James Bryant Conant

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James Bryant Conant

Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk County, MA, United States
Death: February 11, 1978 (84)
Hanover, Grafton County, New Hampshire, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Scott Conant and Jennet Orr Conant
Husband of Grace Thayer Conant
Father of James Richards Conant and Private
Brother of Nn Bush-Brown and Esther Conant

Occupation: President of Harvard University
Managed by: Gene Daniell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About James Bryant Conant


James Bryant Conant (March 26, 1893 – February 11, 1978) was a chemist, educational administrator, and government official. As the President of Harvard University he reformed it as a research institution.


Conant was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1893 and graduated from the Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury in 1910. He went on to study chemistry at Harvard (B.A., Phi Beta Kappa 1914; Ph.D., 1917). At Harvard he studied under Charles Loring Jackson, and became acquainted with Roger Adams, Farrington Daniels, Frank C. Whitmore and James B. Sumner. As a Harvard professor, he worked on both physical and organic chemistry. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1924.

In 1933, Conant accepted an appointment as the President of Harvard University, a post he held until 1953. In 1941, Sir Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the University of Bristol, conferred upon Conant an Honorary degree. The American Chemical Society honored him with its highest prize, the Priestley Medal, in 1944. Between 1941 and 1946, he also served as chairman of the National Defense Research Committee; from that position he played a key role, along with his close friend and MIT vice president Vannevar Bush, in ramping up the Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons. After World War II he was an adviser to both the National Science Foundation and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Concerned about growing criticism of the use of nuclear weapons by prominent figures like Norman Cousins and Reinhold Niebuhr, President Conant played an important behind-the-scenes role in shaping public opinion by instigating and then editing an influential February 1947 Harper's article entitled "The Decision," written (with the help of McGeorge Bundy) by former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The article first promulgated the notion that the atomic bomb was used to avoid "over a million casualties," a figure for which no basis has so far been found in the historical record of atomic-bomb decision-making.

Conant served as U.S. High Commissioner (1953–1955) and United States Ambassador to Germany (1955–1957). In 1960 he served on President Eisenhower's Commission on National Goals.

As the university's president, Conant was instrumental in transforming Harvard, until then still somewhat parochial into an increasingly 'diverse' and world-class research university. He introduced aptitude tests into the undergraduate admissions system so that students would be chosen for their intellectual promise and merit, rather than their social connections.

Many American colleges followed Conant's lead. Conant became an advocate for educational reform in society generally, and this campaign led eventually to the adoption of the SAT. In this regard, Conant also did much to move general undergraduate curriculum away from its traditional emphasis on the classics, and towards a more scientific and modern subject matter. He was active throughout his career on issues of education and scientific policy on both the secondary and collegiate level, being a strong advocate for the establishment of community colleges. In 1959 he authored the book, "The American High School Today."For this work, he was awarded the prestigious Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.

Conant also actively promoted the discipline of history of science, instituting the Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science and including history of science in the General Education curriculum. For Conant, an approach to the history of science that emphasized the internal and intellectual dimensions of scientific development — as opposed to the so-called external factors of sociology, economics and politics — reinforced the American Cold War ideology and would help Americans understand the importance of science since the Second World War. During that time, American science (and especially the field of physics that Conant viewed as exemplary) was rapidly becoming dominated by military funding, and Conant sought to defuse concerns about the possible corruption of science. Conant was instrumental in the early career of Thomas Kuhn, whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been extremely influential for the various fields of science studies.

Death and remembrance

Conant died in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1978. James B. Conant Middle School is a former school named after the man in Neenah, Wisconsin, though it has since become the "Conant" building, in addition to the Neil Armstrong building and a large building connecting the two known simply as "The Link." James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois was named after Conant, as was James B. Conant Elementary School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with special distinction, by President Lyndon Johnson on December 6, 1963. He had been selected for the award by President John F. Kennedy, but the ceremony had been delayed, and was presented with the award after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.

Perhaps his most famous quote is also repeatedly mis-stated. He is quoted as saying, "Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out," but the actual quote was "Behold the turtle. He makes progress when his neck is out."


As the president of Harvard, Conant led the administration in welcoming the Hitler regime. He had high ranking Nazi officials visit the campus and give speeches, including the 1934 commencement address by Ernst Hanfstaengl, while he restricted admission of Jewish students and hiring of Jewish faculty. In the words of historians Morton and Phyllis Keller, he "shared the mild antisemitism common to his social group and time."

Another incident in his career took place in 1940 when he apologized to the commanding admiral of Annapolis after the Harvard lacrosse team attempted to field a player of African-American descent. Navy's coach refused to field his team. Harvard's athletic director, William J. Bingham, overruled his lacrosse coach and had the player, Lucien Victor Alexis Jr., sent back to Cambridge on a train. After serving in World War II, Alexis was subsequently refused admittance to Harvard Medical school on the grounds that, as the only black student, he would therefore have no one to room with.

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James Bryant Conant's Timeline

March 26, 1893
Boston, Suffolk County, MA, United States
February 11, 1978
Age 84
Hanover, Grafton County, New Hampshire, United States