Thomas H. Eliot

Twelfth Chancellor, 1962-71

1962: In July, Thomas Hopkinson Eliot, the vice chancellor–dean of faculties, took office as chancellor.
1963: The last streetcar to campus stopped running.
1964: The position of vice chancellor for medical affairs was created with Carl V. Moore the first to hold it. William H. Danforth succeeded Moore in 1965.
1964: About 67 percent of entering freshmen came from outside the St. Louis area.
1965: In February, Chancellor Eliot launched the “Seventy by ‘Seventy” campaign.
1965: Eliot broadened membership on the board of directors, which was renamed the Board of Trustees.
1968: In December, black students staged a sit-in in Brookings Hall.
1970: In the wake of the May 4 students’ deaths at Kent State, Washington University’s Air Force ROTC building was set on fire.

Thomas H. Eliot, the first Washington University chancellor born in the 20th century, was born in 1907, the grandson of Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot.

He was a fifth cousin to the poet T.S. Eliot and a distant descendent of Washington University co-founder and third chancellor, William Greenleaf Eliot. He was a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

A former congressman from Massachusetts and an ardent supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Eliot helped draft the Social Security Act and steer it through Congress in the 1930s. He spent two years as director of the New England Wage and Hour Division before being elected to Congress in 1940.

He served for one term and focused his efforts on civil liberties issues and preservation of New Deal social programs. During World War II he held various government posts, including chief of the London office of the Office of Wartime Information and special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. After the war he became a partner in a Boston law firm and in the early 1950s headed a special commission on the structure of state government. He also taught government at Harvard University and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I want to say one reassuring word. The university still stands. It stands: and, as it always has, it stands for the unterrified and unconfined search for truth.…As we gird to protect our beloved institution from the felonies of the few, we must also protect the freedom of the many — professors and students alike — to dissent, to criticize, to engage in intellectual controversy, to work together with minds unfettered and unafraid.” -Thomas H. Eliot, Founders Day remarks, February 28, 1970

Eliot came to Washington University in 1952 as professor and department chair of political science. He went on to serve as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and vice chancellor–dean of faculties before being named chancellor in 1962.

He shepherded Washington University in St. Louis through an era of both tremendous growth and conflict. The university was continuing its transition to a national institution, and by 1964 more than 60 percent of incoming students came from outside the St. Louis area. He set the course for a modern era of campus development, choosing quality over quantity, smaller classrooms, a steady state of enrollment and a concentration on personal attention to students.

President John F. Kennedy wrote at the time of Eliot’s inauguration: “For such a man, the past is prologue and, still youthful in years and outlook, I know he will lead Washington University to days of even greater distinction.”

Eliot helped the university weather the political and social storms of the 1960s, seeking compromise and communication instead of confrontation on issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War. He reorganized the School of Engineering and effectively managed a crisis of leadership at the School of Medicine. He established interdepartmental programs such as molecular biology, comparative literature and Asian studies, and helped start new departments such as Russian and anthropology. He began aggressively recruiting minority students to both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Fueled by a $15 million grant from the Ford Foundation, Eliot launched the successful “Seventy by ‘Seventy Campaign,” which aimed to raise $70 million by 1970, a feat that was accomplished a year ahead of schedule. He retired in 1971 and died 20 years later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at age 84.

Next: Thirteenth Chancellor William H. Danforth
Previous: Eleventh Chancellor Carl Tolman