Brian O'Brien

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Brian O'Brien
Brian O' Brien.jpg
Portrait of Brian O' Brien
Born (1898-01-02)January 2, 1898[1]
Denver, Colorado
Died July 1, 1992(1992-07-01) (aged 94)
Woodstock, Connecticut[2]
Residence U.S.
Nationality Irish
Institutions Westinghouse Electric Co
J.N. Adam Memorial hospital
University of Rochester
Institute of optics
Office of Scientific Research and Development
National Geographic U.S. Army Air Corps
Alma mater Yale Sheffield /w additional course work at MIT & Harvard
Known for Night vision / Metascope,[3]
fiber optics,[3]
wide-film / screen projection [4]
Notable awards The Medal of Merit

Brian O'Brien, Ph.D. was an optical physicist and "the founder of the Air Force Studies Board and its chairman for 12 years.[5] Dr. O'Brien received numerous awards, including the Medal for Merit, the nation's highest civilian award, for his work on optics in World War II and the Frederic Ives Medal in 1951. Circa 1966 he "chaired an ad hoc committee under the USAF Science Advisory Board (AFSAB) looking into the UFO problem".[6] He also had steering power over National Academy of Sciences (NAS) projects, Project Blue Book, and helped pave the way for the Condon Committee.[7][8]

Early years[edit]

"Brian O' Brien was born in Denver, Colorado in 1898 to Michael Phillip and Lina Prime O' Brien. His education started in the Chicago Latin School from 1909–1915, and continued at the Yale Sheffield scientific school where he earned a Ph.B. in 1918 and a Ph.D. in 1922. He also did course work at MIT and Harvard.

In 1922 he married Ethel Cornelia Dickerman and they had one son, Brian, Jr. After Ethel Cornelia died, he married a second time to Mary Nelson Firth in 1956.

He was a research engineer at Westinghouse Electric Co. from 1922 to 1923. During this period he developed, along with Joseph Slepian, the auto-valve lightning arrester, which is still in use.

In 1923 he moved to J. N. Adam Memorial hospital in Perrysburg, N.Y., a tuberculosis sanitarium run by Buffalo's Public Health Department. Prior to the use of antibiotics, the primary treatment for tuberculosis was fresh air and sunshine. There was some evidence that sun tanning did help in the remission of the disease, but Perrysburg—40 miles south of Buffalo—had very little sunshine in the winter. Therefore, O'Brien, as a physicist on staff, developed a carbon arcs with cored carbons that very closely matched the solar spectrum. With this development the patients could have sun therapy year-round. Due to a general interest in biological effects of solar radiation, he published some of the early work on the ozone layer and erythema caused by the sun.

O'Brien moved to the University of Rochester in 1930 to hold the chair of physiological optics. Shortly thereafter he became the director of the Institute of Optics. His continuing interest in the biological effects of solar radiation led to research in vitamin chemistry. The need for vitamin D, especially in the diet of children, had been recognized for preventing rickets. At that time there was no synthetic vitamin D, but the dehydrocholesterol in milk can be converted to vitamin D by radiation with ultraviolet light. The carbon arcs developed at Perrysburg were an ideal source of ultraviolet, but for proper irradiation, the milk had to be in a very thin film. ... A film of high enough flow volume for commercial application was produced, and vitamin D-fortified milk became widespread."[9]

War and peace: 1940 - 1953[edit]

"By the end of 1940, The Institute of Optics was already involved with optical problems for government agencies; by the end of the academic year 1941-42, it was becoming more and more deeply involved."[10] At the time the Institute was dealing with a spike in number of students and attempted to tailor the curriculum for military usefulness. O' Brien's right-hand man was R.E. Hopkins, a young instructor with a B.S. from MIT who had just received his MS from the Institute of Optics, helping with lens design and geometrical optics.

The National Defense Research council became involved with the Institute December 1942 and continued the relationship until January 1946. They were looking for someone to make infrared sensitive phosphors. Franz Urbach, an escaped Viennese expert, was working in the physics department and was quietly transferred to the Institute of Optics to help develop the "metascopes" for night vision.

It was in relation to this work, in 1948, that Albert Noyes and Brian O' Brien were awarded The Medal of Merit by President Harry S. Truman, the highest civilian award given by government.

In a report sent to President Valentine, Dr. O' Brien estimated that the Institute had "spent" about one million dollars for the war effort "including overhead allowances to the University."[11] There was also a marked increase in undergraduate students during this time period. Recognizing his own personal research involvement O' Brien decided to no longer accept graduate students. The Institute emerged from the war a little brighter and a little less worse for wear. However the school still had a very small faculty, "only one full-time professor and a few junior faculty."[12] Despite this limitation "five master's degrees and two Ph.D.s were awarded to students already enrolled."[12]

In his '47 report, O'Brien pointed out the number of government and industry requests made for the Institute to conduct research. He enjoyed the projects, but recognized the research would get in the way of "quality teaching ... and that fair balance must be achieved."[13] He decided he was much more interested "guiding research and advanced degree students than in the tiresome details of undergraduate instruction."[13]

M. Parker Givens, a Cornell Ph.D, joined the Institute during this growth spurt. This permitted an increase in students. "Fourteen, he said, should be graduating, in 1948, and the total student enrollment was 53, about equally divided through the classes." [13]

One of the hallmark innovations developed following the war was a camera with a six-inch f/1 lens for night aerial work, "giving excellent definition over a curved surface, the film being curved by compressed air between the lens and film."[13] Another, first described at a meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers in 1949, was a high-speed camera, "used for observations at the Bikini bomb test, later much improved to make rapid sequences of pictures at speeds up to 20 million frames per second."[13]


  1. ^ NRC 1988: pp. 152
  2. ^ NAE 1994: pp. 161
  3. ^ a b NAE 1994: pp. 162
  4. ^ NAE 1994: pp. 163
  5. ^ NRC 1988: pp. 10
  6. ^ Druffel 2003: pp. 50
  7. ^ Barry, Greenwood (1997-01-22). "UFOs: Government Involvement, Secrecy, and Documents". Stoneham, Mass.: Project 1947. Archived from the original on 2008-12-22. Retrieved 2009-06-01. It was clear that the House committee wanted to see the Air Force implement the O'Brien Panel's recommendation that a university be contracted to do a major UFO study. Air Force Secretary Brown wasted no time after the House committee hearing and urged the Air Force Chief of Staff to begin such a program. 
  8. ^ Haines, Gerald (1997-01-01). "A Die-Hard Issue: CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-1990". CIA. Archived from the original on Jan 1, 1997. Retrieved 2010-03-24. At the same time that the CIA was conducting this latest internal review of UFOs, public pressure forced the Air Force to establish a special ad hoc committee to review BLUE BOOK, Chaired by Dr. Brian O' Brien, a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, the panel included Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer from Cornell University. Its report offered nothing new. It declared that UFOs did not threaten the national security and that it could find "no UFO case which represented technological or scientific advances outside of a terrestrial framework." The committee did recommend that UFOs be studied intensively, with a leading university acting as a coordinator for the project to settle the issue conclusively. 
  9. ^ Stroud 2004: pp. 58-59
  10. ^ Stroud 2004: pp. 43
  11. ^ Stroud 2004: pp. 44
  12. ^ a b Stroud 2004: pp. 45
  13. ^ a b c d e Stroud 2004: pp. 46


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