The Founding of the National Academy of Sciences--A Reinterpretation

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Although it is generally thought that the 1863 establishment of the National Academy of Sciences was primarily motivated by the federal government's need for weapons research and scientific advice during the Civil War, this article discusses the Academy's true origins. Coast Survey Superintendent A.D. (Alexander Dallas) Bache first proposed the idea of the academy in 1851. The Civil War provided an opportunity to make the academy a reality, due to the government's need for scientific advice. A small group of eminent scientists, known as the Lazzaroni, worked behind the scenes to ensure the passage of the bill establishing the academy in the closing hours of the 37th Congress. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry was a member of this group but was shielded from the negotiations around the bill's passage. He opposed the academy's establishment due to its secretive and exclusive nature (only fifty scientists, selected by the Lazzaroni, were named as members) and its potential for causing discord among the American scientific community. However, once the academy was established, Henry agreed to take a leadership role. The author contends that the academy remained relatively ineffectual until Henry succeeded Bache as president in 1868. An appendix to this article contains a long letter from Joseph Henry to Louis Agassiz (1807-73), who was among those that opposed the election to the academy of Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird. Henry details his objections to the academy's founding and his reasons for supporting Baird's election. As a naturalist, Baird was viewed by some as a mere collector and describer of specimens rather than a true scientist.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Agassiz, Louis 1807-1873
  • Bache, A. D (Alexander Dallas) 1806-1867
  • Peirce, Benjamin
  • Dana, James Dwight
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • Scientific Lazzaroni


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Contained within

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 101 Issue 5 (Journal)

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




Learned institutions and societies

Physical description

pp. 438-440

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