First Advisor

Richard H. Beyler

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Willard F. Libby, Radiocarbon dating, Archaeology -- United States -- Methodology -- History -- 20th century, Frederick Johnson -- 1904-1994



Physical Description

1 online resource (iv, 132 p.)


Willard Libby's development of carbon-14 dating at the University of Chicago immediately following World War II provided an unprecedented opportunity for the collaboration of archaeologists with a physical chemist. Libby's need for archaeological samples to test the dating process (1947-1951) meant that he relied upon the Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14, formed by the American Anthropological Association, for datable materials, as well as for assistance in all other archaeologically related aspects of the testing phase. The committee, under the leadership of archaeologist Frederick Johnson, served the mandated function of providing assistance to Libby, but simultaneously endeavored to utilize the new dating method to promote the development of the authority of anthropological professional organizations and further establish Americanist archaeology in a national and global context. Johnson's and the committee's approach to collaboration was informed by an understanding of opportunities provided by the postwar restructuring of the sciences. The purpose of the present study is to provide a history of the Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14 (1948-1952) as well as a to provide the context necessary to describe the bureaucratic and scientific goals of the committee. Frederick Johnson's career, and the manner in which it reflected general trends in twentieth century American anthropology, is discussed in detail, and utilized to present an explanation of his actions as committee chair. Willard Libby's development of carbon-14 dating is also discussed in detail, particularly in regard to his request for assistance from the archaeological community and subsequent collaborative work. The undeniable influence of carbon-14 dating on archaeological practice worldwide, and Libby's acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1960) for his development of the dating method, has provided reason enough for a plethora of articles and book length studies regarding carbon-14 dating. Yet, little has been written about the Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14 and its place in an analysis of the bureaucratic and collaborative science of the American mid-century. It is for this reason that the present study was undertaken.


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Portland State University. Dept. of History

Persistent Identifier