James Conant

Biography of James Conant

James Bryant Conant (March 26, 1893 – February 11, 1978) was a chemist, a transformative President of Harvard University, and the first U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. Graduating from Harvard with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1916, Conant served in the U.S. Army during World War I, working on the development of poison gases. He became an assistant professor of chemistry at Harvard on September 1, 1919, and the Sheldon Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry in 1929. He was one of the first to explore the sometimes complex relationship between the chemical equilibrium and the reaction rate of chemical processes. He investigated the biochemistry of oxyhemoglobin, and published three papers on using polymerized isoprene to create synthetic rubber.

In 1933, Conant became the President of Harvard University. He dispensed with a number of customs, including class rankings and the requirement for Latin classes, and abolished athletic scholarships. He instituted an "up or out" policy, under which scholars who were not promoted were terminated. His egalitarian vision of education diversified the student body. He promoted the adoption of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and co-educational classes. During his presidency, women were admitted to Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School for the first time.

Conant was appointed to the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in 1940, becoming its chairman in 1941. He oversaw vital wartime research projects, including the development of synthetic rubber, and the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs. On July 16, 1945, he was among the dignitaries present at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range for the Trinity nuclear test, the first detonation of an atomic bomb, and was part of the Interim Committee that advised President Harry S. Truman to use atomic bombs on Japan.

After the war, he served on the Joint Research and Development Board (JRDC) that was established to coordinate burgeoning defense research, and on the influential General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He taught undergraduate courses at Harvard on the history and philosophy of science, and wrote books explaining the scientific method to laymen. In 1953 he retired as President of Harvard and became the United States High Commissioner for Germany, overseeing the restoration of German sovereignty, and then was Ambassador to West Germany until 1957.

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