Gaylord Probasco Harnwell was an American educator and physicist, who was president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1953 to 1970. He also held a great number of positions in a wide variety of national political and educational boards and committees, as well as senior positions in both the Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania and the United States Navy. In the later part of his life he also toured both the Soviet Union and Iran as a promoter of higher education.
Harnwell was born in Evanston, Illinois to Chicago born lawyer Frederick William and Anna Jane Wilcox Harnwell. After attending Evanston Township High School and Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania in 1924, Harnwell attended both Cambridge University and then Princeton University, gaining an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics in 1926 and 1927 respectively. From 1927 until 1928 Harwell taught physics at the California Institute of Technology and then from 1928 to 1938 he taught at Princeton, becoming associate professor by 1936. Then in 1938 Harnwell took over the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Harnwell was given a leave of absence to serve as director of the University of California Division of War Research for the U.S. Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory in San Diego, California from 1942 until 1946, earning the Medal for Merit the following year.
Harnwell returned to the university's physics department until 1953 when he was elected as the university’s president, a position he held until 1970. During his term he oversaw rapid expansion of the university during a period that is cited as "a new milestone in the history of the development of the University."
During his time as president, Harnwell also served in a number of positions within the United States Navy, including chairman of the Ordnance Committee of the Research and Development Board of the Department of Defense and chairman of the Committee on Undersea Warfare of the National Research Council. He was also a member of the Advisory Panel on Ordnance, Transport and Supply of the Department of Defense, Advisory Board of the U. S. Navy Ordnance Laboratory, Science Information Council of the National Science Foundation and congressional Subcommittee on Military Applications of Atomic Energy. In 1958 Harnwell was awarded the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.
Harnwell also toured educational facilities in the Soviet Union and Iran in 1958 and then 1960 and 1961, discussing the proposal to found an American-style university in Shiraz. These tours gave Harnwell material for a number of published works, and fostered relationships between University of Pennsylvania and Pahlavi University in Iran. From 1958 until 1970 he was also a member of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company board, and in 1971 became president of the Penn Central Company. He also held a number of other influential positions, including Public Governor of the New York Stock Exchange, director of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company, Philadelphia CARE Committee, Rore-Amchem, Inc., the United Fund of the Philadelphia Area, the Food Distribution Center Corporation, the National Society of Scabbard and Blade, and the Institute for Educational Management in Boston.
Harnwell was also involved in the office of the state governor, as chairman of the Council of Science and Technology, Committee on Tax Administration, Tax Study and Revision Commission and Commonwealth Priorities Commission at various times in the last decade of his time as president of the University of Pennsylvania. His influence in the university and governors office continued after his retirement, until his death in April, 1982.