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James Bryant Conant

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Organic Syntheses


By James Bryant Conant
Chemistry

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James Bryant Conant

James Bryant Conant
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James Bryant Conant

James Bryant Conant (March 26, 1893 - February 11, 1978) was a chemist, educational administrator, and public servant. He was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1893 and graduated from the Roxbury Latin School in Boston in 1910. He went on to study chemistry at Harvard (B.A., 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. The American Chemical Society honored him with its highest prize, the Priestley Medal, in 1944.

In 1933, Conant accepted an appointment as the President of Harvard University, a post he held until 1953. 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 Vannevar Bush, in ramping up the Manhattan Project which developed the first nuclear weapons. After World War II he was an advisor to both the National Science Foundation and the Atomic Energy Commission. He served as U.S. High Commissioner and Ambassador to Germany from 1953 to 1957.

As the university's president, Conant was instrumental in transforming Harvard, until then widely perceived as a 'finishing school' for members of the New England upper class, into a 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, and this campaign led eventually to the adoption of the SAT. 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.

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 science history 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 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been extremely influential for the various fields of science studies.

Conant died in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1978. James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois was named after Conant, as was James B. Conant Elementary School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.



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