On certain Saturday afternoons in the spring of 1934, goes a budding legend, a youthful, wiry individual could be seen tossing pebbles against the windows of Converse chemical laboratory off Oxford Street. The individual was James Bryant Conant, twenty-third president of Harvard University, and he was engaged in a wistful attempt to return to his first love. When he had taken office the previous fall Conant had been in the midst of several exciting experiments in organic chemistry which were still being carried on by assistants. Thus every so often during his first year he would escape from the president's office and wander down to Converse to see how things were going, only to remember that he no longer had a key to the lab. The pebble-against-window method was his means of solving the problem.
Conant today calls the legend entirely untrue, but admits that "perhaps it is symbolic," Eighteen years later he feels that he has succeeded in shutting off chemistry in a small, little used corner of his mind. True, there are occasional twinges when he reads chemical journals or revises his standard textbook on the subject, but he has done no actual research since becoming president. He gives infrequent but spectacular demonstrations in Natural Science courses, but as he says "since 1933 I can't claim to have advanced the barriers of science one millimeter."
In return for giving up a possible Nobel Prize. Conant 'has directed a great university to some of its most notable triumphs, has made the crucial decision to build the atomic bomb, and has become the most incisive defender of liberal education in the United States today. Inevitably he has also become the sort of public figures editors cherish for making news no matter what he speaks on. Conant is a familiar figure to periodical readers; to devotes of "Scientific American" he is known as a top-notch organic chemist, to the faithful of the "Boston Pilot" he appears as the arch-enemy of the parochial school system, and to those who buy the "Chicago Tribune" he is a minister Mother Hubbard nourishing a band of "Red fellow-travelers" under the guise of academic freedom.
The fame--and notoriety--that Conant has gained in non-Cambridge circles has served to a great extent to place him in a sphere far outside that of the ordinary undergraduate. To the average Harvard student Conant at times appears little more than a glossy figure-head who journeys around the country gaining prestige while the University is run by some people over in University Hall. Faculty members smile gently at this notion, they realize that Conant, as he should be, is by far the most influential figure in the administration of the University, and that his influence stems not only from his intellectual leadership but also from plain administrative power. In fact at one period the faculty considered Conant so over bearing that some of its members characterized him as "ruthless" and "a slide rule administrator."
Much of his power stems from the fact that he takes an important part in the naming of every member of any University faculty to a post of permanent tenure associate professor or above. Not an associate professor of pediatrics is appointed without Conant's approval. The methods for making permanent appointments vary from faculty to faculty, but in the college Conant began a system of "ad hoe" committees which are set up every time a department is about to make a permanent appointment Separate committees are set up for each appointment and their membership usually includes scholars from other universities along with local faculty members but Conant is always the chairman.
The legend of Conant the Wandering Scholar therefore has little substance An undergraduate impression also shared by many alumni and even some faculty members--that is harder to kill is of Conant the Cold-Fish Chemist. The 59-year-old Conant is no rollicking extrovert, but stuffed-shirt dignity is also not a part of his make-up. The summer after he was elected president he spent abroad with his wife: they created a sensation by traveling second-class on the "Europa." A CRIMSON of that same era reported that Conant's outstanding characteristic was his shyness; as substantiation it reported the following conversation between Conant and a man he was calling up to appoint his secretary:
Man--What is it please?
Conant--is this Vernon Munroe?
Munroe--Speaking. Who's this?
Munroe--who did you say?
Munroe--Sorry, I'm afraid I don't know you.
Conant--James Conant, the chap they just elected president of Harvard.
Other observers who happened to be at the right place at the right time in that same fall noticed the president playing touch football with his sons in the Yard behind his house on Quincy Street. According to a CRIMSON of the fall of 1933, the football-playing president "appeared to be enjoying himself hugely." The president's athletic pretensions have not always lain along such hap-hazard lines in the summer of 1937 he went with a group to climb in the Sierra Nevadas "real rope stuff" Conant refers to it. The next two summers he climbed in the Canadian Rockies and then was elected to the American Alpine Club. A wrenched back and the Second World War put an end to his mountain-climbing expeditions but since the war he has continued as he says, "in the hobby of walking uphill." His other outdoor recreation at present consists of trout fishing. Last summer's trip to Australia and New Zealand was a disappointment to him only in that it was winter. Down Under and the fishing season was over.