The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Science >> Biography
James R. Killian

the first full-time presidential adviser for science

James R. Killian

James Rhyne Killian, Jr., was born in Blacksburg, South Carolina, on July 24, 1904. He attended the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennesee, and studied at Trinity College (now Duke University) from 1921 to 1923 before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where he was awarded his Bachelor of Science degree, in business and engineering administration, in 1926. He then became assistant managing editor of Technology Review, rising to managing editor in 1927 and editor in 1930.

In 1939 Killian became an aide to M.I.T. President Dr. Karl T. Compton. During World War II, much of Compton's attention was given to applying M.I.T. science to the war effort, leaving Killian to do much of the administering of M.I.T.'s academic programs. That work led to Killian being named Executive Vice-President of M.I.T. in 1943, Vice-President and a member of the Corporation in 1945, and President in 1949.

As President of M.I.T., Killian was instrumental in the establishment of a School of Humanities and Social Studies. Other new units of the university set up during his tenure were the School of Industrial Management, the Center for International Studies, and the Lincoln Laboratory. He also oversaw much new building as well as the expansion of the university's research, its graduate programs, and its instruction in the social sciences and the humanities. During that period he also headed a Technological Capabilities Panel, which between 1951 and 1959 made recommendations to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the National Security Council about ways to advance the missile program and about other aspects of military technology.

The Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik I in 1957 spurred President Eisenhower to ask Killian to serve as the first full-time Presidential Science Adviser. In that capacity, Killian created the President's Science Advisory Committee, which he formed by taking over the Office of Defense Mobilization's Science Advisory Committee and putting it directly under the President; he subsequently served as chairman of that committee. Recommendations made by the committee led directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. The committee was also responsible for expanding the program of the National Science Foundation and increasing its funding to $136 million in the fiscal year 1959, up from $50 million in 1958.

Killian resigned as President Eisenhower's adviser in July 1959 and returned to M.I.T., where, in early 1959, he had been named chairman of the university's corporation, in which capacity he was heavily involved in fund raising for the university. He also stayed on as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee until 1961, and continued his government service in John F. Kennedy's Administration as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He retired as chairman of the M.I.T. Corporation in 1971, becoming honorary chairman.

As chairman of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television from 1965 to 1967 and chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1973 and 1974, Killian spearheaded a report that established the framework for a nationwide, government-supported network of public television stations. All told, he was on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 1968 to 1975, serving as chairman in 1973 and 1974. He was also at various times a director or trustee of, among others, the General Advisory Committee of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Mount Holyoke College, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Polaroid Corporation, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the General Motors Corporation. He described his experiences as a presidential advisor in Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower: A Memoir of the First Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (1977).

James R. Killian, Jr., died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 29, 1988.

New York Times

World War II
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
President John F. Kennedy

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Science >> Biography

This page was last updated on 12/28/2017.