Roots: Founding of BEMS


by Carl Blackman and Tom Rozzell

During the recent Business Meeting of the Society in St. Pete Beach, FL, the image of the "founding fathers" was mentioned to support a particular debating point during a discussion. I subsequently asked several long-time members if they knew who the founders of The Bioelectromagnetics Society were and those members could not give complete answers. It occurred to me that the newer members of BEMS would be even less aware of the historical beginnings of the Society. Tom Rozzell and I prepared the following history which we hope will be informative.

On February 23rd, 1978, Tom Rozzell of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) convened a meeting with five other scientists at the offices of Richard Burke, Executive Director of the Radiation Research Society as well as three other societies, to investigate the issues associated with creating a multi-disciplinary membership society devoted to studying the interaction of electric and magnetic fields with biological systems.

Before discussing the details covered in the meeting, it is useful to establish the historical context that lead to the meeting. There was interest in the biological effects of radio waves and microwaves in the 1950s and early 1960s that was funded by the three military services in the US, which convened a series of Tri-Service Conferences to discuss and disseminate research findings. This was followed by a time of little interest that was altered by work on low intensity effects reported at a Richmond, Virginia symposium in 1969, sponsored by the Bureau of Radiological Health (now part of the US Food and Drug Administration). The next meeting in this subject area was held at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in 1974, and was organized by Paul Tyler of the US Navy. This meeting showed greatly renewed interest in the research area and brought many new researchers into the field. The NYAS meeting was followed by three successive meetings, the first two sponsored by Commission A of the International Union of Radio Scientists (URSI); held in Boulder, CO in 1975, Amherst, MA in 1976, and one independently sponsored meeting in Airlie, VA in 1977. At this time it was apparent that conditions were favorable for the development of an organization that could offer membership status, and would be fundamentally a biologically based society. One major sponsor of previous meetings was URSI, but it was not a membership organization as it drew its membership via nomination from members of engineering societies. The URSI journals for publication of findings were engineering oriented, or were isolated proceedings or supplements (e.g., Radio Science) with no regular publication dates. This form of publication did not allow other potentially interested biologists easy access to published reports.

At the February 23rd meeting, the economies of creating a financially successful scientific society were explained by Richard Burke. There were several other options discussed, including expansion of the charter of the International Microwave Power Institute (IMPI), or the development of a "Council" composed of representatives of all existing societies in the field (primarily the IEEE Microwave Theory and Technique Society, Radiation Research and IMPI) to hold annual symposia, workshops and publication of a journal, perhaps a section in the Journal of Microwave Power. It was eventually decided that the research field would be best served by the creation of a society that had a broad representation of biological sciences, with sufficient representation of the physical and engineering sciences required to investigate biological problems. Ties would be maintained with the engineering societies to maintain information exchange.

Before the next meeting, which was held at ONR on March 13, 1978, draft goals and structure, and sample constitutions were assembled and distributed. There were a number of issues discussed at this meeting. Among the more important issues was the selection of the constitution of the American Society for Photobiology as a basis for the development of the new society's constitution, and the selection of a name for the society. There were at least ten recorded options for possible names of the society. The draft society name was the International Society for the Study of Electromagnetic/Biological Interactions (IS EMBI) [honest, it is in the notes]. Carl Blackman had a cogent argument for a different name, and he had the advice of his wife, Carolyn Miller, a professor of communications, that we should sacrifice precision for recognition and mnemonic value. The group agreed to the name, the BioElectroMagnetics Society. Note that the vector symbols, the E and the M with a bar over each, were implied in BEMS: thus the pronunciation is "beams"; but for some reason this pronunciation never caught on. Members for the Charter Board of Directors and new officers of the society were selected at this meeting, to be present at the first Board meeting on April 24th, 1978, in Ross Hall at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Present at the First Board Meeting were Board Members Edward L. Alpen, of Donner Lab of Medical Physics, University of California, Berkeley (President); Ernest N. Albert, George Washington University (Vice President); Edward L. Hunt, Walter Reed Army Institute for Research (Secretary-Treasurer); Carl F. Blackman, US Environmental Protection Agency; Stephen F. Cleary, Virginia Commonwealth University; Allan Frey, Randomline, Inc.; Richard Johnson, Roswell Park Memorial Institute; James L. Lords, University of Utah; C. David Lytle, Bureau of Radiological Health; Maria A. Stuchly, Environmental Health Centre; Karl Illinger, Tufts University; Elliot Postow, Naval Medical Research and Development Command; and Saul W. Rosenthal, Polytechnic Institute of New York. Also on the Board but not present for the first meeting were Arthur W. Guy, University of Washington; Rochelle Medici, University of California, Los Angeles; and Fred Rosenbaum, Washington University. Thomas C. Rozzell, Office of Naval Research was also present at the meeting. Major actions of the Board were to appoint Elliot Postow as Editor-in-Chief for the journal, a position he held for ten years while establishing the journal as a first class scientific publication, and Tom Rozzell as Executive Director of the Society. The contract for the society's journal, Bioelectromagnetics, now in its 19th volume, was negotiated with Alan R. Liss Publishers by Tom Rozzell and Ernie Albert. Recruitment of society members was set to occur at the IMPI-IEEE-URSI Bioeffects Meeting in Ottawa, Canada, held in June 1978. The first meeting of the society was co-sponsored by the URSI Bioeffects Symposium in 1978 at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, in conjunction with the Antenna Propagation Society meeting. In June, 1979, the society held its first independent meeting in San Antonio, TX, with extensive help in local arrangements by John Mitchell and his staff at Brooks Air Force Base.

After an executive council meeting of the Society on May 30th, 1978, where the incorporation text was approved, the six founding members of the society soon thereafter signed the Articles of Incorporation and the papers were duly filed as a District of Columbia Non-profit Corporation. The founders, who met on the 23rd of February 1978, and on subsequent days leading to the creation of the Society, are: Thomas C. Rozzell, Edward L. Hunt, Ernest N. Albert, Carl F. Blackman, Allan Frey, and Saul W. Rosenthal. Ernest N. Albert and Saul W. Rosenthal are deceased.