Joseph Henry A Life in Science

Learn about the scientific research of Joseph Henry (1797–1878), first Smithsonian Secretary and renowned physicist, and how he helped set the Institution on its course.

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"There is quite a war at the academy relative to the Darwin hypothesis," Joseph Henry, 18521

Charles Darwin, by Maull & Fox, c. 1854, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2008-0865.
During the tenure of the first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry (1797–1878), Charles Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species, was first published in 1859 and was immediately well-received at the Smithsonian. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had been simmering in his mind since the 1830s, but he hesitated to publish fearing controversy. He confided his views to only a few colleagues. In 1857, prior to publication of the Origin, Darwin set down some of his thoughts on evolution in a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray. A professor at Harvard University, Gray established systematic botany at Harvard and, through his collecting network, developed the Gray Herbarium. Gray maintained a correspondence with European scientists and introduced their work to scholars in the United States through his reviews in the American Journal of Science and the Arts. Gray's correspondents included Charles Darwin, and Gray's work on the geographical distribution of plants reinforced Darwin's theory of evolution. Gray introduced Darwin's theory to the United States through correspondence with colleagues and published reviews of the new work. Gray became Darwin's strongest advocate in the United States.2

Asa Gray, by Unknown, c. 1855, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2009-1252.
Smithsonian secretary and physicist Joseph Henry first heard about Darwin's theory from his friend Gray, and closely followed the debates among scientists at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Although Gray supported Darwin, Henry's other close friend, Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, staunchly opposed the new theory, which contrasted with his own belief in a preordained plan for all life forms. In 1860, Henry wrote to another colleague and friend, Alexander Dallas Bache, head of the US Coast Survey, that "There is quite a war at the academy relative to the Darwin hypothesis." Recognizing the importance of Darwin's work to science, Henry followed the discussions with great interest, observing in 1862 that according to Darwin's theory, "creation is, as it were, still going on." His desk diary for October 10, 1866, noted that he attended a "Meeting at Prof. Grays of the scientific club; very interesting. Dr. G gave an account of the addition to a new edition of Darwin’s origin of species. – Natural selection does not produce the varieties but chooses those which are best adapted to all the conditions of existance or in other words best qualified to resist the delaterious influences which surround any race." In 1862, Henry mused about the lack of perfect adaptation in the world—a point made by Charles Darwin. "It is true that if we adopted the theory that the surface of the earth has for ages been coming into a state of permanent equilibrium, it will follow that a perfect adaptation in time will be produced, and that animals and plants will, in time, come to be in perfect harmony with the conditions of existence around them. But even on this hypothesis great changes are still to take place on almost every part of the globe. If we adopt the theory that the earth and all the plants of our system are doomed to perpetual change, that the sun himself shall fade, then we must conclude that a perfect harmonious adaptation will never take place."3

Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian
Shortly after publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Henry purchased a copy for the Institution's scientific library and, indeed, encouraged publishers to bring out a US edition. Henry wrote to colleagues that, although not a biologist, he found Darwin's work quite convincing and was puzzled by the debates over science and religion. For Henry, a devout Presbyterian, science and religion were different truth systems which dealt with different realms. Scientific evidence had to be taken seriously, even when it seemed to contradict Scripture. In response to the controversy over "the antiquity of man," Henry was at the forefront of efforts to make Americans aware of the critical developments in Europe. The pages of the Smithsonian annual reports publicized the discoveries of human artifacts in proximity to the bones of extinct fauna and the conclusions of European scientists that the associations were real and evidence of the antiquity of humans.4

Spencer Fullerton Baird
Henry's colleagues at the Smithsonian also received the Origin enthusiastically. Spencer F. Baird (1823–1887) , Henry's assistant and the first Curator of the US National Museum (USNM) at the Smithsonian, was a leading biologist in the US at that time. He immediately accepted Darwin's theory and incorporated it into the work of the National Museum, specifically in the classification of plants and animals. In his instructions to collectors, he requested information on geographic distribution, habitat, behavior, and the other organisms in the environment to ensure that the USNM's systematics captured the evolutionary history of organisms. Baird was also a leading mentor of young biologists in the US; indeed, he is remembered for the "Bairdian School of Ornithology," which incorporated Darwinian principles. Baird's protégés included G. Brown Goode, an ichthyologist and assistant curator of the USNM; William Healey Dall, explorer and honorary curator at the USNM from 1880 to 1927; and Robert Ridgway, USNM curator of birds from 1869 to 1929; as well as young naturalists at colleges and museums across the country, such as William Stimpson. Dall wrote of Baird: "Unlike some of his contemporaries twenty years ago, the views of Darwin excited in him no reaction of mind against the hypotheses then novel and revolutionary. His friendly reception of the new theories was so quiet and undisturbed that, to a novice seeking his advice and opinion amid the clatter of contending voices, it seemed almost as if the main features of the scientific gospel of the new era had existed in the mind of Baird from the very beginning."5


George Brown Goode, by Unknown, c. 1880s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 9508 or MAH-9508.
G. Brown Goode, Baird's protégé and successor as Assistant Secretary in charge of the USNM from 1887 to 1896, organized the natural history portion of the museum in accordance with an evolutionary systematics. The USNM's evolutionary taxonomic arrangement differed from that of Agassiz's Museum of Comparative Zoology, since Agassiz divided the animal kingdom into four groups according to their body plans. The USNM's organization by evolutionary systematics has been retained to this day. Type series, immature stages, and normal variations were sought, not just a single type specimen of a species, and Goode continued to require data on geographic distribution, behavior, habitat, and other local species. Taxonomic publications by National Museum staff reflected the acceptance of evolutionary theory and use of an evolutionary approach to systematics.6

Darwin's new theory of evolution by natural selection was not only well-received at the Smithsonian, it had a significant impact on the collection, study, and classification of organisms in the US National Museum. Evolution became the basis for biological research at the Institution, an approach which continues today.



Albert E. Moyer,  "Joseph Henry: Scientist and Christian," Smithsonian Institution Archives.



1 Joseph Henry to Alexander Dallas Bache, 17 April 1860, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Alexander Dallas Bache Papers  , Record Unit 7053, Box 4. Return to text

2In Memoriam: Asa Gray (Cambridge, MA: John Wilson and Son, 1888). Return to text

3 Joseph Henry, Locked Box Entry, 21 March 1862; and Desk Diary Entry, 10 October 1866, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Joseph Henry Papers , Record Unit 7001, Box 39. Return to text

4 Joseph Henry, Locked Box Entry, 18 December 1864; and Joseph Henry to James McCosh, 12 March 1873, Private Letterpress, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Joseph Henry Papers , Record Unit 7001, Box 39. Return to text

5 William Healey Dall, "Professor Baird in Science," in Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1888 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1890), 736. Return to text

6 G. Brown Goode, "Report of the Assistant Director of the United States National Museum for the Year 1881," in Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1881 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1883), 81–165. Return to text