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James B. Conant
 From: Wikipedia May 2010

James B. 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[1] 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 adviser to both the National Science Foundation and the Atomic Energy Commission. He served as U.S. High Commissioner and United States Ambassador to Germany from 1953 to 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.

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 of Neenah High School, 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."


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Created: February 6, 2011   Modified: February 6, 2011