Established in 1944 as the first independent scientific research center in the Southeast, the Southern Research Institute's scientists and researchers have played important roles in such diverse areas as cancer research and the Space Shuttle program. The institute was conceived in 1930 when Herbert C. Ryding, president of Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company and chair of the Birmingham Industrial Board, asked Stewart J. Lloyd, dean at the University of Alabama, to study the potential of developing a chemical industry in Alabama. In his report, "Chemical Survey of the Birmingham District," Lloyd examined potential resources and opportunities and identified areas of research that ranged from chemicals for paper-manufacturing plants to insecticides and fertilizers.
Lloyd's recommendations languished until 1940, when George D. Palmer, outgoing president of the Alabama Academy of Science, noted in an address how far behind the South was in scientific research. Only two years earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had singled out the Southeast as a major drain on the U.S. economy. Palmer mentioned Lloyd's recommendation for an industrial research organization to the attending group of prominent business and university leaders, and as a result they organized the Southern Association of Science and Industry. Within a year, the state chamber of commerce had formed a committee to plan a research initiative, and its members quickly drafted a charter for the new Alabama Research Institute.
Southern Research was officially chartered on October 11, 1941. At a November 18 meeting, the members elected 27 trustees and four officers, with entrepreneur and land developer Benjamin Russell named as chair. The following month, however, Russell died, and Alabama Power Company CEO Thomas Martin took his place.
The outbreak of World War II delayed the activities of both the association and the Alabama Research Institute. Thomas Martin gave numerous speeches to various organizations around the South promoting the Institute. On May 4, 1944, the Alabama Research Institute's Board of Trustees voted to change the name to the Southern Research Institute to reflect a more regional focus, and on June 15 the board formally voted to amend the charter and by-laws. By this time, Southern Research had also gained non-profit, tax-exempt status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In August, the institute moved to a two-acre hilltop property in Birmingham.
When the institute opened, the South lagged behind other areas of the country in many areas of research. Between 1934 and 1943, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded 388,152 patents. Of that total, only 2.9 percent (10,825 patents) were to people in southeastern states, and only 2.2 percent (983) of the nation's research scientists were employed in the South. Alabama scientists held only 1,013 patents, and industry employed only 188 research workers.
Wilbur A. Lazier, a former chemist with DuPont, served as the institute's first director. By September 1945, Lazier had assembled some 20 scientists and garnered $250,000 worth of sponsored projects. For example, a machine that mimicked cigarette smoking tested ingredients in a brand for Larus and Brother Company against six of the best-selling brands of the day. Other early research projects included a contract from the National Peanut Council to develop a method for peanut butter homogenization. Early government contracts were secured in chemical defense and aeronautics. Additionally, Southern Research began a $2.5 million building campaign, adding eight laboratories, a library, and offices for the director and business staff. The management converted an outbuilding into the laboratories for metallurgical research and a nearby commercial building into a facility for engineering research. By May 1946, the library contained some 2,000 volumes.
Southern Research continued to win contracts and increase its workforce throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. By November 1947, Southern Research had 41 active projects producing an income of $320,000. A staff of 80, including 49 scientists, worked in five buildings. The research campus also expanded dramatically with funds from local businesspeople and the federal government. Institute scientists collaborated with their peers at several other research institutions, including the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. In 1999, Southern Research established a formal affiliation with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to streamline existing collaborations between the two institutions. Southern Research is still headquartered in Birmingham, but it has expanded to include branches in Anniston and Wilsonville, Alabama; Frederick, Maryland; Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
In addition to its six FDA-approved cancer drugs now on the market, Southern Research has also screened more than 80 percent
of all other FDA-approved cancer drugs and roughly 75 percent of all FDA-approved anti-viral drugs. Southern Research scientists
also continue to work in the areas of materials science, environmental and energy-related research, modeling and simulation,
noise and vibration testing and systems development. Because of the engineering division's specialized capabilities in extreme
temperature materials testing, Southern Research is also currently involved in defense, manned-space flight, and the development
of the new James Webb Space Telescope. The organization was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2005.
Goodrich, Gillian. Southern Research Institute: An Oral History. Birmingham, Ala.: Southern Research Institute, 1991.
Graves, John Temple. History of Southern Research Institute. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Publishing Company, 1955.
A. J. Wright
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published August 13, 2008
Last updated July 3, 2013