The Founding of the National Academy of Sciences
March 3, 1863
Academy member Richard Alley sets the stage for this "Moment in Academy History," celebrating the 150th anniversary of the NAS, in this episode from "Earth: The Operators' Manual." This excerpt from the 2012 PBS series, supported by NSF, begins at the Lincoln Memorial where Alley tells the little-known story—recounted in more detail below—of how Lincoln and his advisors founded the National Academy of Sciences to address scientific problems during the Civil War. One of the new Academy's first tasks was to determine how magnetic compasses could be made to work properly on board the new "ironclad" battleships. The NAS solved that problem, and the video describes how successive presidents, including Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush, have turned to the Academy for impartial advice on matters of critical national significance ever since.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863. As mandated in its Act of Incorporation, the Academy has, since 1863, served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.
The idea that the United States should have a national organization devoted to the promotion of the sciences and technology was not new. As early as 1743, Benjamin Franklin had founded the American Philosophical Society (APS). Thirty-seven years later the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded, and 60 years after that the National Institute for the Promotion of Science was organized. By the mid-19th century, these organizations were joined by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
But the immediate roots of the NAS can be traced back to the early 1850s and a group of scientists based largely in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group, which began meeting informally in 1853, called itself the "Scientific Lazzaroni" in self-mocking reference to the beggars and street people of Naples. The original Lazzaroni consisted of Superintendent of the Coast Survey Alexander Dallas Bache, naturalist Louis Agassiz, Harvard professor of mathematics and astronomy Benjamin Peirce, astronomer Benjamin Gould, and Harvard professor of Greek and Latin Cornelius Felton. They were soon joined by others, including Joseph Henry, who was perhaps the leading scientist in America at the time. But it was Bache who gave the most explicit and public expression of the idea of a national scientific academy.
In his speech as outgoing president of the AAAS, Bache in 1851 publicly recommended that the federal government establish a body for the promotion of the country's science. Bache called for "an institution of science ... to guide public action in reference to science matters." Such a body would act as a centralized organization to be consulted by the government in matters of science and technology. By 1858, Agassiz in a private letter had outlined the structure and organization of an academy of sciences.
An American Science Academy is Born
The demands of the Civil War, which broke out in 1861, were conducive to the formation of a scientific consulting body. Many citizens attempted to contribute to the war effort by submitting inventions and related proposals to the government to do with as it saw fit. In order to expedite the evaluation of these proposals, Henry recommended to the Navy Department the formation of an advisory agency for the testing of new weapons. In February 1863 Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles approved Henry's plan, and the Permanent Commission, made up of Henry, Bache, and Rear Admiral Charles Henry Davis, was established.
In the meantime, Agassiz had enlisted the support of Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. With Wilson's help, Agassiz, Bache, Peirce, and Gould reworked a plan drafted by Davis and came up with a bill for the incorporation of the National Academy of Sciences. Wilson brought the bill to the Senate on February 20, where it was passed on March 3 without discussion. It was passed by the House of Representatives later that day, again without discussion, and was signed into law by President Lincoln before the day was over. The National Academy of Sciences had officially come into being.
Fifty incorporators are named in the Act, the majority of whom were not involved in nor aware of the creation of the new National Academy. They were notified of their selection on March 5 by Senator Wilson and requested to attend a meeting in New York “to take the first step towards the organization of the Academy.” Thirty-two charter members attended the organization meeting at New York University Chapel on April 22-24. With the election of officers—Bache as president, James D. Dana as vice president, Agassiz as foreign secretary, and Wolcott Gibbs as home secretary—the organization of Sections and Classes, and the consideration of proposed rules and mechanisms for choosing members, the new Academy moved forward “upon the high course marked out for it by Congress.”
The new National Academy of Sciences was in place and ready to undertake its chief obligation to “whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.” Within a month, the Academy received its first five requests for technical advice, including two from the Department of the Navy, and two from the Secretary of the Treasury.
Charter Members of the National Academy of Sciences
At its founding, the Academy membership totaled forty-nine scientists selected from the several states remaining in the Union. A fiftieth prospective member declined the invitation to join.
Louis AGASSIZ, 1807-1873
John H. ALEXANDER, 1812-1867
Stephen ALEXANDER, 1806-1883
Alexander Dallas BACHE, 1806-1867
Frederick Augustus Porter BARNARD, 1809-1889
John Gross BARNARD, 1815-1882
William Holmes Chambers BARTLETT, 1804-1893
Alexis CASWELL, 1799-1877
William CHAUVENET, 1820-1870
J. H. C. COFFIN, 1815-1890
John Adolphus Bernhard DAHLGREN, 1809-1870
James Dwight DANA, 1813-1895
Charles Henry DAVIS, 1807-1877
George ENGELMANN, 1809-1884
John Fries FRAZER, 1812-1872
Wolcott GIBBS, 1822-1908
James Melville GILLISS, 1811-1865
Augustus Addison GOULD, 1805-1866
Benjamin Apthorp GOULD, 1824-1896
Asa GRAY, 1810-1888
Arnold GUYOT, 1807-1884
James HALL, 1811-1898
Joseph HENRY, 1799-1878
Edward HITCHCOCK, 1793-1864
Julius Erasmus HILGARD, 1825-1890
Joseph Stillman HUBBARD, 1823-1863
Andrew Atkinson HUMPHREYS, 1810-1883
John Lawrence LE CONTE, 1825-1883
Joseph LEIDY, 1823-1891
J. Peter LESLEY, 1819-1903
Miers Fisher LONGSTRETH, 1819-1891
Dennis Hart MAHAN, 1802-1871
John Strong NEWBERRY, 1822-1892
Hubert Anson NEWTON, 1830-1896
Benjamin PEIRCE, 1809-1880
John RODGERS, 1812-1882
Fairman ROGERS, 1833-1900
Robert Empie ROGERS, 1813-1884
William Barton ROGERS, 1804-1882
Lewis Morris RUTHERFURD, 1816-1892
Joseph SAXTON, 1799-1873
Benjamin SILLIMAN Sr., 1779-1864
Benjamin SILLIMAN Jr., 1816-1885
Theodore STRONG, 1790-1869
John TORREY, 1796-1873
Joseph Gilbert TOTTEN, 1788-1864
Josiah Dwight WHITNEY, 1819-1896
Joseph WINLOCK, 1826-1875
Jeffries WYMAN, 1814-1874