James Bryant Conant

The newly appointed U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, James B. Conant, at a press conference in Berlin on February 18, 1953. Information Bulletin, monthly magazine of the Office of U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, March 1953.

The newly appointed U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, James B. Conant, at a press conference in Berlin on February 18, 1953. Information Bulletin, monthly magazine of the Office of U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, March 1953.

In 1919, after serving in the research division of the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I, James Bryant Conant (1893–1978) returned to teaching at Harvard University as an assistant professor in the chemistry department. Not letting grass grow under his feet, he wooed and won the hand of the daughter of one of his doctoral advisers, Theodore W. Richards. He revealed to his fiancée his ambitions to 1) become the best organic chemist in the United States, 2) be appointed president of Harvard University, and 3) serve in the cabinet of the president of the United States. Through brilliance and dedication, he fulfilled these ambitions and more.

Conant was born in 1893 in the Dorchester section of Boston, Massachusetts, the third child and only son of a middle-class family with deep roots in New England. His father owned and operated a successful photoengraving company. Despite growing up before the era of chemistry sets, Conant nonetheless experienced the joys of playing with chemistry as a boy. His father turned an unused vestibule in the family home into a shop for his son. It was equipped with a gas connection at a time when gas was used in homes almost exclusively for illumination. Sourcing his chemicals from the local pharmacist, he could apply the high heat delivered by a Bunsen burner in his experiments, unlike his friends who had to be content with the relatively low heat of alcohol lamps.

President Harry S. Truman, center, presenting James B. Conant, at right, with the Medal of Merit and Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster on May 27, 1948. Vannevar Bush stands watching at left. Photo by Abbie Rowe. National Park Service.

President Harry S. Truman, center, presenting James B. Conant, at right, with the Medal of Merit and Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster on May 27, 1948. Vannevar Bush stands watching at left. Photo by Abbie Rowe. National Park Service.

After six years in the local public elementary school, Conant was enrolled for his secondary education in the nearby Roxbury Latin School, an academically demanding private school for boys. There, science teacher Newton Henry Black proved to be a formative influence, encouraging Conant in his chemical studies, providing him with samples of unknown chemical substances to analyze and, in reality, giving him an Advanced Placement chemistry course before there was AP. Black even mapped out Conant’s career as a chemist right through a Ph.D. at Harvard University with the physical chemist and Nobel Prize winner Theodore W. Richards! After Conant enrolled in Harvard College and continued to pursue his love affair with chemistry, some of his older cousins became concerned that he was too narrowly focused on chemistry, to  the exclusion of all else. They suggested his engagement in extracurricular activities; and so he joined the staff of the college newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, of which he became editor in his sophomore year. He also became a member of a literary discussion society, which he enjoyed immensely. The next step in his preparation as a chemist did not work out quite as planned. At Harvard graduate school he became more interested in organic chemistry than in Richards’s physical chemistry, but he wrote an unusual two-part dissertation under Richards and the organic chemist Elmer P. Kohler.

With  Ph.D. in hand (1916) Conant and two other young Harvard graduates set up a small chemical company to produce a few organic chemicals previously supplied by German manufacturers. These products were blockaded by the British in the early days of World War I, before the United States became a combatant. In the middle of accident-ridden attempts to set up a pilot plant in the New York area, Conant was called back to Harvard to teach organic chemistry as an instructor. Conant felt very guilty for abandoning the chemicals venture after news arrived of a plant explosion that killed one of his friends and another worker. Shortly after the United States declared war, Conant joined the army’s Chemical Warfare Service and was again working in a pilot plant, this time to make a new kind of poison gas; but the war ended before the plant went into production.

Back at Harvard after World War I, Conant excelled as a chemist in both physical and organic chemistry and the new field at their intersection, physical organic chemistry. In later years he was personally most proud of his contribution to the determination of the molecular structure of chlorophyll. Conant cherished the role of teacher as well as researcher. In the middle of his most productive days as a researcher, he published several highly innovative and successful organic chemistry textbooks.

Fellow chemists were astonished when in 1933 Conant was chosen to be Harvard’s president and thus effectively ended his career as a research scientist and mentor of graduate students. Among his enduring influences on Harvard education were his efforts to enroll a more diverse student body. Instead of confining the opportunities of a Harvard education to graduates of private schools from the oldest and richest families in the nation, Conant sought out public school students who showed high academic aptitude on the new tests being designed to assess such capabilities—the SATs—and he found scholarship funds to support these students.

Under Conant’s leadership the Harvard undergraduate curriculum was revised to broaden the students’ education in the liberal arts and sciences. For decades thereafter students at Harvard College and at many colleges influenced by General Education in a Free Society (a 1945 report of the Harvard Committee, with an introduction by Conant) were required to undertake a wide distribution of courses instead of studying only their favorite subject, as he had done. As part of this effort, special courses in history of science were designed for students with little or no inclination to the sciences. From their study of “case histories” of how scientists like Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley, and Antoine Lavoisier had made discoveries in the past, students were supposed to learn something about the nature of science itself and thus make better informed decisions about scientific issues in the present. As a byproduct, the new discipline of history of science became populated in the United States by instructors recruited to teach the sections of such “general education” courses. They started out as scientists, but fell in love with history while teaching it.

Conant was among those who foresaw the necessity of fighting a war against the rising power of the Nazis. Before the United States declared war, he urged aid to the Allies through the Lend-Lease Bill and the organization of the scientific community in industry and in academia to develop technologies ultimately needed to win World War II. In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose him to chair the National Defense Research Committee and, later, to be special deputy to Vannevar Bush, the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Among Conant’s responsibilities was the supervision of experimental work on controlled nuclear fission, and he served on the cabinet-level policy group supervising the development of the atomic bomb made possible by the fission experiments. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and World War II ended, Conant encouraged efforts to bring atomic weapons under international control. Later, as a member of an advisory committee to the Atomic Energy Commission, he opposed the development of the H-bomb.

U.S. presidents continued to turn to him for advice. In 1950 Harry S. Truman appointed him chairman of the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the National Science Foundation. In 1953 President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him U.S. High Commissioner for the defeated Germany and, later, ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany—positions that made it impossible for him to continue as president of Harvard.

After his diplomatic service, Conant returned to his long-held concern with secondary education. In a series of landmark reports from 1957 to 1967, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, Conant, a graduate of the private Roxbury Latin School, proclaimed the importance of comprehensive public schools to our democracy. While researchers were conducting extensive studies of such areas as inner-city schools, junior high education, and teacher education, the Soviet Union’s satellite Sputnik burst on the scene. When more than one educational pundit advised focusing educational efforts on intellectually gifted students whose future accomplishments might help the nation catch up with the Soviets, Conant stood firm in his recommendations to improve the quality of schools that welcomed all students.

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