Posts Tagged ‘biotechnology’

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From its founding by William Barton Rogers in 1861, MIT’s prominence as an institution for educating the world’s foremost scientists, engineers, economists and entrepreneurs is unquestioned; though along the way it has experienced numerous challenges – commencing with its founding, its mission and at more than one juncture, its very independence.  But throughout its existence, faithfulness to its motto, “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand) has embodied its core philosophy.

In the late 1960s, the War in Vietnam presented a serious dilemma for the Institute, whose “Special Laboratories” (those entities that were engaged in military research and development) provided the flashpoint for vigorous student protests – both peaceful and violent. These entities, such as Lincoln Laboratory and the Instrumentation Laboratory, brought in significant amounts of public and private investment for the Institute, but were pilloried by many for their contribution to the war effort. The administration’s handling of this contentious period would alter the direction of the Institute to this day.

The musical group The Grateful Dead performing at MIT in 1970, at the height of anti-Vietnam War protests on the campus. Courtesy, MIT Museum

Editor David Kaiser, in his Introduction to Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, notes that among its distinguished alumni are fifty Nobel laureates, thirty-three MacArthur “genius award” fellows, and four Pulitzer Prize-winners. But arguably just as provocative has been MIT’s approach to broader trends within education and how it’s studied its own history in order to determine how the Institute will tackle future challenges and opportunities. The history of MIT is in so many ways intertwined with the history of high tech that it deserves the kind of lucid and authoritative narrative Kaiser and his fellow technology historians such as Merritt Roe Smith, Christophe Lécuyer and Deborah Douglas provide. Though each has had a relationship of varying extent with MIT, the book is very even-handed in its analysis and for that its editor deserves high praise. The book is a centerpiece of the Institute’s sesquicentennial celebrations, which are presently being held on its campus throughout 2011.

Alexander Graham Bell used MIT’s physics laboratory in the 1870s, and during the decades of the mid 20th century was a pioneer in diverse fields such as information theory, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. They were innovators in the development of silicon chips, digital computation and time-shared computing. And the Internet, along with many of its important components, including encryption technology, has strong ties to MIT.

In aeronautics, MIT students’ experiments with wind tunnels predated those of the Wright brothers, and Charles Stark Draper (the namesake of Cambridge’s Draper Laboratories) and his crew later designed the guidance and navigation systems for both ballistic missiles and the Apollo moon landing crafts. Additionally, several of MIT’s alumni have served in top positions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

During the 1970s, MIT’s efforts in the “war on cancer” paved the way for the now extensive biotechnology industry, and more recently, MIT scientists headed the “Human Genome Project.” Such advances have been followed by significant private investment and financing, which in turn has resulted in numerous industry-leading facilities on the MIT campus – including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Karl Taylor Compton, MIT president (1930-1948). Courtesy, MIT.

MIT has been at the forefront of such disciplines as economics, human cognition and behavior, media studies. And likewise, it has been a leader in formulating and implementing science policy. Several of MIT’s presidents, such as Karl Compton in the 1940s and more recently, President Emeritus Charles M. Vest, have served in advisory capacities with federal agencies and for U.S. presidents. In this and many other ways, the vision of the Institute’s founder, William Barton Rogers, has been fulfilled. The establishment of a laboratory-based system of instruction that employed training in the natural sciences paired with practical application has made it a model for science teaching throughout the world.

More complex – and at times, troubling – has been MIT’s historic partnerships with private industry. From the turn of the 19th/20th century and the Institute’s collaboration with defense firms, MIT has secured defense contracts which dwarfed its academic rivals; but this has also resulted in internal and external criticism. The latter was more than evident during Vietnam; but the former originated with its own faculty, who while appreciating the facilities and security private investment could provide, were similarly appreciative of how industry constricted academic freedom to both publish findings and collaborate with other colleagues.

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, MIT president (1909-1920). Courtesy, MIT.

President Richard C. Maclaurin (1909-1920) in initiating his so-called “Tech Plan”, was well-intentioned, but was also a prime originator of this tension. His successor, Karl Compton, who ironically served as a board member at American Research and Development Corporation (the first public venture capital company), worked hard to mediate this antagonism – attempting to maintain autonomy for the Institute while still cultivating patronage from private industry.

(Next in Part 2: The founding of MIT, and Harvard as rival, doppelgänger, and for a brief moment, degree-conferring partner).


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