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Theses of the Rich and Famous

From sex to spectral lines

By Gil Citro

Some Presidents, sexologists and Nobel Prize winners have all experienced the quintessential rite of senior year: the honors thesis. Bleary-eyed, sick of coffee and immune to NoDoz, some of Harvard's famous graduates have toiled day and night only to produce a large paper that has no bearing on their later life. Others have turned their theses into books or have drawn upon the methodology and ideas in later research and projects.

In negotiating with various deans, faculty members and students, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 undoubtably draws upon information learned while writing his government honors thesis on "The Importance of Diplomatic Procedures: A Case Study of the European Concert in the Near East 1894-1898." Jewett's thesis, like the others noted here, all were good enough to join the elite collection stored for eternity in the Harvard archives.

Other famous Harvard graduates wrote their senior and graduate theses on topics far removed from their eventual profession. But, even when there is no direct similarity, the methods learned while writing a thesis no doubt aid in future research endearvors.

It might seem a long way from studying wasps to studying sex, but applied biology graduate student Alfred C. Kinsey '20 apparently learned about the importance of rigorous scientific methods of classification while writing "Studies of Gall Wasps (Cynipidae, Hymenoptera)." He later applied these methods of classification to his famous Kinsey Reports: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1953. The Kinsey Reports have frequently been called the first scientific examination of American sexual behavior.

Students often dream of turning their thesis into a popular book. Researched with the help of the U.S. ambassador to Britain (who just happened to be his father), John F. Kennedy '40 wrote his thesis on "Appeasement at Munich (The Inevitable Result of the Slowness of Conversion of the British Democracy from a Disarmament to a Rearmament Policy)." After graduating, the future president did some additional editing and then published the book which first brought him notice: While Britain Slept.

Although now at the helm of the world's most powerful wartime machinery, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38 took an early interest in the bureaucracy of a more peaceful department. His thesis was "The Farm Credit Administration: A Study of Administrative Activities and Techniques."

Some graduates continue in the field of their undergraduate work. Perhaps some of the passages in "West Side Story" were developed while Leonard Bernstein '39 was writing his thesis on "The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music". The conductor, pianist, composer and teacher penciled on the back of one of the pages, "I wonder what critics in 1975 will have to say on a young American composer of 1938!"

Even when graduates don't pursue their thesis work after college, sometimes the topics come back to them in interesting ways.

Nicholas S. Daniloff '56 wrote his government honors thesis on "Political Obligation in the Thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus." In what was perhaps an existential forshadowing of his later capture and brief imprisonment by the KGB, he wrote in his thesis, "what makes their ideas relevant to the subject is that both of them intensely live, and write about a peculiar crisis, a crisis at once philisophical, ethical, and political."

Some theses simply display traits which are continued in later life. Henry A. Kissinger '50 wrote "Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant." Not known for his brevity, Kissinger's thesis was 388 pages even after sections had been omitted. He wrote, "The length is due to the fact that I did not realize the implications of the subject when I started work on this thesis." The Government Department thereafter instituted a 120-page limit for senior theses, and students are expected to consider all of the implications of a subject before sitting down at the typewriter.

One of Kissinger's peers, Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under President Carter, prepared for his job by writing his 1953 graduate School of Education thesis on "The Permanent Purge and Soviet Totalitarianism."

Another diplomatic thesis was that of Ralph Johnson Bunche, M.A. '34, on "French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey." Bunche later served as undersecretary of the United Nations from 1955-71.

Many future scientists have gone on to even greater heights of glory after first exploring topics in their theses. The 1972 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Christian Boehmer Anfinsen wrote his 1943 graduate thesis on "Quantitative Histochemical Studies of the Retina."

Nobel laureate and physicist Philip W. Anderson '43 wrote his 1949 Ph.D. dissertation on, "The Theory of Broadening of Spectral Lines in the Microwave and Infrared Regions," and received the Swedish prize in 1977.

During his years at the Medical school George D. Snell wrote his 1930 graduate thesis on "Observations on Three Unit Characteristics of the House Mouse, Short-Ear, Hairless, and Naked, with Special Reference to Linkage." Fifty years later, presumably after dealing with many more mice, he too picked up a Nobel Prize.

Regardless of their position in later life, Harvard graduates undoubtedly will remember their theses. If not for its bearing on their profession, at least for its disruption of their senior year; a time that did not have to be spent inside dark libraries and in front of cold word processors. That some Harvard graduates have gone on to fame and infamy probably has little to do with their senior thesis. But then again, it might please a bio concentrator, currently toiling in a lab, to think that one day, instead of insects, he or she could be writing about sex.

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