Conant, James Bryant

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Dorchester. Massachusetts, 26 March 1893; d. Hanover. New Hampshire, II February 1978). organic chemistry, science policy.

Conant was the third child and only son of James Scott Conant and Jennett Orr Bryant. His mother was deeply involved in transcendental religious movements. His father was a photoengraver who had a shop laboratory that he used to master the chemical procedures in this new field. In 1903 James’s interest in chemistry caused his parents to enroll him in Roxbury Latin School, which had a strong program in physics and chemistry. Its gifted science teacher, Newton Henry Black, encouraged Conant to do college-level work, enabling him to enter Harvard in 1910 with advanced standing (B.A., 1913; Ph.D., 1916). During World War I, Conant was a major in the Chemical Warfare Service. From 1919 to 1933 he was a member of the Harvard chemisiry department. On 17 April 1921 he married Grace Thayer Richards, the daughter of Theodore William Richards, Harvard’s leading chemist and Nobel laureate; they had two sons. His research career ended in 1933 with his unexpected selection as president of Harvard.

An innovative leader, Conant created new types of scholarships and professorships, and new procedures for appointments, promotions, and tenure to ensure faculty excellence. He fostered coeducation by eliminating separate classes for Radcliffe and Harvard students and by admitting women to the law and medical schools. Following World War II he ordered the cessation of all classified research as inimical to the mission of a university. The 1945 Harvard report General Education in a Free Society addressed itself to the need to maintain a general liberal education at the college level and proposed a required common core of courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that stressed general relationships and values. Conant himself taught in the natural science part of the program for three years and developed the case history method of teaching science. He was the general editor of the Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science (1948; reissued 1957). In 1950 he was a principal advocate before Congress for federal support of science and the formation of the National Science Foundation.

In 1953 Conant resigned the Harvard presidency to become U.S. high commissioner to West Germany and, when the Federal Republic attained full sovereignty, U.S. ambassador until 1957. His last major activity was as reformer of the American secondary schools. His studies, financed by the Carnegie Corporation, yielded ten widely read books (1959–1967) on public education and served as a catalyst for extensive reforms in schools. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London.

Conant intended to follow Theodore W. Richards into physical chemistry. In 1912, however, Elmer P. Kohler joined the Harvard faculty. Through Kohler, Conant became enchanted with organic chemistry and did a double doctoral dissertation under these men. His major interest thereafter was organic chemistry from the viewpoint of physical chemistry. His two major influences were physical chemists: the Dane Johannes N. Brønsted and the American Gilbert N. Lewis. Conant transferred their conceptions in thermodynamics, acids and bases, the transition state, and the shared electron-pair bond to organic chemistry. During his fifteen-year research career (1919–1934)he was a major contributor to the flourishing of physical organic chemistry in the United States; his many gifted students became leaders in several areas of the field.

Conant’s interest in reaction mechanisms was evident from his first studies and in the 1920’s grew into a series of important studies on the relative reactivities of quinones and organic halides. By 1924 he had established quantitative relationships between the thermodynamic and kinetic factors in these reactions and had shown how changes in structure affected the reaction rate. His work with organic halides also refuted the theory of alternating polarity along the carbon chain. Before Lewis’ idea of the shared electron-pair bond (1916), dualistic theories of valence prevailed. The alternating polarity theory claimed that the carbon atoms in a saturated chain were alternately more and less positive. Therefore, the reactivity of alkyl haiides should rise and fall with the lengthening of the carbon chain. Conant measured the reaction rates of organic halides and found no support for the theory. Instead, Lewis’ theory with its possibility of partial charges due to the degree of sharing in the electron-pair bond, served as a means to predict the relation between structures and reaction rates in the organic halide series.

Conant’s studies on carbonyl addition reactions were important as a means to learn about reaction mechanisms. The Lewis electron-pair sharing theory of valency suggested that the carbonyl group had a polar character:

Conant saw that this dipolar character could explain various carbonyl addition reactions, and he successfully explored the idea in several such reactions. His 1932 paper on semicarbazone formation from carbonyl compounds, written with his student Paul D. Bartlett, became a classic example of acid-base catalysis and of the way in which the distinctive thermodynamic and kinetic factors control the intermediate reactions and the products.

Conant also applied Lewis’ ideas to the triphenylmethyl free radicals discovered by Moses Gomberg in 1900. He made reactivity studies of them and introduced a new method of preparing them by reduction of the corresponding carbonium ion by vanadous chloride (1923). Conant’s papers on free-radical chemistry showed that bulky aliphatic groups in themselves cannot make a free radical stable, but they can enhance the stability of an already stabilized radical.

Among Conant’s most important studies were those using the ideas of Brønsted on acids and bases. In 1927 he demonstrated the existence of “super-acids,” revealing that acids in a nonaqueous solvent may have an acidity enormously higher than in similar concentrations in water. This discovery provided a useful means to titrate bases that could not otherwise be titrated, and led to a deeper understanding of acids and bases in nonaqueous solvents. Conant utilized this method in his last researches on chlorophyll (1929–1934). He revealed that chlorophyll is a dihydroporphyrin, found the site where phytol is attached to the carbon skeleton of the molecule, and determined the relativebasicities of the four pyrrole-nitrogen atoms, using potentiometric titration with the superacid perchloric acid in glacial acetic acid.

Although his career as a chemist was over by 1934. Conant’s influence on American science continued, especially during World War II, when he was a major organizer of scientists. He was a member of the National Defense Research Committee, a science policy group formed in 1940 to mobilize scientists for the war effort. In 1941 he went to Great Britain to establish the exchange of scientific information with the British; there he learned about radar and established a London NDRC office, and the trickle of information soon became a flood.

From 1941 to 1945 Conant was chairman of NDRC, responsible for thousands of projects, including explosives, smoke generators, microwave radar, electronic countermeasures, and uranium fission. He also served as adviser to the successful synthetic rubber program. As the uranium fission project increased in size and variety, he devoted more and more time to it, overseeing its transformation from an energy development program into a weapons program. As member of the cabinet-level policy group supervising the project, he favored the use of the atomic bomb.

Conant was an architect of postwar atomic energy policy. In 1945 he went on a mission to Moscow, where he advocated international control of atomic weapons, with free access to all information and the right to inspect; he served as adviser to the American delegation at the United Nations that presented the plan for international controls vetoed by the Soviets at the end of 1946. President Truman offered Conant the chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission, but he declined because of the need to concentrate on his duties at Harvard as well as his awarenessol the opposition of some scientists because of his approval of the bombing of Japan and his support of the May-Johnson Bill (to create the Atomic Energy Commission) in Congress. He was a member of the (Jeneral Advisory Committee of the AEC (1947–1952). As chemist, educational reformer, head of a major university. and advocate of federal support for science, Conant played a major role in the rise of American science to its postwar position of prestige and high accomplishment.


I. Original Works. Important papers by Conant are “Addition Reactions of the Carbonyl Group Involving the Increase in Valence of a Single Atom,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society. 43 (1921). 1705–1714; “The Formation of Free Radicals by Reduction with Vanadous Chloride. Preliminary Paper,” ibid., 45 (1923), 2466–2472, written with A. W. Sloan:” “Redaction Potentials of Quinones. II. The Potentials of Certain Derivatives of Benzoquinone. Naphthoquinone, and Anthraquinone,” ibid., 46 (1924). 1858–1881. written with Louis Fieser; “The Relation Between the Structure of Organic Halides and the Speed of Their Reaction with Inorganic lodides. I. The Problem of Alternating Polarity in Chain Compounds,” ibid., 232–252, written with W. R. Kirner: “A Study of Superacid Solutions. I. The Use of the Chloranil Electrode in Glacial Acetic Acid and the Strength of Certain Weak Bases” and’ II. A Chemical Investigation of the Hydrogen-Ion Activity of Acetic Acid Solutions,’ ibid., 49 (1927), 3047–3061 and 3062–3070, written with Norris F. Hall: “Studies in the Chlorophyll Series. 1. The Thermal Decomposition of the Magnesium-free Compounds,” ibid., 51 (1929), 3668–3674. written with J. F. Hyde;’ A Quantitative Study of Semicarbazone Formation,’ ibid., 54 (1932). 2881–2899. written with Paul D. Bartlett;’ The Study of Extremely Weak Acids.’ ibid., 1212–1221, written with G. W. Wheland; and “Studies in the Chlorophyll Series. XIV. Potentiometric Titration in Acetic Acid Solution of the Basic Groups in Chlorophyll Derivatives,” ibid., 56 (1934). 2185–2189. written with B. F. Chow and E. M. Dietz.

The Harvard University Archives have a collection of Conant’s correspondence, Papers relating to his World War II and postwar activities are in the National Archives.

II. Secondary Literature. The most essential reference is Conant’s autobiography. My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor (New York, 1970). Fuller accounts of his work in chemistry are in Paul D. Bartlett. “James Bryant Conant,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. 54 (1983). 91—124; and George B. Kistiakowsky and Frank H. Westheimer. “James Bryant Conant,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 25 (1979). 209–232. Both articles contain A bibliography of his works. Brief but solid interpretations of his chemical career are Martin Saltzman, “James Bryant Conant and the Development of Physical Organic Chemistry,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 49 (1972). 411–412; and Frank H. Westheimer, “James Bryant Conant,” in Organic Syntheses, 58 (1978), vii-xi.

Albert B. Costa

Conant, James B.

views updated Jun 11 2018

Conant, James B. (1893–1978), scientist, educator, and diplomat who played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb.Conant received his Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard in 1916. During World War I, he joined the Chemical Warfare Service, where he directed the Organic Research Unit in the production of mustard gas. He subsequently taught at Harvard, became chair of the chemistry department, and in 1933, the university's president. In the depth of the depression, his dealings with conservative and radical groups on campus led him to take positions in national politics. He generally opposed New Deal programs, but also the isolationist views that dominated in his own Republican Party.

When World War II broke out, Conant advocated aid to the democracies and worked through the National Defense Research Committee to enlist U.S. scientists in war preparations. Later, with the Office of Scientific Research and Development, he played a key role in coordinating atomic research with Great Britain and setting up the Manhattan Project. His June 1945 suggestion to drop the newly completed atomic bomb on a Japanese war plant and its populated environs in order to shorten the war was taken up by President Harry S. Truman, who targeted Hiroshima, a sizable city, an army headquarters, a rail center, and a major producer of material. From 1946 to 1962, Conant served as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 convinced him of the magnitude of the Soviet threat, and he soon headed the Committee on the Present Danger, which urged the United States to station up to 1 million troops in Europe under NATO command. An appreciative President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Conant U.S. high commissioner for occupied western Germany in 1953, and, after the occupation ended in 1955, first U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany. During his four years in Bonn, Conant aided in the transformation of Germany into a democratic state and a dependable military ally against communism.

After his return to the United States, Conant devoted his reforming energies primarily to the field of education, heading a Carnegie Foundation study of American secondary schools (1957–62) and publishing a number of important works on education.
[See also Atomic Scientists; Bush, Vannevar; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombings of; Science, Technology, War, and the Military.]


James B. Conant , My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor, 1970.
James Hershberg , James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age, 1993.

Manfred Jonas

James Bryant Conant

views updated May 18 2018

James Bryant Conant

James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) was an American chemist, president of Harvard University, U.S. Ambassador and educational critic. He was an effective spokesman for the support of national policies by private and public scientific and educational institutions.

James Conant was born on March 26, 1893, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Both his father's and his mother's families trace themselves back to 17th-century New England settlers. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1914, Conant pursued graduate studies in organic chemistry and received his doctorate in 1916. During the next three years he served as instructor at Harvard, tried unsuccessfully to set up a private chemistry laboratory, and joined the Army's Chemical Warfare Service. Engaged in the secret production of poison gases, Conant advanced to the rank of major, belonging to the elite group of organic chemists who constituted the nucleus of a growing profession in universities, industry, foundations, and the armed forces.

Returning to Harvard, Conant was appointed assistant professor in 1919, associate professor in 1925, and professor in 1927. He served as chairman of the Division of Chemistry, as consultant to the Du Pont Company, and on the Board of Scientific Advisers of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In 1933 he became president of Harvard University (until 1953). Following the policies of Harvard's recent presidents, Conant placed heavy emphasis on bringing talented students and faculty to Harvard. He devised interdisciplinary studies in American civilization and the history of science to improve the liberal education of the undergraduates. He sought to strengthen the graduate school of education by introducing the master of arts in teaching program.

In 1934 Conant joined the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. During World War II he directed the resources of Harvard in support of the war effort, and he himself became an adviser to the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. He was a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1947 to 1952 and, after his retirement from Harvard in 1953, ambassador to West Germany from 1955 to 1957. Following that, from 1957 to 1959 he undertook a study of American secondary education for the Carnegie Foundation and thereafter served in various roles as educational consultant. He died on February 11, 1978 in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Further Reading

Conant's educational views are contained in the series of books he wrote on secondary education: The American High School Today (1959); The Child, the Parent and the State (1959); Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas (1961); and The Comprehensive High School (1967). In On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach (1947) Conant wrote on the place of science in the general education curriculum of the undergraduate, and in The Education of American Teachers (1963) he discussed teacher education.

A more personal account is Conant's autobiography, My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor (1970). Paul Franklin Douglass, Six upon the World: Toward an American Culture for an Industrial Age (1954), examines Conant's achievements in the context of the postwar technological society. See also Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (1961); Edgar Z. Friedenberg, The Dignity of Youth and Other Atavisms (1965), which has a chapter critical of Conant; Adolphe E. Meyer, An Educational History of the American People (1967); and Robert E. Potter, The Stream of American Education (1967). □

About this article

James Bryant Conant

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic