Now Available | Harold Brown Papers

The University Archives recently processed the Harold Brown papers. This small collection of course materials and student work offers a glimpse of life in the College during extraordinary times, in this case, World War II. Brown completed a BA in 1945, MA in 1946 and PhD in 1949.

This year’s Commencement Week in late April is definitely a change from the more traditional academic calendar, but this is not the first time Columbia has adapted to circumstances. Just as there is a full semester scheduled for Summer 2021, back in July 1943, Columbia College offered for the first time a full semester during the summer. [1] This new calendar, with terms designated by Roman numerals (I, II, III), ushered in a wartime, accelerated schedule for Columbia College students. A young Harold Brown, who had started at the College at age 15, took full advantage of the new system. In July 1945, Brown received his degree, with honors in Math and Physics, at the College’s seventh special graduation. Of the 104 students receiving their BAs, only 76, some in gowns and some in uniform, were present at the much smaller ceremony held at the Harkness Academic Theater inside Butler Library. In fact, the Columbia Alumni News issue that covers this special graduation also includes an article on Columbia’s “hush-hush war research program” and its role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Alexander Hamilton Award recipient Harold Brown (left) with Mary and Walter Cronkite, November 1990. Scan #4855. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

The Harold Brown papers include lecture notes, problem sets, lab reports, and blue books from his undergraduate and graduate days. The young physicist was a student of the Manhattan Project’s John R. Dunning and Nobel Prize winners Willis E. Lamb and C.S. Wu among others. While the thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and nuclear physics curricula of the time are well represented, this collection also includes materials related to the quintessential College experience: Contemporary Civilization. There are source books, manuals, assignment sheets and even review questions and exams covering everything from medieval society to the French Revolution.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Brown held the posts of Director of Defense Research and Engineering (1961-1965) and United States Secretary of the Air Force (1965-1969). He also served as President of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) (1969-1977) and returned to government service as United States Secretary of Defense from 1977 to 1981. His student papers were donated to the University Archives by his daughter, Ellen Dunning Brown, in January 2021. The rest of his papers were donated to the Library of Congress.

 [1] The School of Engineering started the accelerated program in Summer 1942.