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This Week in MIT History

By Aaron D. Mihalik

Associate Features Editor

During the first week of April 1949, MIT brought together distinguished political leaders, educators and scientists to discuss the role of scientific discovery in shaping our civilization. These great minds spent three days appraising the state of the post-war world and discussing the role that MIT would play in the development of the world in the later half of the 20th century.

The two principal speakers were Winston Churchill, the prime minister of wartime Great Britain, and the newly elected U.S. president, Harry Truman. Truman, however, backed out at the last minute and was replaced with Harold Stassen, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and a former Republican politician.

In a formal letter, Truman stated that he could not attend because “the situation in the Congress is a delicate one and I have to be available every minute from morning until late at night to accomplish the program which I believe to be of vital importance to the country.”

Truman’s critics, however, had a significantly different reason for Truman’s absence. A common opinion was that Truman was afraid of being upstaged by the colorful and eloquent Churchill.

Churchill never set foot on the MIT campus -- no MIT buildings were large enough to hold the number of people that wanted admission to the service. Instead, the Boston Bruins rearranged their home-game schedule to allow MIT to make use of the Boston Garden. All 13,909 seats were filled and an overflow audience of 4,500 watched the speech on a 10 foot by 13 foot television screen on the MIT campus.

Churchill’s address was covered extensively by American, British, French and Canadian broadcast networks. The address was the first national television hook-up to originate in Boston.

Since MIT does not bestow honorary degrees, the customary award is the appointment of honorary lecturer. The MIT Corporation appointed Churchill an honorary lecturer and noted him as a “warrior, statesman, student and maker of history.” MIT has also given honorary lectureships to philanthropists Cecil Green, Eugene McDermott, and Carl Mueller. The only other such honor given by MIT was to Salman Rushdie, who was named Honorary Visiting Professor of the Humanities in 1993.

The three days were filled with six discussion panels of distinguished guests. The first day opened with an address on the “State of Science” by MIT president Karl T. Compton and was followed by Churchill’s address “The Twentieth Century, Its Promise and Its Realization.” Other programs included “Men Against Nature, the Problem of World Production,” “Science, Materialism, and the Human Spirit,” and “The State, Industry, and the University.”

The convocation closed with the inauguration of James R. Killian, Jr., as the 10th president of MIT. In his address Killian focused on the “obligations and ideals of an institute of technology.” Killian emphasized that MIT students should be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in a broad range of social sciences and humanities.

Killian also noted that universities should remain independent in their funding, research, and education. MIT was the nation’s largest non-industrial defense contractor towards the end of World War II.