Papers of James Bryant Conant, 1862-1987
James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) was a chemist, educator and public servant. The wide variety of his interests and occupations are reflected in the title of his memoirs, My Several Lives. Conant's "several lives" included periods as a Harvard University chemistry professor, Harvard University president, national director of defense research, ambassador to Germany and as an author of critical works examining secondary education in the United States. This collection documents professional activities of James Bryant Conant and, to a lesser extent, provides information on Conant's personal and family life. The collection consists chiefly of material created outside of Conant's activities as President of Harvard University.
- Conant, James Bryant, 1893-1978 (Person)
Conditions on Use and Access
Restrictions on access apply. Consult with the reference staff of the Harvard University Archives for details.
Extent50 cubic feet (177 containers)
This collection documents professional activities of James Bryant Conant (JBC) and, to a lesser extent, provides information on Conant's personal and family life. The collection consists chiefly of material created outside of Conant's activities as President of Harvard University. See "Allied Material" for information on records of Conant's presidency of Harvard.
Conant's professional life is documented in those series named for his various career appointments and interests as well as in the two series that cover the largest time spans, The Correspondence series and the Subject Files series. Researches are advised to check these subject files for information on topics such as education, Germany, and Harvard that are also represented in other places in the collection.
Researchers will find documentation of Conant's personal life and material relating to members of his family in the Biographical Materials series and among other series, particularly in the photographs and scrapbooks which appear in several series.
James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) was a chemist, educator and public servant. The wide variety of his interests and occupations are reflected in the title of his memoirs, My Several Lives. Conant's "several lives" included periods as a chemistry instructor, University president, national director of defense research, ambassador to Germany and as an author of critical works examining secondary education in the United States. Conant's pursuits carried him from his boyhood home in Boston to Harvard University and eventually around the globe.
Conant graduated from Harvard College in 1914, completing a three-year program as an undergraduate concentrator in chemistry. He remained at the University, studying with Elmer Kohler, and received his degree two years later. An academic career followed, during which time Conant worked at Harvard as an instructor (1917), assistant professor (1919) and eventually as a tenured professor (1927) of organic chemistry. In 1921 he married Grace Thayer Richards, daughter of chemistry professor Theodore William Richards, whom Conant had met at a dinner for graduate students at Professor Richards' house.
In 1933, despite the fact that his only previous administrative experience was a term as chair of the Chemistry Department, Conant was appointed to succeed A. Lawrence Lowell as President of Harvard University. President Conant worked to enhance Harvard's position as a national institution with an international reputation for academic achievement. He established the National Scholarships which allowed young men of intellectual promise to attend Harvard College regardless of their financial circumstances or proximity to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also broadened the intellectual scope of the undergraduate student body through the General Education Program. This program required each undergraduate, regardless of his concentration, to take courses in three broad disciplines: the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. President Conant further promoted intellectual exchange through the establishment of the prestigious University Professorships, which gave leading scholars tenured appointments at the University, unencumbered by ties to specific faculties or departments.
Conant's achievements also included expansion in the teaching of education and of journalism. In the fall of 1935 the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Education voted to recommend his plan for the establishment of a new degree, the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.). The M.A.T. required prospective teachers to demonstrate a command of educational theory as well as familiarity with specific subjects by undergoing examination by members from both the teaching faculty and their specific subject faculty. Three years later, Conant helped to establish the Nieman Fellowships. These fellowships fund a year of study at Harvard for professional journalists.
During wartime, Conant balanced his service to the University with a commitment to national affairs. In 1917 he briefly left Harvard to join the Chemical Warfare Service and by the end of the First World War he was promoted to the rank of major. Conant, an outspoken critic of Nazi Germany, played a more prominent role during the Second World War. As a member and chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, he and his colleagues were responsible for the technical direction of military scientific research, including atomic research. At the end of the war he declined to become the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, although he continued to serve as Chairman of the National Science Board.
Conant retired from Harvard in 1953. He immediately began another of his "lives," serving as U.S. High Commissioner to Germany and Ambassador to Germany. In 1957 he resigned his diplomatic post and once again turned his attention to American education. In 1957, Conant, along with the Educational Testing Service, administered a large scale study of American high schools. Following this, he studied and reported on teacher education in American Universities. In 1964, he returned to Berlin for eighteen months as an educational advisor under the auspices of the Ford Foundation.
Conant spent his final years as a resident of New York City, Summering in Hanover, New Hampshire. He took ill in Hanover during the spring of 1977 and remained there until his death on February 11, 1978. He was survived by his wife who died in 1985 and his sons James Richards and Theodore Richards.
Series and Sub-series in the Collection
- Biographical Materials (6.5 cubic feet)
- ___General biographical
- ___Personal and family materials
- ___Materials gathered for memoirs
- ___Awards, certificates, and gifts
- ___Newspaper clippings
- Science materials (3 cubic feet)
- ___Lab notebooks and Journals
- ___Instruction in the Natural Sciences
- President of Harvard (.3 cubic foot)
- World War II Papers (3 cubic feet)
- ___Radio Addresses and Speeches
- ___Baruch Rubber Survey
- ___Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies
- ___Harvard Group for American Defense
- ___Writings on World War II
- ___Scrapbooks and Photograph
- High Commissioner and Ambassador to Germany (4.5 cubic feet)
- ___Sound Recordings
- ___ Newspaper Clippings
- Education Policy Reform (25 cubic feet)
- ___A Study of the American High School
- ___A Study of the Education of American Teachers
- ___Subject Files
- ___Major Writings on Education Reform
- ___Speeches and Articles on Education Reform
- ___Subject Files on Education Reform
- ___Educational Advisor to Berlin
- ___Writings about Conant's educational reform policies
- Correspondence (4.5 cubic feet)
- ___Personal correspondence
- ___Early Professional Correspondence
- ___Late Professional Correspondence
- Subject Files (2 cubic feet)
No accruals are expected.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Material in this collection was received in more than a dozen accessions over a period of more than 20 years from the Office of the President, Mr. Conant, and Mrs. Conant. Accessions began arriving during Conant's tenure as President of Harvard University (1933-1953) and stopped before 1975.
Accession 14475, consisting solely of a snapshot of James Bryant Conant and his sisters, Marjorie and Esther, ca. 1915, was received 2002 January 3 from Christopher Hatch.
This document last updated 2020 November 23.
Portions of the collection may be stored in an off-campus facility. Researchers are advised to contact the Harvard University Archives for more information concerning retrieval of material.
Processed by staff members of the Harvard University Archives ca. 1960 - 1998.
In 1993, the Archives staff rehoused the collection in new archival containers. In the course of this project they reorganized some of the series and updated the inventory accordingly.
In 1998, the collection was rearranged into an entirely new hierarchy of series and subseries by Jackie Dean. The call numbers from the old arrangement were removed and the collection was assigned one call number and contiguous box numbers. An entirely new inventory was created to express the new series hierarchy.
Folder titles for folders containing paper documents are generally those that appeared on the folder as received; titles for other formats of material, such as scrapbooks, sound recordings, and photographs are chiefly descriptive and the creation of Archives' staff.
A copy of the 1993 inventory and a document that maps the old call numbers to the new series arrangement is available at the Harvard University Archives.
- Conant, James Bryant, 1893-1978. Papers of James Bryant Conant, 1862-1987 : an inventory
- Harvard University Archives
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository
Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA