Tom Martin, Alabama Power and the founding of Southern Research

Tom Martin, Alabama Power and the founding of Southern Research
In its 75 years, Southern Research has done groundbreaking work and fulfilled the dream of its founding visionary, Tom Martin. (Southern Research)

Tom Martin, who served Alabama Power Company for over five decades in several leadership roles, loved the South and loved Alabama. He became president of the company after the death of James Mitchell in 1920.

Martin’s dream was well-known to those who knew him or read the newspapers. In his words, he wanted “to build up the South.” As much as he loved the South and appreciated history, he never looked back to the days of secession and Civil War, and he never mentioned the Confederacy. Martin was convinced that looking back was not the way for the South to move forward. He believed that the glory of the South was yet to come, and making the South successful would come from hard work and applied research. One of Martin’s favorite sayings was that “the last half of the 20th century belongs to the South,” and he was dedicated to making that come true.

Tom Martin (Southern Research)
Tom Martin, Alabama Power president and founder of Southern Research, envisioned a more dynamic South and dedicated himself to shepherding its development. (Southern Research)

Martin developed friendships with the state’s university professors who were doing some kind of research, although inadequately funded. In 1930, Professor Stewart J. Lloyd, dean of the School of Chemistry, Metallurgy and Ceramics at the University of Alabama, began advising U.S. Steel Corporation on the need for developing the chemical industry to support the Birmingham industrial area’s advancement. U.S. Steel owned the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which was the largest employer in Jefferson County. Lloyd suggested that more research in Alabama needed to be funded.

On March 29, 1940, when Dr. George D. Palmer retired as president of the Alabama Academy of Science, he gave a speech that reverberated across business interests in Alabama. He pointed to the lack of scientific research as holding the South back. Martin heard this speech, and he immediately began thinking about how a scientific research center in Alabama could be organized and how it could be supported by commitments from major industries, wealthy civic leaders and corporations in the state.

Martin was also influenced by Charles F. Kettering, an inventor and engineer, who insisted there was no mystery that could not be understood with the proper study, and that with time and organized research, almost anything was possible. Kettering said “the future is an immense storehouse of inventions and discoveries just waiting for someone to come along and unlock the door. … There are no terminal points in human progress. The story of our past accomplishments represents only the first page of the Book of Human Progress.”

Martin was inspired by the message. The Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, which was in Pittsburgh, gave Martin his best example, and he studied it closely.

Coming together

In October 1941, just weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II, leaders of Alabama industry and commerce came together under Martin’s leadership to organize the Alabama Research Institute.

The committee studied various research institutions across the nation, and on Oct. 9, 1941, the first meeting of the incorporators of Alabama Research Institute was held at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham. Although Alabama law required only 10 names, Martin wanted a strong show of support. The 78 signatures on the Oct. 9, 1941, charter that Martin’s brother, attorney Logan Martin, prepared for filing reads like a “Who’s Who” of Alabama’s corporate leadership.

Raising operational funds under wartime conditions prevented the institute from moving forward as quickly as Martin would have liked. From the beginning, he was committed to Alabama Power’s support of a research institute. He knew that his example would help bring others to join in financing the project. He announced that $250,000 should be raised over five years, and he pledged that Alabama Power would match any single commitment. Pledges of support also came from other Southern states. The State Chamber of Commerce in January 1942 established a committee under the leadership of Benjamin Russell of Alexander City, and state leaders went to work raising the money to fund a new research organization in Alabama.

Martin saw Alabama Power’s leadership of a research center as essential to the success of the campaign, and he also realized that it would be good for Alabama Power. He was in the business of producing and selling electricity, and he needed a South that was a dynamic region. With good-paying jobs, the South would attract more new industries, which would require more electricity. As the Southern people prospered, they would be able to purchase more electrical appliances for their homes, and those without power would be able to add electricity. Electricity also brought a health benefit to the area; refrigerators would preserve food better than ice boxes.

Enlarging the vision

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, complicated the organization of the institute, but it did not slow the commitment of the leaders nor shake their belief in the necessity of such an institute in Alabama. Martin never wavered, but energetically pushed toward his goal. Although one early called meeting failed because there was a lack of a quorum to do business, Martin made certain that it did not happen again.

A model of the planned Southern Research campus in Birmingham. (Southern Research)
A model of the planned Southern Research campus in Birmingham. (Southern Research)

However, as the leaders went about raising money for the Alabama Research Institute to begin its work, they soon realized that such a center should not be named for one state. Supporters and contributors were found across the South. The research that the institute would pursue would cross state lines. As World War II inched toward an Allied victory, the Alabama Research Institute was functioning, for a while mostly on paper.

More war industries were being constructed hastily across the South. With peace, these new plants needed new missions. The supporters of the Alabama Research Institute were already envisioning these facilities being changed to peacetime use. For many reasons, there was strong support for a new name, one that better reflected the institute’s mission. On May 4, 1944, the institute’s Board of Trustees amended the charter and changed the name to the Southern Research Institute.

Martin lived for another two decades, and continued his active support for the Southern Research Institute. On Dec. 7, 1964, at the age of 83, Martin suffered a heart attack and died the following day as he was dressing at the hospital to attend a Southern Research Dinner.

Southern Research Oncology Research from Southern Research on Vimeo.

The legacy: improving lives

Seventy-five years have passed since the Alabama Research Institute became a working and viable organization contributing research that benefited not only the South but the entire nation and the world.

Now known as Southern Research, its facilities and laboratories have expanded from a large house on Twentieth Street South in Birmingham to a headquarters of several buildings nestled in the hillsides of Birmingham’s Southside. Additional laboratories and offices are in Wilsonville and Huntsville, Frederick, Md., Durham, N.C., Cartersville, Ga., and Houston.

Southern Research founder and Alabama Power chief Tom Martin at a luncheon at the Thomas Jefferson Hotel in Birmingham on Nov. 2, 1950. (Southern Research)
Southern Research founder and Alabama Power president Tom Martin at a luncheon at the Thomas Jefferson Hotel in Birmingham on Nov. 2, 1950. (Southern Research)

In its early years, Martin supported the institute as it improved the technology of the heat pump, which benefited the rural South where air conditioning was desirable in the hot summers and where electricity was available but there was no natural gas for heating in winter.

Today, nearly 500 scientists and engineers focus on discovering and developing drugs, engineering, and energy and the environment. Southern Research lays claim to having developed 20 drugs, including seven FDA-approved cancer drugs. The institute is developing other drugs to battle cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other diseases. It is working on new medical devices, helping to send a manned mission to Mars, making the air and water cleaner on Earth, and protecting our soldiers from harm.

History is important for people to pause and look back, and understand how their world evolved, appreciate how institutions were founded, supported and developed, and recognize how men and women assumed leadership roles that make our world a better place. Tom Martin’s role in establishing the Alabama Research Institute 75 years ago is a textbook example of that.


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