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HARVARD AT 375

What you may not know about Harvard

Sizing up the university’s influence over the centuries, from Wall Street to Washington to your pantry.

By Dan Morrell
December 11, 2011
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Harvard, which celebrates its 375th anniversary this year, has produced eight US presidents, more than 100 members of Congress, dozens of Fortune 500 CEOs, and laid claim to 68 Nobel Prizes. Heck, even its dropouts have changed the world. (Sometimes, especially them.) But the school’s reach also extends to more mundane areas: kitchen pantries, even the school calendar. Here’s a closer look.

THIS NEW IDEA (THAT ISN’T FACEBOOK!) BROUGHT TO YOU BY HARVARD UNIVERSITY

ADMISSION BASED ON THE SAT

In 1934, Harvard president James Conant first used the test – developed by a Princeton researcher – to help pick scholarship recipients. The next year, it became a requirement for all Harvard students and was soon used by the whole Ivy League. Conant’s goals for the test, though, went beyond ensuring student fitness; he hoped SATs would change society. Assistant dean Henry Chauncey said Conant, repeatedly questioning him about the test’s ability to measure aptitude, told him over and over again: “That’s what I want to measure, because that is the way I think we can give poor boys the best chance and take away the advantage of rich boys.” (Girls, rich or poor, couldn’t attend Harvard as undergrads until 1973.)

BAKING POWDER

Before “molecular gastronomy,” there was Eben Norton Horsford, a Harvard chemistry professor who found a faster and easier replacement for yeast: calcium acid phosphate baking powder, for which he received a patent in 1865.

PATENTED ANIMALS

In 1988, Harvard earned the first-ever patent on a living animal: a mouse bred to develop cancer. Medical School scientists Philip Leder and Timothy Stewart created the OncoMouse as a tool for cancer researchers and licensed the patent to Du Pont. The animals would be sold to labs by Du Pont – for $50 apiece – and were named one of the hottest products of the year by Fortune magazine. The patent announcement began a global debate about the copyrighting of living organisms and drew criticism from both animal-rights activists and members of Congress, who unsuccessfully requested a short-term moratorium on animal patents.

THE DESIGNATED DRIVER

After popular WBZ reporter Dennis Kauff was killed by a drunk driver in 1985, Jay Winsten and his colleagues at Harvard’s School of Public Health formulated a national awareness campaign based on a “designated driver” concept that had shown promise in Scandinavia. The school’s program kicked off three years later with televised public service announcements and mentions in episodes of Cheers and L.A. Law. Six years later, national alcohol-related traffic fatalities had declined by 30 percent and have continued to drop, falling a total of more than 40 percent from 1988 to 2009.

MODERN COMPUTERS

As a junior faculty member, Howard Aiken invented the programmable digital computer in 1944, almost despite the university’s efforts. When he started working on the project, university president James Conant sternly told Aiken in a letter that if he “persisted in devoting all his time and energy to computing rather than to research in electronics, there would be no future for him” there. In spite of this warning, Aiken, working with IBM engineers, turned out the Harvard Mark I, a 5-ton beast that was 8 feet high, 51 feet long, and 1 foot wide.

NAPALM

This combustible jelly, used extensively by US forces in bombing campaigns during World War II and later in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, was born in Professor Louis Fieser’s lab in 1942. Thirty years later, Fieser would become an anti-napalm activist, writing to President Nixon that it “seems to me desirable to try to promote an international agreement to outlaw further use.”

ORGAN TRANSPLANTS

After years of perfecting his technique on dogs, Harvard Medical School professor Joseph Murray executed the first-ever organ transplant – a kidney, from one twin to another – in 1954.

United Press International

Psychology professor Timothy Leary.

PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE

Psychology professor Timothy Leary and his two-year-long Harvard Psilocybin Project took many of the LSD proponent’s like-minded students and colleagues – and, on at least one occasion, poet and Columbia man Allen Ginsberg – on long hallucinogenic searches in the name of science. But to the Harvard administration, his interest in academia seemed secondary to his acid evangelism. This, coupled with a growing push to criminalize psychedelics, got Leary and his crew fired, allowing a ready and willing San Francisco to take up the cultural reins.

SUMMER BREAK

The class of 1823 was an especially rowdy one. Think: huge bonfires in Harvard Yard, massive food fights in the dining hall, and at least one instance of a tutor getting doused with a bucket of ink and water. In fact, about half the class was expelled for misconduct, including the son of John Quincy Adams. (Who says the children of presidents get special treatment?) Attributing the antics to the hot weather, administrators moved to change the academic calendar to allow for an extended summer break, setting the modern standard.

VENTURE CAPITAL

There were a few family money operations placing bets on start-ups with Rockefeller and Whitney fortunes, but no venture capital firms before Harvard Business School professor Georges Doriot founded the American Research and Development Corp. in 1946. The firm established the modern model, raising money from any willing investor. One early win: $70,000 for 70 percent of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1957 grew to $400 million by 1972. Compare that with a similar investment in a Standard & Poor 500 Index fund, which would have netted about $300,000.

FROM THE HALLS OF ...

Great works: A selection of books tied to Harvard

LEONARD BERNSTEIN as a Harvard College undergraduate

 Piano Trio (1937)

CONNIE CHUNG while a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy

 “The Business of Getting ‘The Get’: Nailing an Exclusive Interview in Prime Time” (discussion paper, 1998)

MICHAEL CRICHTON as a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School

The Andromeda Strain (1969)

T.S. ELIOT begun while a Harvard graduate student

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)

HELEN KELLER as a Radcliffe College undergraduate

The Story of My Life (1903)

JOHN F. KENNEDY as a Harvard College senior

 Why England Slept (1940)

NORMAN MAILER begun while a Harvard College undergraduate

A Transit to Narcissus (1978)

VLADIMIR NABOKOV while a research fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

Bend Sinister (1947)

SAMANTHA POWER as a professor at the Kennedy School of Government

 A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002)

THOMAS WOLFE as a graduate student

Welcome to Our City (1923)

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. as director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research

 Colored People: A Memoir (1994)

Dan Morrell is a freelance writer in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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