Joseph Henry Shares His Views on the Proposed Mission of the Smithsonian Institution

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In a letter, physicist Joseph Henry (1797-1878), who would become the first Secretary of the Smithsonian in December 1846, responds to Alexander Dallas Bache's request for his thoughts on the bill establishing the Smithsonian. His response emphasizes the encouragement of original research, rather than applications of discoveries, as the way to increase knowledge. So that the Smithsonian does not furnish the same information as other public institutions operating around the country, Henry sees only a limited role for a library and collections as aids to research. For the same reason, he thinks public lectures should be limited. Henry suggests that the publication of a series of journals would be the most effective way to diffuse knowledge. He hopes that only a small part of the present endowment will be used to erect a building.


  • Bache, A. D (Alexander Dallas) 1806-1867
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Rothenberg, Marc, ed. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p. 493-503.

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


September 1, 1846


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