Scoville, Dr. Herbert

Interviewer: Paul Rebillard
Place of Interview: his home
Date of Interview:
File No: 29 A & B Cycle:
Summary: H.Scoville mansion build 1911, rebuilt 1924, fire 1911, 1924, Maurice Firuski, WWII, Civil Defense, 1954 nuclear explosions, CIA, Arms control, Scoville Ore Bed, Housatunic bookshop

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

29A cover sheet

Interviewee: Dr. Herbert Scoville

Narrator:Paul Rebillard


Place of Interview: Dr. Scoville’s Home in Taconic

Date of Interview:Nov. 21, 1985

Summary of Talk: side A Background in Buffalo, N. Y. moved to Taconic late 1890’s built mansion, burned in 1911, built 2nd house on site, finished in 1911. 2 Aunts Grace & Edie bought house called Saucily Cottage, detailed account of 2nd mansion burning in 1924, house in Portugal, sister EIvia married Maurice Firuski, their daughter Arlena (Ollie), his education, marriage, PHD in chemistry, war work, Defense work after World War II, nuclear explosions of 1954 on Bikini, CIA & arms control, nuclear war possibility with Russia.

Side B: His children Tony, Thomas, Nicolas, Charles, Mary and their respective occupations, hopes for the future.

Oral History Project

Property of the Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library, Salisbury, Ct. 06068


This is Paul Rebillard speaking with Dr. Herbert Scoville on Nov. 21s’ in the afternoon in his home. Dr. Scoville is known nationally and probably internationally, but we here in Salisbury refer to Dr. Scoville as “Pete”. Many people know Pete, and love him very dearly. We’d love to get some of Pete’s recollections about his family and himself. With that I’ll turn it over to you, Pete. To begin with tell whatever you know about your family, just proceed.

HS:As I was telling you Paul I know very little about era of our family and what happened when they

came here. They have been here a very long time. They were in the iron and steel business; particularly I know they were involved with the venture of the railroad wheels for railroad trains, as well as the iron works.

PR:This was in Buffalo?

HS:This was in Buffalo where my father was born. Of course I think even before that they had some

connections with iron mines up here halfway up the mountain.

PR:The Undermountain Road

HS:That’s right. Your father used to work…

PR:Yes, indeed he used to work up on the top of the mountain in the charcoal days, but there’s an

old mine which we call the Scoville Ore Bed which is still in back of Jack Fisher’s house.

HS:Yeah, I’ve seen it. It is interesting because that piece of land up there was sort of lost for a long

time. Jack Fisher sort of resurrected it, very nice


PR:And built a house there on Undermountain Road (across from North Beaver Dam Road Ed.)

HS:We had a piece of that land ourselves.

PR:Now we have your family coming to the town of Salisbury. Where did they first live when they

came to Salisbury?


PR:Was your grandfather not Nathaniel Church Scoville

HS:Yes, that’s right.

PR:Did they not live inthe old Fisher house on Route 41?

HS:It is quite possible.I really don’t know. They built a big house down here at the bottom of the

hill in Taconic. They were down on Taconic by the Taconic Falls? That house burned down in 19111 think it was. That’s where I really started my living; I wasn’t born in 1911 but in 1914. That house had been the family house; I don’t know how well they lived there, but I know they lived there at least 10 or 15 years. I think it was probably a lot longer than that, so it starts right at the turn of the century that


that house was being lived in. My uncle was alone in the house the night it burned down. Do you remember that story? The rest of the family was in New York. They were living in a house in New York.

PR:I think you have a large family of aunts and you have the one uncle.

HS:That’s right. There were five, let’s see, Ed had one brother and he had four sisters; Laurie

McChesney whom you know, Lois Walling, then there’s Aunt Grace who is the oldest, and Aunt Edie.

PR:Aunt Edie whom everyone knows.

HS:Whom everybody knows. Aunt Grace and Aunt Edie never married. They used to live here in

the summer and New York in the winter. After the big house at the bottom of the hill burned down in 1911, around that time Aunt Edie bought that place down at the entrance of this road. It was called Saucily (?) Cottage. (16 Taconic Road Ed.)

PR:Yes, Indeed.

HS:Not too far from where you live. My grandmother was still alive at that point, and she lived

there with Aunt Edie and Aunt Grace. Actually her sister lived there at some time with her as well. My grandmother’s name was Wasson. Her sister…

PR:Wasson? W-A-S-S-O-N?

HS:Wasson, yes. Her sister was named Mary, Mary Wasson, Aunt Mary, but she was quite old now.

I remember we used to stop by on Sunday afternoons to see the two of them and Aunt Edie.

PR:Now the house down at the foot of the hill was the earliest house built in the village here in

Taconic, and that burned. Now then your father and mother built a house on the site of this present house.

HS:That’s right and that was also built in 1911.

PR:Oh was it built in 1911?

HS:Yeah, it was finished in 1911, I guess. That’s where they…That was also a very large house, but it

wasn’t a particularly attractive house; red brick and tall and had battlements on it and that kind of thing. They never really were very fond of it. They lived in it when they were not in New York. They lived in New York…

PR:at 37 East 68th Street.

HS:That’s right.

PR:Now this house that your mother and father built also burned.


HS:That’s right. That burned down in 1924, and I remember that very well because we were just

about to go to Europe to spend the winter in Europe. I was going to go away to school there, so this house was empty except that Harry Smith and his wife were the caretakers. They were in the back end of the house, and my sister Elvia and I were staying down the road at what was then the Pierce’s house which is now Mr. Richardson’s house. Since the house wasn’t open, my sister and I were staying down at the Whitridges’ house, which was then the Pierce’s house for two or three days before we went to Europe.

PR:You were really young at that point.

HS:I was 10 years old.

PR:Elvia was two…


PR:Elvia was three years older. Well that brings us up to that one amusing thing about…

HS:Not amusing, really. We were staying in that the night this house that was up here burned

down. We were woken up in the middle of the night by fire engines going by the front door. So we all said,” Let’s go see the fire.” We got dressed and got in the car and drove up this way, and suddenly we found out it was our own house.

PR:As I recall Harry Smith and his wife were fortunate to awakened and get out.

HS:Yes, that’s right. Part of the house where they were living, well it actually burned down, but the

smoke level must have been very high because the imprint of their faces on the pillow was very clear while they were still asleep. The fire was discovered by somebody going down the road, who came up and yelled apparently tried to get somebody up, but they didn’t hear him. So he went down to the gate house where Mr. Otis was living. They got him up and he knew that the Smiths were in the house and he also knew where they were living. After he called the fire engines, he came back up here and got them out of bed. But they were mighty lucky. After that my mother & father rebuilt a house, this present house. It was built here in 1925 and 1926. We lived in a little portable house while this was being built.

PR:down by the tennis court.

HS:That’s right. You know a lot about this.

PR:Well, I do have a lot of recollections. Your mother was Arlena Zabriskie. ‘ ”*

HS:She lived and was born and brought up in Brooklyn. She went to catholic school and then Smith

College. She married…well they were married in 1911, I guess. My mother graduated in 1908 from Smith. Well, maybe it was 1910.


PR:And a lovely dark haired lady.

HS:She was a marvelous person: tremendous interests and she liked to travel.

In 1933 or 1934 my mother was over there in Europe in Portugal; she was visiting friends. She liked the place so much she got my father to come over, and they looked around for a place to buy in Portugal. They did eventually, not right away but eventually, buy a place in Portugal called Baka Yola, which was an old palace that was in ruins, sort of falling down in ruins. Just after they bought it, my father was over there, and he died in Portugal before they actually moved in to this place.

PR:Well I know I had said good-bye to him at the train when they left for Portugal and never saw

him again.

HS:So mother made the rebuilding of that Portuguese place her life’s work, and she didn’t spend so

much time in Salisbury. She always liked Salisbury; she didn’t care much for New York.

PR:So Pete you have one sister.

HS:Yes, she was three years older that I.

PR:Her name was Elvia.

HS:She married Maurice Firuski who ran the Housatonic Book Shop in Salisbury. They had one

daughter who was named Arlena after her grandmother, better known as Ollie. It sort of comes full circle when my Aunt Edie died, Ollie, my niece, bought that house from the estate and was living there, and has lived there ten years or so. That same old house is…

PR:That’s very interesting, isn’t it? Well, Pete, I’d like you to touch upon what little of your life

you had here in Taconic, but mainly on your education.

HS:We always used to come up here to Taconic for the summer and usually vacations as well even

before the house burned down. Afterwards when this house was built, we gave up on New York and sold the house in New York and made this the headquarters. I remember this house when it was being built; we were living in a portable house down by where the tennis court was. While they were building the house, I used to come up and help work on the place. I think when I say help I was more of a nuisance, but I pretended that I was helping. I saw it being constructed.

PR:You saw it go up; anyway that was the main thing.

HS:As far as that house was finished, I went to school in New York, but that was part of the main

reason why the family kept on something in New York, as a basis while I was going to school. About the school in New York, I went to the Buckley School in New York until I was 13, at 14 I went away to Andover and in between I was tutored here in the house. I spend the whole winter up here; the house had just been finished in 1927. In the fall of 1928 I went off to Andover and went there for four years to school. The reason I didn’t go to Hotchkiss was that I knew everybody at Hotchkiss and it would not


have been like going away. We quite wisely decided that I should go farther afield. So after going to Andover for four years, I got very much interested in science, and I went to Yale in 1933.1 spent four years there getting a Bachelor’s Degree majoring in Chemistry. The last two years while I was still in college, I met Ann Curtiss who lived in Norfolk, and she was only seventeen in 1937.

PR:So you met Ann when she was 17; that was a little bit young to marry her.

HS:I did marry her when she was 17.

PR:Oh you did marry her when she was 17.

HS:I met her when she was 15. We got married just after I graduated from Yale in 1937. Then I

went we both went to Cambridge, England, for two years supposedly to get a PhD in chemistry. But the war broke out in the middle of that. We couldn’t get back to Cambridge; we would have liked to participate in some war activities, but we came back here. In the winter of 1940 Tony, our oldest boy was born. Then I went to the University of Rochester to try to finish off my degree in chemistry with them because the professor at the University of Rochester had been doing work with me, the person I had been working with at Cambridge was at Rochester. We had a lovely time at Cambridge, but it was time to get back home here.

PR:So you received your doctorate here?

HS:So I received my doctorate actually here from the University of Rochester. Not until 1942. Also

simultaneously I went to work on a government contract with the University of Rochester, working on improving gas masks against chemical warfare. I did that for about four years at the University of Rochester on this government project. I was trying to make gas masks using charcoal (as a filter) more efficient than when the war started. I did some other things, but I also got my degree so it worked out very well for everybody. After that I, I don’t know how much you want?

PR:I want all that I can get.

HS:After that I went first out to Utah where they were testing chemicals, and when I went down to

Fort Pierce in Florida, where they had a project during the war trying to develop ways of using smoke to protect amphibious landings and to protect anchorages because they were taking a terrible beating from the Kamikaze pilots. I worked for a couple of years until the end of the war on the use of smoke and also on the use of DDT to control insects in the Pacific. Then after the war I had not gotten into the business at all. In 1946 I joined the Task Force which was set up to test two nuclear explosives at Bikini. That was my initiation into the nuclear weapons business. I was put in charge of correlating all of the data from the monitoring that was done out there from the fallout activity in the soil and on the ships and that sort of thing. I stayed with that particular work moving over from-—and paid by what was then the Atomic Energy Commission, but really I was working for the Defense Department in 1948, when they moved me over to Civil Service Defense Department; again just studying the effects of nuclear explosions


which I did until 1955. I had one very interesting experience in 1954 when they had the biggest shot that the United States had ever set off, so called Bravo explosion which actually was about 15 megatons. I was out there at the time; it was not part of the Task Force, but I was out there as an observer because I had frequently worked at doing experiments there.

PR:Was this in the Pacific?

HS:Yes this was in the Pacific.

PR:Was this part of the Marshall Islands?

HS:Yes, it was part of the Pacific Proving ground testing area. The actual explosions took place on

the Pikinni Atoll and actually on Bikini itself, (various interruptions)

PR:Could you tell me Pete when you saw these tremendous explosions, would you tell me how you


HS:It gives you a tremendous feeling of awe. It is so large and so…It is bigger than anything you can

imagine. It just gives you…I don’t know how many times I’ve seen many, many, many nuclear explosions, but each time you see it, it gives you a new feeling of awe and respect for what the dangers are…

PR:Also fear

HS:Yes, exactly.

PR:Also fear. Does this account for the position you’ve taken in your writings, your speeches all

over the country?

HS:Well, it should, some. It certainly gave me a healthy respect for nuclear explosions. Perhaps the

classic example of that was this in the in 1954 when the wind blew in the opposite direction than what had been predicted, and it blew the radioactive fallout back on some islands where there were natives and the Air Force weather unit, and so they had to quickly run in with some ships and take off the natives and this weather unit. But when they took them off, they didn’t have any instruments to…they just got them out of there as fast as they could so there was no measurement of what the exposures were that they had. Since I didn’t have any other job, I was given a destroyer and another fellow and I went down to these islands after they had all been evacuated and went ashore and measured the level of activity. From that level we could make a rough calculation as to what exposure they had. It turned out that where the natives were which was about 110 miles from Ground Zero, that they would probably have been exposed to between 100 and 200 microrems which is enough to make you sick, but not quite enough to kill you. So they were very, very lucky.

PR:So you got them out in time.


HS:They got them out in time. When we made the measurements, we also went to some of the

other atolls which were not inhabited, or lived in, and on that same atoll just 10 miles farther north, about the same distance from where the bomb went off, we calculated that that they would have gotten 5,000 microrems, and everybody would have been killed. So they were extremely lucky; another one degree change in the wind and they would have all lost.

PR:As I recall…

HS:But that gave me a healthy respect for the dangers of nuclear war and the dangers of nuclear

weapons. So that in 1955 I went to the CIA where I looked at Soviet programs in this area at the start. In the process of doing that work, one of the important functions was to backstop arms control negotiations because unless you know the nature of the threat is and what the other side has, you don’t know what kind of an agreement is in your interests. Furthermore you have to have good intelligence in order to be able to verify it when an agreement is reached. So while I was at the CIA, I spent a fair amount of time on the whole arms control side of the problem trying to improve our government’s capabilities for.

PR:Do you think at this time that our government’s intelligence is sufficient to perhaps give us a

good picture of what the Soviet Union is doing? And what the possibilities are?

HS:Certainly in terms of knowing their major military activities, we have very good information, but

we don’t necessarily know what they intend to do with it, but we do know what they have and what they don’t have. We have very good data thanks to satellites which could take pictures of the entire Soviet Union if we wanted to within 24 hours.

PR:Which we do, Pete?

HS:Which we do from time to time, and in addition to that we don’t always try to do it in one day

because it is better to do it slowly, but manage to see something that is interesting, we have another kind of camera system that will zoom in and get a close-up, potentially close-up pictures, so you can make measurements of whatever it is you are looking at, and trying to make sure you know what you saw in the general surveillance.

PR:So it is quite generally known that we each have enough of these horrible things to completely

destroy the world, probably many times over. Do you think it is possible that these things will ever be used, Pete?

HS:Well, it certainly is possible. I hope it never will because if they do it could possibly be the end

of us as a civilization even if it starts out small, and one bomb is used, chances of stopping it at that point are very, very low. Nobody knows how to stop a war like that once it starts. I think there would be a tendency, or at least you’d have a high probability, it would escalate into an all-out nuclear war which would essentially mean the end of civilization as we know it today.


PR:Knowing that and the Russians know that just as well as we do, don’t you think the chances of

this happening are rather small?

HS:Well, I hope they are. I agree with you that the Russians know these dangerous effects, too. So

in this particular area lots of things are in competition with the Soviet Union. But in this particular area we have a very strong common interest that is to avoid a nuclear war. What we should be doing is playing on that interest and taking advantage of it and trying to limit these new weapon systems, but we don’t seem to be doing that. What’s happening is that usually with the United States in the lead, we got ahead on their new high technology weapons which in the long run decrease our security rather than increase our security.

PR:At the same time we’re doing this, the Russians are doing it also.

HS:That’s right. Each one zigzagging back and forth, it’s a race which beings no one any security,

and only makes it more likely that we will be involved in a nuclear conflict which would be a disaster.

PR:Is there any way the American people can appeal to not only to our leaders, but to the leaders

of the Soviet Union to…

HS:It is not very easy. There are ways to try to influence the Soviet leaders. We do try, and I went

there once myself. There are these exchange groups of scientists and others, political scientists and physicists, in which each one tries to get across to the other side what the dangers are and secondly what steps are making it more likely that nuclear war will occur, so we can work together to avoid it. These are informal kinds of contacts, quite apart from the negotiating tasks.

PR:But there is no way that we can assure the Russians that we are not going to explode this first


HS:There is no way we can assure them, and unfortunately the President of the administration

doesn’t want to assure them and feels that threatening them is the way to get the Russians to back down. I personally don’t believe that is the way.

PR:But have not all of our presidents said, “We will not be the first to…”

HS:No, they have not. It is a US policy to keep the option open to use nuclear weapons first.

PW: First?

HS:And has been ever since the thing came up…

PR:I don’t think that is generally understood, Pete.

HS:I know it isn’t. People forget we have insisted on keeping the option open to use nuclear

weapon force. The argument for this is that we needed it because they had superiority in


conventional weapons. But resting our future on the use for nuclear weapons is, to me, just absolutely blind. It is a clear cut way in which we can all get ourselves destroyed.

PR:Thank you Pete, we’ve just about finished the tape but I want to turn it over and get just a few

more of your remarks on the other side if you will.

Side B:

HS:We come back up here to Taconic every opportunity we have, as do our children. Our children

love this place, and they come whether we are here or not. At the moment three members of our family are living in Washington. The actual children I have are Tony, or Anthony, who is the oldest, and he is now living in Washington. For a while he did work in Congress as a staff person for the House Science and Technology Committee, but when Mr. Reagan came in, he lost that job. The second son is called Thomas, and he got a PHD from MIT on Political Science. He was always interested in history, but not scientifically technical, but he is very much interested in political science. He worked for the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency all during the previous, during the Carter Administration, as a special assistance to the Director. He was a director of something called the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control which advised the President. Tommy was the staff man who ran that organization for a year; no, he ran it for about two. He also lost his job as soon as the Reagan Administration came in. But he started free lancing, and is now working in the National Maritime Commission which is a lobbying group in Washington. He also still takes a very active part in writing speeches and articles on the whole arms control area in which he still has a major interest. Then the third son is Nicolas, and he, at the moment, is a Professor of Astronomy, a Master of Physics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But now as of January he had been given a professorship at the California Institute of Technology. He will begin that job in January, so he will be moving out to the West coast. So he’s just cleaning up things in Amherst.

PR:So your sons at least have certainly inherited your scientific bent, Pete.

HS:Yes, except Charlie here who is in a different kind of science. He has no trouble with


PR:That’s still a science.

HS:That’s still a science, but it is not my kind of science, except that I am doing that kind of stuff


PR:And your daughter.

HS:Finally my daughter Molly, her name is Mary, has always been interested in the theater. She’s

got quite a few years of acting in small companies never on Broadway; summer stock as well as Off Broadway theaters in New York. Then she got involved with an organization called the Chamber Opera


Theater, where instead of being in the acting side of it, she is in the management side and is involved actually in helping raise money for this opera theater which got very good reviews and is well thought of in New York City. Last spring or last summer she decided that she really wanted to break away from the theater. She is now in Washington starting college, doing basic courses at George Washington University. She hopes to get a bachelor’s degree because she never really went to college.

PR:That’s great; that’s wonderful, Pete. This has been very nice of you Pete to do this today.

HS:That’s alright.

PR:I hate to impose upon you but I’d like if you will to sum up your wishes and your hopes

regarding the danger of the nuclear holocaust which hovers over us all the time. Would you sum up your advice and your prayers and your wishes in this respect?

HS:My feeling is that we’ve just got to face up to it that nuclear weapons do not serve any military

purpose. If you ever use nuclear weapons, then you have lost because it would be such a disaster for all concerned. We just can’t allow a nuclear war to start. It is my hope that politically on both sides of the Atlantic, the Russians and ourselves, and our allies will recognize this truth and at last stop trying to race each other as to who can have the latest new weapon system. I think it can be done, and I think one of the most encouraging things has been the tremendous public outpouring of concern about this problem, the so called Freeze Movement which they passed a very positive which is to get rid of resolution here in Salisbury. But it extends all over the countryside. For the first time the people of this country have a vote against this concept that political leaders have which is to get more weapons and think we are safer, and threatening to use those weapons. That is just the wrong approach. My hope is that the message the people are trying to send to our political leaders will be taken seriously and somehow or other we’ll avoid nuclear war.

PR:Thank you very much, Pete.