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Dr. Lilli Hornig: A Prophetic Voice


Sr. Margaret Claydon and Dr. Lilli Hornig(Trinity President Sr. Margaret Claydon with Dr. Lilli Hornig at the Trinity 1973 Commencement where Dr. Hornig gave the address excerpted below, courtesy of Trinity Archives)

In the postwar era — the decades after World War II — Trinity was fortunate (as we are today as well) to have several faculty members, full-time and part-time, whose professional achievements in service to our nation were remarkable.  Among the notables were Dr. Edna Fluegel of Political Science who played a significant role in the creation of the United Nations; Dr. Jeanne Kirkpatrick who was an advisor to presidents and the first woman to be the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Dr. D.B. Hardeman who was an aide to the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn; and Dr. Lilli Hornig of Chemistry who was a pioneer for women in science.

Dr. Hornig died last week and her obituary in the New York Times lists her many achievements, and also reflects her later ambivalence about working on the Manhattan Project, the top secret endeavor that led to the creation of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where it’s likely she met another Trinity faculty member from the early 1940’s Dr. Elizabeth Rona.  (Listen/watch Dr. Hornig’s oral history interview on “Voices of the Manhattan Project”) Dr. Hornig was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard University, and she devoted most of her life to advancing the cause of women in science.  Among many achievements in women’s advocacy, she founded the great HERS Institute (Higher Education Resource Services) to develop women leaders for higher education.  She joined Trinity’s Chemistry faculty in the late 1960’s and chaired the department for several years.

Lilli Hornig and student(Dr. Lilli Horning with a Trinity student, 1967 Trinilogue)

In 1973, Dr. Hornig gave Trinity’s Commencement Address, and it’s quite remarkable for its prophetic echo in today’s national crisis of governance and fundamental political philosophy for our nation, as well as for the ongoing problem of discrimination and limitations on opportunities for women and persons of color in this society.  Below are excerpts from that remarkable address:

Excerpts from 1973 Trinity Commencement Address of Dr. Lilli Hornig

Inescapably, the events that set this commencement season apart from every other are the series of revelations concerning pervasive corruption and wrongdoing at the highest levels of our government.  Being in this lovely city which has for so long symbolized our nation’s belief in the orderly processes of government lends a special poignancy to the moral shock which these events engender.

The still unfolding Watergate story, with its sordid attempts to undermine and pervert the judicial process, to invade privacy, to abridge the constitutional rights of individuals, to deceive the public, to misuse funds, and to abuse the powers of the Presidency, has had an especially strong impact because for many of us it epitomizes so much of what we have dimly sensed to be wrong with our lives.

Most of us, I think, suffer from a feeling that somehow things have gotten away from us, that there are simply too many things happening over which we have no control.

What kind of a world have we created for ourselves?  What have we done wrong that the very basis of civilized living, the process by which we govern ourselves, should be so  threatened?

In some circles it has been fashionable for the last few years to blame the erosion of values and of the quality, of life on science and technology. The rationalism and the objectivity of science, it is argued, have brutalized us and undermined our emotional sensitivities; the achievements   of technology have catered to our basest material impulses. The rest of the argument is that to save ourselves we must retreat from reason and objectivity as intellectual ideals, and listen to our hearts instead of our heads.

This kind of thinking, if it can be dignified with that word, has been rather popular on many campuses.  I believe it was due mostly to an unwillingness to tackle the growing complexities of the modern world, a kind of battle fatigue with having to face a new problem as soon as an old one is solved.  There is no doubt that science and technology are responsible for that complexity.  The discovery of  antibiotics shortly before most of you were born, and the development of other wonder drugs and medical techniques, very nearly eradicated many formerly fatal or debilitating diseases; that made possible a much greater survival rate for infants and a longer and more productive life span.  Those medical advances coupled with improved agricultural practices which enable us to feed all these people better than ever before have resulted in doubling the world’s population in the last 35 years and will double it again in the next 30.

Science has given us instant communication around the globe, so that we may view the beauties of nature in the South Pacific or the atrocities of war in Southeast Asia in our living rooms, talk to friends in Europe or a man on the moon, and flood the world with ideas, with finely honed prose, or with   drivel.

In addition, science and technology have given us the tools to make war on a global scale and to destroy ourselves completely.  But that same kind of knowledge has also enabled us to produce material benefits of enormous dimensions, so that we have physical comforts and conveniences never dreamed of before. The same kind of knowledge has also made it possible for the masses to enjoy the pleasures of art and music and literature that used to be reserved for a favored few.  Compared to a century ago, we are all wallowing in luxury of body and spirit most of the time.

What we are just beginning to realize is that there is a price tag attached to everything we have accomplished, and that in fact we have already paid a steep price for some of our advantages. All the people and all the goods we have produced have taken their toll of our environment already, in a very real and physical sense.  Some of the raw materials we consume can be recycled at a price – but some of them, like the fossil fuels we have used up, are gone forever.  Some of our problems are managerial ones: we have not yet devised the necessary mechanisms for simply coping with so many of ourselves.

The mutual interactions of so many people generate relationships in geometric progression, and much of our  trouble is that we don’t yet know how to organize these relationships in meaningful ways. To take a simple illustration of what I mean, consider the relationships of a single person a century ago:  he or she had family, friends, and fellow workers nearby, and communicated occasionally by mail with far-away relatives and acquaintances.  Now that same person is linked to fewer relatives but many more other people – by telephone, television, computer, the daily news and occasionally even by mail.  His or her interactions with all these people are now less intimate and real, but infinitely more complex, because all the people he has to deal with may also be in touch with each other, and in addition have their own group of contacts, also interacting.  The possibilities of something going wrong, of misunderstandings developing and mistakes being made, become almost infinite.

It is true that all these things – bad and good – have come about as the result of science, in the broad sense of knowledge.  But it is not true that they themselves are an inherent attribute of science. They result from the fact that it is human beings who use science with their ancient capacity for turning it to evil purposes as well as good; how we apply knowledge is our choice.  But it is also not true that we are going to solve the resultant problems by turning away from knowledge to contemplation, by building laboriously with our own hands what we can build better and more cheaply with tools and machines, in short by returning to the simple life. Whatever nostalgia it may evoke, your ancestors abandoned that simple life because it was not in fact very satisfying.

We cannot turn the clock back ; we have to move forward to make progress. The most basic human drive is the instinct for survival.  It expresses itself in the acquisition of power – power to control a hostile physical environment and power to control hostile neighbors with whom you must compete for subsistence. It was the acquisition of knowledge that enabled our earliest forebears to grow food rather than gather it, to raise domestic animals rather than hunt wild ones, and thus to have enough food so they didn’t need to kill the family in the next cave in order to survive.

It took thousands of years for mankind to learn enough so that not everyone was fully occupied just producing enough food; some people became free to do other things – to contribute to their communities through business and trade, to develop methods of governing themselves, to produce useful items like clothing, to develop written language and art and music.  In this nation, the most advanced of all, it takes the work of only 7% of the population to produce more than enough food for all of us. That means that most of us, most of the time, are free to do other things.

This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus, the astronomer whose new vision of a universe governed by predictable laws of nature inaugurated the era of modern science.  The well-spring of science is human  curiosity, the need of the human mind to find out what it doesn’t know yet.  The driving force behind scientific inquiry, though, is faith – faith that natural laws are immutable and the same causes will always produce the same effects, and faith in the power of human reason to deduce what those natural laws are and hence to be able to predict their effects under new circumstances. Ultimately, this leads us to faith in our own ability to solve problems through the application of the knowledge we have acquired.   Knowledge, in short becomes power.

In the most basic terms it is the knowledge of how to survive, how to control our environment, how to interact with other people for the greatest mutual benefit and how, finally, to live with our own inner selves, that constitutes the content of education.  Small wonder, then, that education has become such a difficult proposition.  Every one of our multiple problems – how to govern ourselves decently, how to live peacefully with other nations whose interests conflict or overlap with our own, how to insure justice for the poor as well as the rich, how to enhance not only the material quality of our lives, but the moral and spiritual quality as well – every one of these problems is reflected in the educational process.  The attempt to come to terms with these questions and to provide solutions for them, or at least  to point each individual in the direction of a personal solution, is what education is all about.

The problems before us which I have just outlined have another component besides knowledge.  We have to make value judgments about them, moral and ethical decisions about  which solutions are desirable or undesirable, which purposes are good or bad, and ultimately which goals out of an infinite number of possibilities are the ones we want to  attain.  Current folk wisdom notwithstanding, these value judgments are also open to rational analysis; large decisions are broken down into smaller, manageable components which can be examined separately to determine their desirability. It is a process first advocated by Benjamin Franklin two hundred years ago, and he called it “moral or intellectual algebra.”  Before you make a decision, list on one side of a sheet of paper all the points in its favor, and on the other side all those against it; give each a point value depending on its relative importance, then add them all up, and you will see which decision is the right one.  It may seem simplistic but in its modern form it is called systems analysis and it works exactly the same way.  The only difference is that we can now be much more sophisticated about applying it; with the aid of computers, we can not only consider an almost infinite variety of possible inputs, we can also test the validity of the various solutions by simulating models on a computer and seeing how each decision would affect a variety of other factors.

A century ago this nation committed itself to the proposition that basic education should be open to all, because only an educated people could rationally make the many decisions which life in a democracy requires.  More recently, that national commitment to education has come to include access to higher education for all those who are capable of profiting from it, precisely because we recognized the growing complexity of the decisions before us and the need to prepare more people adequately to make those decisions.  Many of you would not be here today if we had not made that commitment, and if as a nation we had not recognized our need for more and better informed minds to make better informed judgments.

That commitment to educate all those who can profit by higher education has until very recently been an imperfect one, since it was not truly inclusive of the poor, of racial minorities, and of that greatest minority of all – women.  We are now, I believe, in a precariously balanced state where indeed almost all of those who want higher education can have it,  but where it is not at all clear that the opportunities which that education should open to them are in fact accessible.  Discrimination – racial and sexual – is fading in colleges and universities, but it is still very much with us in the broader world of work.  That is one of the problems which you, as young women entering professional training or careers, will shortly be facing if you haven’t already…

The most basic decision of your life which you will all have to make soon is … how you will live your own lives as thinking and reasoning individuals.  The challenges of our time will not go away; the people who suffer from unequal opportunity because they are black or female, the poor who go hungry in the midst of plenty or who cannot get justice in the courts, the unresolved international disagreement that end in war, the second-rate politics that end in corruption – all those problems are going to be your problems.  If they are to be solved, it will be by the application of all the knowledge you have gained, and all you are still going to learn; by the application of reason to inform your mind as well as compassion to inform your judgment.

Lilli Hornig(Dr. Lilli Hornig, photo from Atomic Heritage Foundation)

Dr. Hornig in her office(Dr. Hornig in her office at Trinity, 1967 Trinilogue)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: