The Washington Academy of Sciences: Background, Origin, and Early Years

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  • Discusses developments leading up to the 1898 formation of the Washington Academy of Sciences (WAS), and details the organization's early years, with attention given to the roles played by two Smithsonian Secretaries: the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, but especially Charles Walcott, the fourth Secretary. When the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was founded in 1863, Joseph Henry had been Smithsonian Secretary since 1846 and was the Academy's most important founding member residing in Washington, D.C. While serving as its second president from 1868 until his death ten years later, Henry provided headquarters space for the Academy in the Smithsonian Castle (and business continued to be conducted from there until the NAS building was dedicated in 1924). His suggestion that NAS members residing in Washington meet once a month was opposed by a few, but led to the formation of the Philosophical Society of Washington (PSW) in 1871.
  • In the years following Henry's 1878 death, increasing specialization of scientific disciplines and Federal government expansion in scientific areas brought about the founding of additional scientific societies such as the Anthropological, Biological, Chemical, and National Geographic Societies. Many members belonged to more than one society; some had cooperated in joint lecture series efforts, but meeting date conflicts and resource usage concerns emphasized the need for more general cooperation and regulation among the groups. To fulfill these needs, a Joint Commission (JC) was established in early 1888 as a permanent committee to deal with questions of common interest. The JC began with representatives from the five founding societies; as new societies were formed, they appointed delegates to the JC.
  • Charles Walcott was Geological Society of Washington (GSW) President when it was admitted to the JC in late 1893, and he became one of that society's two JC delegates. Various circumstances caused the JC to become an unwieldy organization, and in late 1897 a JC conference committee was appointed to deal with the problem. It passed a series of resolutions to reorganize the JC as the Washington Academy of Sciences (WAS). At the time, Walcott was director of the U. S. Geological Survey and Acting Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the United States National Museum; he was also a vice president of the JC and was appointed to the committee selected to draft a constitution for the WAS, which was incorporated on February 18, 1898. Walcott was elected President of the WAS in 1899, and served in that capacity until 1911.
  • Early in his tenure, Walcott recognized the need for funds to continue WAS publishing efforts, and ensured the organization's financial stability by developing support from wealthy patrons. The WAS held lecture series, as well as other affairs, and recruited new members. He worked to build a stronger voice and larger power base for science, and helped further higher education efforts. Walcott's hopes to erect a headquarters building did not materialize, and he experienced other disappointments that were reflected in the WAS being a static organization at the end of his tenure as president. The author credits this to the fact that Walcott was overburdened by administrative duties from all the various roles he had in WAS and other organizations. [Walcott had also become Smithsonian Secretary in 1907.]


  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Washington Academy of Sciences
  • Philosophical Society of Washington
  • United States National Museum
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


The article includes ten photographs of early Washington Academy of Sciences officers, and three pages of source notes and references.

Contained within

Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences Vol. 84, No. 4 (Journal)

Contact information

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


December 1996


  • Professional associations
  • Secretaries
  • History, organization, etc
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Societies
  • Societies--History, organization, etc

Physical description

pgs. 184-220

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