear physics, and photochemistry, the conferences reflected Gordon's belief that scientific innovation was fostered by formal presentations in conjunction with informal discussion. He was unhappy with the size of most scientific conferences and the style of presentations. Each of his conferences, he stated, had to have a chairman who was a recognized leader of a field, discussion leaders concerned with actual advances of scientific work, and groups limited in size to maintain quality. Leading researchers were drawn by the topics, the location, and by Gordon's ability to stimulate open communication among scientists from academia, industry, and government research institutions.

Gordon left Johns Hopkins in 1936 to chair the chemistry department at Central College in Fayette, Missouri. Continuing the series without him, the Johns Hopkins chemistry department held conferences at Virginia Beach during the summer of 1937.
Naming of the Gordon Research Conferences
1932 Summer Session of the Chemistry Department at Johns Hopkins University
1933 Conference on Recent Developments in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins
1934 Research Conferences on Chemical Physics
1935 Johns Hopkins University Research Conferences on Chemical Problems
1936 Johns Hopkins University Research Conferences in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics
1937 Seventh Annual Research Conference of the Department of Chemistry of the Johns Hopkins University
1938 - 1941 Special Research Conferences on Chemistry
1942 - 1946 AAAS-Gibson Island Research Conferences
1947 Chemical Research Conferences
1948 - present Gordon Research Conferences
Meanwhile, as the secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Section C (Chemistry), Gordon persuaded AAAS to take on a formal role in managing the conferences. AAAS agreed to make the conferences a participating organization, but only on the condition that they would remain financially independent. This helped ensure continuity for the conferences, especially during leadership transitions in the mid-1940s.

Gordon served as secretary for the conferences in 1938 and 1939; he was officially appointed their director in fall 1939. The number of conferences grew quickly from two in 1938 to eight in 1941. To meet the rising interest, Gordon looked to expand capacity beyond the limited facilities of the Gibson Island Club. He secured $8,000 from AAAS to help purchase a property on the island, known as the Symington House and Annex. He also raised additional support by soliciting $1,000 each from thirty-three corporations that had significant research operations. For many years, these founding companies and additional industrial sponsors were guaranteed registration slots for qualified scientists from their research divisions. In recognition of Gordon's efforts, AAAS renamed the property the Neil E. Gordon House in 1941. Out of the AAAS-Gibson Island Research Conferences, as they had come to be called in 1942, ten core conference series had taken shape by 1945, some of which are still held today.

During the next two years, a series of changes resulted in new leadership and a more formal governance structure for the conferences. Gordon accepted an offer to chair Wayne University's chemistry department in 1942, and in 1945 turned over responsibility for the conferences to his colleague, the polymer chemist Sumner B. Twiss. Both Gordon and Twiss resigned in 1946, and members of the conference's management committee, chaired by George Calingaert from Ethyl Corporation, began searching for a new director.

The committee also began exploring New England for a new conference site, since Gibson Island was at full capacity. Returning from an unsuccessful visit to Dartmouth, the committee chanced upon Colby Junior College in New London, New Hampshire; they found its cool temperatures and abundant classrooms and dorms a pleasant contrast to Gibson Island. After an impromptu meeting with its president, H. Leslie Sawyer, the college was chosen as the new site in 1947. Shortly thereafter, the management committee elected W. George Parks as the new director. That year, ten Chemical Research Conferences were held at Colby. Before the end of the year, Calingaert had obtained Gordon's permission to adopt the name Gordon Research Conferences, which was made official at an April 1948 dedication ceremony. Tragically, Gordon was unable to witness the subsequent growth of the conferences. After a long-standing battle with depression, he ended his life in 1949.

Parks moved conference headquarters to Rhode Island State College, where he was a professor of chemistry and research director. By 1950 he was also chairman of the chemistry department. Parks enlisted the assistance of Alexander M. Cruickshank, a young chemistry instructor and former student, along with Alex's wife Irene Cruickshank, who was employed as secretary and treasurer for the conferences. Parks oversaw steady growth in the number of the conferences, attendance, and locations. A survey circulated in 1949 to some five hundred scientists had revealed a strong interest in new topics. By 1950, six more conferences had been added and additional sites in New Hampshire were chosen, starting with the New Hampton School in 1950 and Kimball Union Academy in 1954. During the 25th anniversary year of the conferences in 1956, GRC held thirty-six conferences with nearly four thousand participants from forty-six countries.

Along with expansion came changes in governance. In 1956, GRC incorporated as a non-profit organization. The Selection and Scheduling (S&S) Committee was established in 1958 to advise the board on the addition and termination of conferences. The number of sites continued to multiply during the 1950s and early 1960s. The Tilton School became the fourth New Hampshire site in 1961, and in 1963, a second Polymers Conference met for the first time in Santa Barbara, California. This laid the groundwork for additional winter conferences on the West Coast. Parks' directorship, however, came to an abrupt end in 1968. He was investigated by the IRS, and even though the GRC organization was not directly implicated his leadership was compromised. Parks resigned on encouragement of the GRC board.

Alex Cruickshank was appointed to the directorship in 1968, beginning a period of extraordinary growth (see figure 1). GRC began to add other New England sites, starting with Salve Regina College in Rhode Island in 1988. The first conferences overseas were held in Volterra, Italy in 1990 and in Irsee, Germany in 1991. Cruickshank instituted a more decentralized financial structure and encouraged conference chairs to apply for federal grants and other support through GRC headquarters. This allowed conferences to subsidize speakers, graduate students, and other special visitors. Also of appeal to scientists during the inflationary pressures of the 1970s and the rapid growth of competing meetings organized by professional associations, Cruickshank kept conference fees low and maintained an informal and personal atmosphere. He retired in 1993 after forty-seven years of service; the GRC board subsequently established the Alexander M. Cruickshank Lectures in his honor to showcase scientific leadership. Number of Conferences and Attendees Carlyle B. Storm was selected as the new director of GRC in 1993, drawing on a successful career in teaching, research, and scientific management at Howard University and Los Alamos National Laboratory. International expansion begun by Cruickshank continued under Storm's leadership with the addition of conference sites in Switzerland, England, France, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Japan. Storm retained the unique GRC format, promoted a "GRC brand" conference style at new sites outside the United States, and preserved the place of leading scientists in conference management. Storm also brought GRC administration into the computer age by streamlining operations and developing an online application and registration process. In 2002, GRC headquarters moved from the University of Rhode Island to a new building in West Kingston, Rhode Island. Upon Storm's retirement in 2003, the board established the Carl Storm Fellowships in his honor to support greater diversity in conference attendance.

As the current GRC director, Nancy Ryan Gray brings leadership skills and scientific experience from her previous positions as director of membership at the American Chemical Society and research specialist at Exxon. In its 75th year, GRC will attract more than twenty thousand participants to conferences at twenty-three sites in the United States and seven sites overseas. Today, GRC hosts conferences in approximately 350 topics, some held every year, and others held biennially or triennially.

GRC's remarkable growth and success result from a distinctive operating structure that has remained mostly unchanged since the early 1930s, despite radical transformations in other areas of science and technology during the 20th century.