Educator and Researcher, Administrator and Public Servant: Joseph Henry's Career as a Scientist

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  • When Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, died in 1878, he was described as the most eminent and distinguished scientist in the United States. He was eulogized as an individual who had elevated American science, and was praised for his integrity, scientific contributions, and his public service.
  • Biographical details of Henry's early life are described in this article, including his recollection that the turning point in his life came after reading a popular book on science at age 16. After attending Albany Academy and then working as a tutor and surveyor, Henry returned to the Academy as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. He began his scientific career there and in 1831 gained national and international attention after announcing the production of a powerful electromagnet.
  • After Henry discovered mutual electromagnetic induction and electromagnetic self-induction, he was named professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1832. He lectured on an array of subjects there and broadened his research program into other areas of physics.
  • When Henry was chosen to be Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, he also acted as science advisor to the executive and legislative branches of the Federal Government. This position allowed him the opportunity to be an effective advocate for science and scientists, and he also advanced the cause of science by serving as an officer for a number of professional and scientific organizations.
  • Joseph Henry's stature in the history of science declined in the years following his death, but in the 1960s his name was again brought to the forefront when he was recognized as an innovative contributor to the institutional development of American science. To study Henry's work and writings in detail, the Joseph Henry Papers Project was formally established in 1966 under the joint sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.
  • Nathan Reingold was the first editor of the Joseph Henry Papers Project and made the decision to integrate the various types of documents, including letters, diaries, lecture notes, and illustrated laboratory notebooks, into one chronological edition. Over 125,000 Henry items have been gathered from many sources, but over 80 percent of the documents come from the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Originally foreseen as comprising twenty volumes, the project has responded to financial considerations over the years by reducing the total number to eleven.


  • Reingold, Nathan 1927-
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • Albany Academy
  • American Philosophical Society
  • College of New Jersey (Princeton, N.J.)
  • Princeton University
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA)
  • Joseph Henry Papers Project


Smithsonian History Bibliography


The author edited volumes 6 through 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry.

Contained within

Annotation Vol. 32.1 (Newsletter)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


March 2004


  • Secretaries
  • Physical sciences
  • Science
  • SI, Early History
  • Physicists
  • Electromagnets
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Scientists
  • Societies
  • History
  • Physics
  • Biography
  • Science--History
  • Electromagnetism
  • Science--Societies, etc


United States

Physical description

Number of pages : 3; Page numbers : 1, 16-17

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