Books: Low Protean

MY SEVERAL LIVES: MEMOIRS OF A SOCIAL INVENTOR by James B. Conant. 701 pages. Harper & Row. $12.50.

In 1920, not long before he was married, 27-year-old James Bryant Conant confessed to his financée that he had three ambitions. The first was to become the leading organic chemist in the U.S. "After that," he said, "I would like to be president of Harvard; and after that, a Cabinet member, perhaps Secretary of the Interior."

Conant very nearly did it all. When he left the laboratory in 1933 to become Harvard's 23rd president, his work on...