Morison, Elting Elmore

views updated

Morison, Elting Elmore

(b. 14 December 1909 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 20 April 1995 in Peterborough, New Hampshire), educator and historian who believed “that science, technology, and a liberal education were indivisible.”

Morison was one of three sons of George Abbot Morison, who rose to the position of vice president of the Bucyrus Erie Company, and Amelia Huntley Elmore. Morison attended Loomis School in Connecticut, graduating in 1928. Continuing his education at Harvard University, he earned an A.B. degree in 1933 and an M.A. degree in 1937. He taught at St. Mark’s School and at the Wooster School before accepting a position as an assistant dean at Harvard that he held from 1935 to 1937. He married Anne Hitchcock Sims in June 1935. They had three children.

Between 1937 and 1941 Morison lived at a family home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he wrote his first book, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy. The book was published in 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Morison knew his subject well. His wife was the admiral’s youngest daughter. This book won the American Historical Association’s John H. Dunning Prize as the outstanding book of that year. Morison served in the navy reserve from 1942 to 1946, leaving with the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1946 Morison began his affiliation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an assistant professor of English in the Department of Humanities. Promoted to associate professor in 1949, in 1953 he was appointed the professor of industrial history in the Sloan School of Management and director of a program designed to analyze technological change, including the history of science, technology, and industrial development. At MIT, which Morison described as a “large, fascinating imaginative, energetic institution, not like any other,” he established his place in the history of technology. In 1948 he became director of the Theodore Roosevelt Research Project and edited the eight-volume The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (1958). In 1960 Morison published the book he liked most, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson, which won the Frances Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians.

During the 1960s, in addition to performing his writing and academic duties, he served as a consultant and chairman of the social science committee for Educational Services, Inc. In that position he helped redesign social studies curricula for primary and secondary schools. In 1962 he was elected vice president of the Edward MacDowell Association, the parent organization of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He also served as a consultant to the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company and to the Research and Development Board of the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1966 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of Hampshire College. In 1969 Morison was a member of the Pounds Review Panel on special laboratories at MIT and served as chairman of the New Hampshire state committee of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Morison and his wife divorced in 1965, and he moved to Yale University that year. A year later he became master of Timothy Dwight College, a professor of history and American studies, and director of the Scholars of the House Program at Yale. He married Elizabeth Forbes Tilghman in 1967. At Yale he worked to convey his concept that humanities and the sciences should be taught together. In 1972 Morison returned to MIT as the Killian Class of 1926 Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science. He became the founding spirit and intellectual guide of the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which complemented MIT’s traditional training in science and engineering with a historically informed, sophisticated understanding of the surrounding society and culture.

After retiring in 1975, Morison, six feet tall and slim, soft-spoken with a warm smile and bright eyes, traveled extensively, but he remained active at MIT in the 1980s as professor emeritus. He was twice, in 1976 and 1980, an overseas fellow at the Churchill School in Britain, and he spoke at numerous universities and conferences worldwide. Returning from a visit to Epcot in Orlando, Florida, he expressed his disappointment with the “technical problems” and the shallowness of the exhibits. He and his wife collaborated on the 250th Anniversary History of New Hampshire.

Among his other accomplishments, Morison helped establish the American Heritage technology series; edited The American Style (1958), a series of papers on the history of international affairs in the United States; and wrote Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1966), which won the Academy of Management’s McKinsey Award. His last major book, From Know-How to Nowhere, was published in 1974. Morison was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Historical Association and Phi Beta Kappa. He spent his last years in Peterborough at his family home, where he enjoyed the “country life.” He died there after a long illness. He is buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Peterborough.

Morison’s theories have influenced most schools that teach engineering or the sciences. In September 1963 he articulated his belief that universities are the only hope to bring people and technology into sync: “Universities can do it, but they must first reorganize themselves by allowing artists and scientists to mingle,” and that today’s scientific world can only deal with human needs “when poets and scientists could meet with mutual understanding.”

The MIT Museum has materials on Morison’s life and work, including press releases and a vertical file of biographical sketches. An interview with Morison by Hal Bowser, “Technology and the Human Dimension,” is in American Heritage (Summer 1985). Several papers presented at a conference to honor Morison at MIT were published in Technology and Culture 37 (Oct. 1996): 864–879. Obituaries are in Tech Talk (28 Apr. 1995), the New York Times (25 Apr. 1995), and the Boston Globe (22 Apr. 1995).

Joan Goodbody

About this article

Morison, Elting Elmore

Updated About content Print Article