Celebrating 150 Years of Excellence in Science

Joseph Henry

1868-1878 NAS President

Finally, when all else failed, the founders unanimously elected Joseph Henry (1797–1878), who had been serving as acting president, to the position of president in 1868 and abandoned further search. Placed in this position, Henry must have thought deeply about the situation, granting that he had done his best to avoid it. It must have been clear to him that a long time might pass before another opportunity would arise in which the scientific community would be able to develop a viable National Academy of Sciences if the existing one were allowed to lapse. Finally, he decided to move ahead and accepted the position. He held it from 1868 until his death in 1878. The academy remained somewhat of a foster child of the Smithsonian until it entered what was truly to be its own headquarters on Constitution Avenue in 1924. Until then, most of the meetings were held at the Smithsonian.

Once in office, Henry moved with alacrity to straighten affairs. The annual election of members was to be determined by a set schedule and based primarily on the quality of the candidate's original scientific research as determined by peers who were already members. Individual members were to belong to one of a group of ten sections as determined by their primary professional interest. A pattern of officers and regular meetings was formalized. By the time Henry left office, the Academy was pointed in the direction it would try to maintain thereafter, and for the most part has. There would be major additions to the areas of science that were given official recognition as “mature”, with flexible guides governing the number of members elected each year in each professional field. This flexibility was required as the country emerged as one of the leaders in scientific research in the world and the size and complexity of its scientific community increased. Also, the Academy's structure would become more complex as it added organizations it created for special purposes, such as the National Research Council (NRC) in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1965 and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1970.

Many of the activities of the Academy tended to be available to an exclusive few. However the popular interest in the products of science was large in the Washington area. To bridge this gap, Henry decided to create The Washington Philosophical Society in which the results of scientific research could be discussed before a large popular audience. Membership in the Society was relatively open to any individual who had appropriate credentials and interest. The Society still exists today.

President Grant declared 1876 a year in which to celebrate the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Academy joined in the festivities, but did not invite any foreign academies to send formal representatives. Henry decided that the American contribution to the exact sciences was so meager at the time that it would be unwise to display our limitations. Nevertheless many members of foreign academies did attend the celebratory meetings partly to pay respect to the burgeoning nation, and partly to see how people lived in a republic. Some visitors who had been reared on Western and Midwestern lore about the country were impressed with the extent of the wild forestlands.

We do not know if the news had reached Henry by the nation's centennial year, however, that in 1875 a twenty-seven year old American, Henry Rowland (1848–1901), working very skillfully with facilities provided in the laboratories of Hermann Helmholtz in Berlin, was able to verify experimentally Maxwell's hypothesis that a varying electric field generates a magnetic field, the counterpart of magnetic induction mentioned earlier but a far more difficult matter to demonstrate. Alongside of this was the emergence of theoretical research at the world-class level by Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839–1903) in fields such as thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. The spirit needed for the cultivation of the exact sciences was alive and well in the new world and merely needed encouragement.

The transcontinental railroad began service soon after the end of the war (1869), opening the continent to relatively convenient travel. The first serious discussions regarding the possibility of cutting some form of canal through the Isthmus of Panama took place at this time. However fifty years and Herculean efforts that involved employing the best mechanical equipment and health-preserving knowledge available at the later time would be required to achieve the goal.

Events at the Academy turned out to be complex and even somewhat tempestuous at times during Henry's tenure as president. Some members who were based far from Washington felt that the content of the meetings was too meager to merit the time and expense of travel and either resigned or ignored the responsibilities of membership. Others objected to some of the individuals chosen and voiced complaints. Then there were ill-conceived attempts to form competing science academies that had to be forestalled in Congress. Henry struggled through these difficulties with well-defined purpose. Dealing with them was sufficiently taxing that the regents decided to provide the financial means that made it possible for Henry to spend a six month break in Europe where he visited laboratories, institutions and other places, particularly in England, and discussed the early stages of the development of the Smithsonian. He was given appropriate recognition as a great scientist.

There was also fear that larger sections of the Academy would come to dominate the election procedures through strength of numbers and squeeze out the smaller ones. As a result, a decision was made in 1870 to abandon the division into sections. They were, however restored in 1895. Actually, the basic difficulties were not adequately resolved until the following century when sections were assigned individual quotas that could be varied occasionally and new entities that focused on engineering and the medical professions were created.

Many members did report on their personal research at the meetings. At the time this tended to emphasize the less abstract areas of science, that is, the so-called natural sciences, particularly descriptive biology. There was little mathematics, physics or basic chemistry.

As an institution, the Academy became involved in two programs of general interest. One of the peripheral concerns dealt with an ill-fated scientific expedition to the Arctic by sea in which the ship became entrapped in ice and destroyed. The other involved an advisory role in the consolidation of several organizations that had undertaken geological and geographic surveys of the continent. As will be mentioned later, the latter led to the creation of what is now the U.S. Geological Survey within the Department of Interior (1879).

Henry's fears concerning possible dire consequences that might result from the Academy's links with the federal government have not yet been realized by it. Occasionally someone on the Hill has been sharply critical of a report issued by the Academy, or some stated matter regarding policy. On the whole, however, the government has not only been respectful of its work, but has frequently called upon it heavily for advice. This was particularly the case in the decades immediately following World War II, when our country was evolving new structures for supporting scientific research. At worst the Academy has been ignored at times when some of the members thought it might have been of substantial help in determining national policy on issues, ethical and otherwise, that had substantial scientific content.

Nevertheless, there is currently a strong feeling within the membership that the Academy should gain more independence from the government in providing support for special areas of research, such as those on which the use of government funds is restricted because of ethical issues. The membership now hopes to achieve this goal by increasing its endowment by a substantial amount. Henry would have approved, provided the fundamental principles upon which the scientific method is based, namely a careful combination of speculation and observation along with a level playing field devoid of political
bias, are preserved in professional deliberations.

The Smithsonian Institution has not fared so well recently. During most of the years following Henry's death, the regents of the Institution turned to the Academy for advice in selecting a new Secretary. As a result, the Institution enjoyed the services of an unbroken chain of Secretaries who were distinguished scientists and members of the Academy. This pattern broke down when one individual who held the office, an outstanding scientist in his own field of research and a member of the Academy, produced an exhibit that caused some bitter controversy. The successor selected by the Regents, a lawyer, was not a member of the Academy. The subsequent Secretary was previously a banker. There is evidence that the breach may heal to a degree but it is too early to say what pattern will prevail in the future. In any event, and in keeping with Smithson's wishes, one would hope that the Regents will again select a well-recognized scientist with good administrative ability as Secretary.

It may be added that Henry had earned so much admiration as a result of his activities in Washington that the procession and ceremonies that developed at the time of his funeral are said to have matched those of some of the prominent generals of the Civil War.

Continue reading next chapter: William Barton Rogers

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

Powered by Convio
nonprofit software