The Influence of the Smithsonian Institution on Intellectual Life in Mid-Nineteenth Century Washington

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  • This work discusses the Smithsonian Institution's role in the intellectual life of Washington, D.C. At the time of the Institution's founding in 1846, the city was without a successful scientific or learned society. Under the leadership of its first Secretary, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian filled this gap through its lecture series and by hosting visiting scholars. The author points to Henry's success in persuading members of Congress that the Smithsonian's goal of advancing knowledge took precedence over practical pursuits---when Congress threatened to convert the Institution to an agricultural society in 1852---as "one of the most significant intellectual influences exerted by the Smithsonian (p. 117)." The Smithsonian forged international ties and became a model for other organizations.
  • This article addresses the early history of the Smithsonian and the role of the first Assistant Secretary, Spencer Baird. It includes lengthy commentary on Henry's opposition to the design and expense of the Smithsonian Institution Building, which he considered extravagant and not in keeping with Smithson's intent.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Maury, John Walker
  • Bache, A. D (Alexander Dallas) 1806-1867
  • Foreman, Edward
  • National Institute
  • National Institution for the Promotion of Science
  • Columbian Institute
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Reprint located in "Publications Using SI Archives Collections, A-Z." Smithsonian Institution Archives, File Room. Includes photographs of Spencer F. Baird, John W. Maury, Edward Foreman, Alexander Dallas Bache, and interior/ exterior of the Smithsonian Institution Building.

Contained within

Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 1964-1965 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Secretaries
  • SI, Early History

Physical description

pp. 96-121

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