Conant, J. B. (1893–1978)

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CONANT, J. B. (18931978)

Twenty-third president of Harvard University, James Bryant Conant witnessed many defining moments of twentieth-century American history. He was intimately involved with transformational events: World War I, as president of Harvard University, the initial formation of federal science policy, the development of the atomic bomb in World War II, the cold war and the postwar atomic energy policy (including opposition to the H-bomb), the reconstruction of Europe, and the reconsideration of public education in the United States. His autobiography is aptly titled My Several Lives, and he moved with remarkable ease through lives in academic, scientific, governmental, and diplomatic circles.

Conant was born in Dorchester (Suffolk County), Massachusetts, to James Scott Conant and Jennett Orr Bryant. His father had served the Union in the Civil War, owned an engraving and etching business, and speculated in real estate and residential construction. Conant could trace his lineage back to the ships immediately following the Mayflower on his mother's side and to the founding of Salem on his father's.

In his own words, Conant was raised by "a regiment of women," including his mother, several aunts and cousins, and his two elder sisters. Both parents were members of the Swedenborgian Church, an organization devoted to exploring the entwinement of religion, nature, and life. His mother's interest in the church waned, however, and Conant later referred to himself as a Unitarian.


Conant attended the Roxbury Latin School, a college preparatory school that required a rigorous entrance examination for admission. At home, he nurtured his budding interest in science in general and chemistry in particular by practicing magic tricks and doing experiments in his small laboratory equipped by his father. At Roxbury, his career was solidified by his relationship with science teacher Newton Henry Black. Black guided Conant through the high school science curriculum, and then exposed him to more advanced texts and techniques, including college entrance exams. Conant's performance in high school earned him the Harvard Club Scholarship and graduation in 1910 near the top of his class of twenty-one students.

Conant graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in three years and managed to find enough time away from the classroom and laboratory to write for the Harvard Crimson, join Delta Upsilon, and develop a friendship with his rooming house neighbor, novelist J. P. Marquand. Conant's graduate school plans included study with physical chemist Theodore W. Richards, the first American-born winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. In his third year of undergraduate studies, he did some special research with organic chemist E. P. Kohler, a new arrival to Harvard from Johns Hopkins University. This project resulted in Conant's becoming Kohler's graduate assistant in advanced organic chemistry for two years. Ultimately, Conant wrote a double thesis in physical and organic chemistry for his Ph.D. degree in 1916.

War Work

The outbreak of World War I in Europe prevented Conant from realizing his dream of postdoctoral study in Germany. However, in the summer of 1916 Roger Adams left the Harvard faculty, and Conant was selected to fill this vacancy in the chemistry department faculty. At the close of the 1916 through 1917 academic year, Conant joined the United States Bureau of Mines, which was soon absorbed by the Department of Defense as the Chemical Warfare Service. World War I would be remembered as the "chemist's war," primarily due to the use of poison gas warfare initiated by the German army against the French in 1915. Conant worked on gas warfare projects in laboratories at American University in Washington, D.C., the largest federally funded scientific research project to that date.

Newly commissioned Lieutenant Conant immediately went to work on mustard gas and then on a more toxic and easily deliverable gas, lewisite. In July 1918 the Army promoted Conant to the rank of major and placed him in charge of a lewisite production facility at an automobile factory in Cleveland. The gas was a weapon intended to be used offensively, but it was never employed. Significantly, the chemist's war connected chemistry to society through demonstration of its applied uses, and allowed Conant to associate with the leaders of government, the military, business, higher education, and administration who would shape the remainder of his career.

Academic Career

In September 1919, following demobilization of the war effort, Conant returned to Harvard with an appointment as assistant professor of chemistry, and in 1921 married Grace T. (Patty) Richards, daughter of T. W. Richards, his department chair and mentor. Conant's early research focused on the areas of mechanisms of chemical reactions, equilibrium-rate studies, and free radical structure. His later research interests centered on respiratory pigments and the properties of hemoglobin and other natural products, especially chlorophyll. He was promoted to associate professor, granted tenure in 1924, and elevated to full professor in 1927. During this period, he and his wife had two sons.

In 1931, Conant was named the Shelden Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry and accepted the department chairmanship. Awards and honors accumulated as Conant was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science and the National Academy of Science. His research won him the Nichols Medal of the American Chemical Society and the Chandler Medal of Columbia University, among others. Between 1919 and 1933 he wrote or coauthored five chemistry textbooks, including his first, Practical Chemistry (1920), written with his former Roxbury science teacher, Newton H. Black.

The Conants made three significant sabbatical trips, two to California and one to Germany. In 1924 they spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1927 a semester at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. There, contacts with western scientific leaders A. A. Noyes and Robert A. Millikan would not only prove valuable later during World War II, they resulted in a lucrative offer to move to Pasadena to join the faculty there. In 1925, Conant, Patty, and their son, Jimmy, spent nine months in Germany, where Conant was exposed to the fast-paced scientific competition among individuals and institutions alike. Much of what he learned of science and scientific administration in Germany would be applied to his own administrative practices. He and his biographers characterized his persona as science itself, with all the characterization implied: the scientific method, increasing specialization, and reduction of a problem to its simplest elements.

In 1933 Harvard's president, Abbott Lowell Lawrence, announced his expected retirement amid much speculation on his successor's identity. Lowell was the administrative opposite of his predecessor, Charles W. Eliot. Lowell was a close supervisor of faculty, a harsh master of students, and a highly opinionated, socially conservative policymaker. It is said that a list of forty possible candidates existed at that time, and it did not include the name Conant. A difference of opinion among the Harvard corporate board led to a visit from a board member to Conant. His recommendation appears to have solidified the corporation; on May 8, 1933, Conant was selected as the twenty-third president of Harvard University and was formally installed on October 9, 1933.

President of Harvard University

Conant was immediately forced to begin thinking not only about campus issues and politics, but also about contemporary world events: the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the eventual establishment of the Third Reich, and the foreboding threat of World War II. Conant's presidency would be broken into three distinct eras: 1933 to 1940 was a period of innovative policies at the institutional level and pleas for military and civilian preparedness at the national level; 1940 to 1946 was marked by long absences from Cambridge as Conant became closely involved with the organization and administration of scientific research funded by the federal government; and 1946 to 1953 as postwar equilibrium was achieved and the debates over atomic energy policy and the manufacture of thermonuclear devices heated up.

As president, Conant began to implement policies, some controversial, to improve faculty quality. Among these were the so-called up or out rulean assistant professor who was not promoted at the end of the probationary term was terminated as a member of the faculty. In addition, university professorships were established to recognize and retain exceptional scholars. Conant put policies in place to establish a more diversified student body; the Harvard National Scholarships were merit-based awards established with the intent of reducing financial and geographic barriers to a Harvard education. He was elected to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching board of trustees in 1934 and was an early proponent of standardized testing, including nationwide administration of the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a reliable admissions tool.

As war in Europe seemed imminent, Conant supported the Roosevelt administration's quest for peacetime military conscription legislation, an action that was not warmly received by the undergraduates at Harvard. Following Germany's invasion of her European neighbors, Conant's attitude crystallized; he sought ways that scientists and scholars could mobilize to defeat Hitler.

Vannevar Bush, a contemporary of Conant, had been a professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, later, vice president of MIT. Bush moved to Washington, D.C. in 1939 to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution with its traditional role of science adviser to the government. Bush convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the military needed to make rapid advances in technology and employ civilian scientists with the necessary expertise to do so. Thus, the new National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) was established almost eighteen months before United States entry into war, and Bush recruited Conant for the committee. The NDRC mobilized civilian scientists for war and let contracts, funded by the federal government, to academic and industrial laboratories.

As 1941 progressed, Conant became chair of the NDRC with direct responsibility for committee-supervised work on uranium fission, and, ultimately, the crash program to build the atomic bomb. He was present at Ground Zero, Alamagordo, New Mexico, for the Trinity atomic device test explosion.

Meanwhile Harvard went about its business without the physical presence of Conant, who took a voluntary twenty-five percent salary reduction from 1942 to 1946. One seminal bit of policymaking that did occur during the war years was the agreement reached with Radcliffe College to merge classroom instruction. As a result of a wartime shortage of faculty, 310 years of all-male Harvard education came to an end.

Presidential Appointments

When Dwight D. Eisenhower, former president of Columbia University, was inaugurated as president of the United States in 1953, one of his first appointments was the choice of Conant to become the U.S. high commissioner to Germany. Conant took this opportunity to return to Germany to aid reconstruction as the ideal time to retire from Harvard following twenty years as president. Following the ratification of the treaty establishing the Federal Republic of Germany, Conant became the U.S. ambassador to Germany.


Conant served in Germany for Eisenhower's first term, then retired from the diplomatic corps in 1957 to undertake a study of American secondary education for the Carnegie Corporation. Several influential books arose from his research, including the American High School Today (1959), an on-site examination of the critical problems facing the public "comprehensive" high school. Although the fieldwork began before the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the timing of the publication to coincide with national fears that the country was falling behind the Soviets in secondary education triggered sales of nearly 200,000 copies and Conant's third Time magazine cover story. The book outlines twenty-one recommendations, ranging from an increase in the number of guidance counselors to a call for a twelfth-grade capstone course in American democracy. The volume received much attention from parents, educators, and critics, but little substantive reform resulted.

The controversial look at urban schools, Slums and Suburbs (1961) presents a contrasting picture of high schools within "half an hour's drive" of one another in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Conant argued that "we are allowing social dynamite to accumulate in our large cities" (p. 2) as evidenced by racial discrimination, poverty, and violence. Contending that a school is a product of the socioeconomic status of the families it serves, he concluded that, "More money is needed in slum schools" (p. 146) rather than busing pupils to other schools. This opinion was not well received among civil rights leaders, thus dooming the rest of Conant's recommendations to obscurity.

Moving to higher levels of the education system, the final two volumes to emerge from this study were The Education of American Teachers (1963), a critique of the curricula and teacher certification of schools of education, and Shaping Educational Policy (1964), an examination of state and federal education policy.


Conant's career and his life-long educational philosophy should be remembered as one of serviceto education, to science, and to the interests of his country. He took a "hands on" approach to his supervisory duties in the laboratory, the president's office, and his national study of secondary education. Upon assuming the Harvard presidency, he undertook the daunting task of attending and presiding over every faculty meeting of every college in the university.

Conant's admiration for the German university system fueled his belief that Harvard could be transformed from a New England university with a national reputation to a world-level institution. He initiated graduate degrees in education, public policy, and history of science. His innovations included faculty appointments unattached to any specific department so as to strongly encourage interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration. At Harvard, as at other institutions, the budgetary effects of the depression were felt, and Conant found it necessary to keep the faculty ranks spare. He managed to do this without sacrificing quality by eliminating many of Harvard's inbred hiring policies and instituting the practice of opening position vacancies internationally.

Student enrollment reforms accompanied those of the faculty. Conant purposefully directed the admissions office to scrutinize legacies more closely, open the doors to more first-generation and ethnic immigrant applicants, and scour the country for the most brilliant students. The goal of a more diverse student body was pursued through these directives and the addition of standardized admission testing. Conant strongly believed that the American system of higher education allowed for sorting by ability, and, therefore, students need not reach beyond their grasp in the choice of a college.

In the introduction to the American High School Today, Conant wrote of his regret over the talent wasted in the European system of early preselection of students for the university. He clearly understood that the diversity of American institutions of higher education and their ability to absorb all those who wish to go to college are foundational American ideals that promote equality of opportunity and equality of standing. The public benefits of all forms of education were foremost in Conant's pursuit of excellence in science technology education and federal policy. He wrote in his freshman diary at Harvard, "Education is what is left after all that has been learned is forgotten" (Hershberg, p. 20).

In 1963 Conant was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy. An arrhythmic heart condition that was discovered in 1965 caused Conant to curtail drastically his public life. He and his wife spent most subsequent winters in their Manhattan apartment and summers in the hills and mountains of New Hampshire until his death in Hanover, New Hampshire.

See also: Curriculum, School; Education Reform; General Education in Higher Education; Harvard University; Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development; Philosophy of Education.


Conant, James B. 1948. Education in a Divided World: The Function of the Public Schools in our Unique Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Conant, James B. 1952. Modern Science and Modern Man. New York: Columbia University Press.

Conant, James B. 1959. The American High School Today: A First Report to Interested Citizens. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Conant, James B. 1961. Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Conant, James B. 1963. The Education of American Teachers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Conant, James B. 1970. My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor. New York: Harper and Row.

Davis, Nuel P. 1968. Lawrence and Oppenheimer. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hershberg, James G. 1993. James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. New York: Knopf.

David A. Campaigne