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James Bryant Conant’s (26 March 1893–11 February 1978) career spanned most of the 20th century and a wide range of interests. From the time he entered Harvard as a 17-year-old freshman who already had completed college-level studies in chemistry, until his retirement, Conant approached every task with a scientist’s drive. His biographer James Hershberg (1993, 715) reported that Conant described himself as a “cold reserved New Englander” and that his critics characterized him as a bureaucrat with “red tape in his veins.” Nevertheless, the contributions Conant made throughout his career brought him worldwide recognition.
Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts to James Scott and Jennett Orr Bryant Conant, he attended elementary school for six years before enrolling in the Roxbury Latin School, noted for its college preparatory program and outstanding science teacher, Newton Henry Black.

Conant developed a close relationship with Black, with whom he later coauthored a chemistry textbook. Black arranged for Conant to pursue college-level studies in chemistry while still in high school and formulated a plan for his protégé to study at Harvard. Conant entered Harvard in 1910 and graduated in three years. After graduation, Conant entered private industry briefly before returning to Harvard where he earned his Ph.D. in 1916. After he completed his doctorate, Conant and two partners developed benzoic acid. Conant returned to academic life at Harvard after one of his partners died in a work-related explosion.

In 1917, Conant considered enlisting in the Army—specifically to train men to repair gas masks—but instead decided to become a civilian employee. He led a group of scientists in the Chemical Warfare Service to develop lewisite gas. When the war ended, he returned to Harvard as an assistant professor.

As a chemist, Conant was interested in investigating two main areas: chlorophyll and hemoglobin. Conant published more than 80 papers in scientific journals and won several awards. He also wrote two textbooks, Organic Chemistry: A Brief Introduction (1928) and Chemistry of Organic Compounds (1939) and edited Organic Synthesis (1921).

In 1927, Conant declined an offer to establish a biological chemistry department at the California Institute of Technology and was promoted to full professor at Harvard (Weber 1962).

When Conant was named president of Harvard University in 1933, most observers were surprised because his name wasn’t on the list of the 40 candidates thought most likely to be chosen. Conant himself was said to have wondered why he was selected and why he took the job. Apparently, one of the members of the panel who selected him was impressed with his “clear perception of important educational and administrative issues in the university and his far-sighted views about needed reforms” (Bartlett 1973, 97).

As president of Harvard, Conant insisted on a clear-cut definition of tenure so that an assistant professor was automatically terminated from the faculty if he was not promoted at the end of his stated term. Conant also is acknowledged for instituting the Harvard National Scholarship plan, which allowed students to attend Harvard based on their scholastic merit regardless of financial resources.

Conant was instrumental in reorienting Harvard’s School of Education toward the preparation of administrators rather than of teachers. He also took the bold step of integrating Harvard men and Radcliffe women into the same classes, and urged the admission of women into the medical and law schools. Under Conant’s leadership, athletics at Harvard were deprofessionalized by abolishing scholarships and upgrading the status of intramural sports.

Conant was seen as a controversial university president because of his stand on the United States’ role in world affairs leading up to World War II. Conant demonstrated his objections to Hitler by rejecting a German Harvard alumnus’s offer to fund a scholarship for a student to spend a year in Germany. He promoted a civilian organization for military preparedness, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), whose purpose was to mobilize civilian scientists and engineers for the development of new instrumentalities of war, including chemical warfare, explosives, and many chemical aspects of munitions.

In the spring of 1941, Conant went to England to establish scientific contacts. Later that year, he became chairman of the NDRC and had direct responsibility for its work on uranium fission, which was instrumental in the creation of the bomb in 1945. During the war, Conant worked with Bernard Baruch to review the synthetic rubber program that was making inadequate progress. By the end of the war, the United States was producing synthetic rubber at the rate of a million tons per year.
Once the war ended, Conant, who was still president of Harvard, reminded the university that its mission of increasing the world’s knowledge was not compatible with participating in secret or classified research for the government. He insisted that all research done at the university be freely publishable. Although the university had been involved in the war effort, he believed that the practice should remain in the context in which it occurred and not become a precedent.

In 1953, after 20 years as president of Harvard University, Conant resigned to accept President Eisenhower’s appointment as U.S. high commissioner to Germany, and to assume the post of ambassador when the German Federal Republic was recognized. He resigned this position in 1957 and returned to the United States to take on another of his long-standing interests—American secondary education.

Between 1957 and 1963, Conant conducted an in-depth study of American high schools. His report The American High School Today (1959) offered specific recommendations for improving high schools, including teaching foreign languages, consolidating small high schools into comprehensive high schools, and providing for academically talented students.

Conant’s next school project involved examining schools in inner cities and the suburbs surrounding them. His book Slums and Suburbs: A Commentary on Schools in Metropolitan Areas (1961) used the term “social dynamite” to describe the excessive numbers of unemployed and out-of-school black youth. Despite his passionate description of the crisis situation he saw, he was reluctant to advocate artificial integration of schools.
Another study of the comprehensive high school, funded by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, examined the course offerings of 2,000 medium-sized high schools. Among other things, Conant concluded that high schools needed an enrollment of at least 750 students to offer a comprehensive high school program (Passow, 1977).

In his review of teachers’ colleges and schools of education, The Education of American Teachers (1963), Conant criticized the curricula of these institutions and urged that teacher certification be removed. In Shaping Educational Policy (1964), Conant urged greater involvement of state administration in the formulation of educational policies, including a recommendation for an Educational Commission of the States, which became a reality a few years later.

He continued to write and publish for several years, including his autobiography, My Several Lives; Memoirs of a Social Inventor (1970).

Despite the public nature of his career, including speculation at one point that he might run for president, Conant remained an enigmatic figure throughout his life. In his biography of Conant, Hershberg (1993, 715) characterized the contrasts in his subject:
To some he would be classified as a liberal, a daring intellect who took unpopular stands in favor of the New Deal and FDR’s support of the Allies before Pearl Harbor, a stalwart defender of Harvard and academic freedom against the McCarthyite onslaught (or even, as the Wisconsin senator charged, a Communist coddler himself), an opponent of the H-bomb and skeptic of nuclear power, a Jeffersonian proponent of educational egalitarianism, an outsider to Boston’s Brahmin aristocracy, the man who barred classified military research at Harvard, a debunker of the notion of preventive war, a brave, calm, cool, rational, far-sighted voice in an age of anxiety and hysteria. Simultaneously, however, an image of another Conant arose—the scientist who perverted his talents to manufacture poison gas and the bomb, the cozy collaborator of General Groves and the army during the Manhattan Project, the quintessential Cold Warrior and reactionary propagandist for Pentagon budgets and a comprehensive peace time draft, the establishment pillar who never rocked the boat, the loyal defender of the status quo and servant to conventional wisdom.

Contributed by: Betty Harrison, University of Texas at Austin


Bartlett, P. D. 1983. James Bryant Conant. In Biographical Memoirs. Available at: http://www.nap.edu/openbook/0309033918/html/91.html

Hershberg, J. G. 1993. James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the making of the nuclear age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Passow, A. H. 1977. American secondary education: The Conant influence. Reston, Va: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Weber, D. D. 1962. A comparison of the educational ideas of James Bryant Conant and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Ed.D. diss., University of Nebraska Teachers College.

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