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John E. Burchard papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0076

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The papers document Burchard's professional and, to some extent, personal activities from 1923 to 1975. The bulk of the material dates from 1931 to 1975.


  • Creation: 1923 - 1975


Access note

This collection is open.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


John Ely Burchard, MIT’s first dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science, was widely known as an authority on architecture and cities.

Burchard was born in Marshall, Minn., in 1898. After two and a half years at the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Minnesota, his education was interrupted by service with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, American Expeditionary Forces, until 1919. He graduated from MIT with the degree of Bachelor of Science in architectural engineering in 1923, and received the degree of Master of Science in 1925. While a graduate student, Burchard was assistant to the head of MIT's Department of Civil and Sanitary Engineering. He also served as a part-time instructor in English from 1924 to 1925; in architecture, from 1926 to 1930; and wrote for the BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT and the BOSTON GLOBE.

Upon completion of his graduate work, Burchard joined the staff of Bemis Industries, Inc., and during a period of thirteen years became director of research, vice president, and a member of the board of directors of that corporation and of its subsidiary, Housing Company. It was during this period that he became well known for his work in housing. In 1938 he returned to the Institute as director of the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, with the rank of professor.

From 1940 to 1945, Burchard was on leave of absence from the Institute for war work. He served progressively as executive officer of a committee of the National Research Council; chief of one of the eighteen divisions of the National Defense Research Committee; chair of the two ad hoc committees engaged in studying the problems of navigation and of demolition of obstacles to landing operations in preparation for the great amphibious operations which marked the last phase of the war; and deputy chief of the Office of Field Services.

He was chair of the Joint Army-Navy-OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development) Committee on Scientific Information Policy and of the OSRD Publications Committee, and a member of the Committee on Conservation of Cultural Resources of the National Resources Planning Board. As part of his war work Burchard headed four military scientific missions to theaters of operation which included the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, the Central Pacific, and Germany. In recognition of his war efforts he was awarded the Medal for Merit, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Truman in February 1948.

Burchard returned from war work in 1946 to take up interim duties as Director of Libraries at MIT, a post to which he was appointed in 1944. During his term of office, plans were consummated for the construction of the Charles Hayden Memorial Library. He served as a member of the National Cooperative Committee on Library Building Plans which, under a Rockefeller Foundation grant, prepared a monograph, PLANNING THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY BUILDING, published by the Princeton University Press in 1949. He was chair of the subcommittee of three charged with producing this monograph.

John Burchard was the first dean of the MIT School of Humanities and Social Studies (later Humanities and Social Science), which was founded in 1950. During his administration the school grew enormously in size, influence and reputation. The Center for International Studies was established and strong graduate programs were developed in political science, philosophy, psychology and linguistics, added to the existing program in economics. Burchard was responsible for the initiation of Course XXI, in which students major in humanities or social sciences in combination with science or engineering. He inaugurated the unique "Humanities in French" courses offered to qualified underclassmen. The music program came to maturity and a new dramatic program was organized.

Burchard was general chair of the Convocation of Social Implications of Scientific Programs, which was held at the Institute in April 1949 and addressed by the late Sir Winston Churchill, and edited MID-CENTURY: THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS. He contributed a chapter called "Technology and Personality" to the book RELIGIOUS FAITH AND WORLD CULTURE, a symposium for the Church Peace Union (Prentice Hall, Inc., 1951); and gave the 1953 Canadian Hazen Lectures, "The Dilemmas of General Education," distributed by The Hazen Foundation. He contributed a chapter to BRAINPOWER QUESTtitle> (Macmillan, 1957) and a chapter "The Urban Aesthetic" to the November 1957 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political Science. He was author of the chapter, "The Meaning of Architecture" in What America Stands For (University of Notre Dame Press, 1958). In 1960 he contributed a chapter to An Outline of Man's Knowledge of the Modern World (McGraw Hill), edited by Lyman Bryson. He was consulting editor on architecture of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, member of the editorial board of Daedalus, and consulting editor of The Architectural Record (1958-61).

After his retirement as dean in 1964, Burchard devoted much of his time to consulting on large urban developments and to studies in architectural history. He was also a visiting professor at the University of California (Berkeley) and head of the Department of Design in the College of Environmental Design there.

In addition, Burchard wrote extensively, both for domestic and foreign periodicals, on housing, library planning, architecture, and educational and cultural subjects. He was co author with Lincoln Thiesmeyer of Combat Scientists and editor of Rockets, Guns and Targets, both of which were in the series dealing with the official history of OSRD; co-author with Albert Farwell Bemis of The Evolving House; and author of Q.E.D.: M.I.T. in World War II. With Professor Albert Bush Brown he wrote a comprehensive history of American architecture, The Architecture of America, A Social and Cultural History (Atlantic Little, Brown) and with Oscar Handlin The Historian and the City (MIT Press).

Burchard was a member of the Board of Trustees, Mount Holyoke College (1951-1961); the Board of Trustees of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1957-1960); the Advisory Board of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (some of the time chair), Kings Point, New York (1953-1960); principal consultant to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago (1955-1960); and chair of the MIT Press Board (1946-1964). He was general chair of the MIT Centennial observances in 1961.

He was awarded insignia of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Officier) by the Government of France in 1964 and honorary degrees by Union College, Schenectady, New York, and the University of Michigan. He was a member at large of the American Council of Learned Societies (1951-1955) and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (vice president 1953; president 1954, 1955 and 1956).

He was a member of the panel on Science and Engineering Education of the President's Science Advisory Committee, which prepared the report issued by the White House on May 24, 1959, entitled "Education for the Age of Science"; and he was a member of the Commission on Instruction and Evaluation of the American Council on Education. In 1960 he was one of four American delegates to a Conference in Japan on "Science and Modern Civilization." 1966.

John Burchard was married to Marjorie Walker Gaines, a graduate of Smith College. They had two sons, John Ely Burchard, Jr., and Marshall Gaines Burchard.

Burchard died in 1975.


7.3 Cubic Feet (7 record cartons, 1 manuscript box)

Language of Materials


Arrangement note

Organized into four series: Series 1. Biographical Materials; Series 2. MIT Related Materials; Series 3. Other Professional Activities; Series 4. Speeches and Writings.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Related Materials in the Institute Archives

MIT School of Humanities and Social Science, Office of the Dean Records (AC 20).

MIT Libraries Records, 1889-1980 (AC 47)

Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation Records, 1926-1954 (AC 302).

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Preliminary Inventory to the Papers of John E. Burchard
Ready For Review
Jeffrey Mifflin
Copyright 1989
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
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