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.

Scroll to explore this topic



Joseph Henry's  appointment as the Smithsonian's first Secretary  in 1846 coincided with the beginning of a new phase in American exploring. The US Exploring Expedition,  which set out in 1838 under the command of Lieutenant Charles F. Wilkes, was the first United States expedition to employ a cadre of naturalists and professional scientists. Scientists would continue to be hired for expeditions over the next several decades, and Joseph Henry, as the nation's most respected advisor on scientific matters, became the chief gatekeeper for these appointments.


Alexander Dallas Bache, by Unknown, c. 1860s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 92-15742. "I spent several hours with the secretary last night," Henry wrote to his friend Asa Gray in 1852, "and he promised, to carry out as far, as his means would allow, any suggestions I might offer." Henry was referring to the US Navy Secretary's request for a list of naturalists to accompany an expedition to Paraguay. Gray, a botanist at Harvard University, was among the network of experts Henry relied on to help identify scientists for expeditions, and was himself responsible for publishing a portion of the botanical data collected by Wilkes and his men.

Because expeditions suddenly provided jobs for scientists, many of whom could not otherwise earn a living in their field,1 Henry was faced with no shortage of aspirants for these positions. In reference to the Mexican Boundary Survey of the 1850s, Henry wrote to Gray, "Naturalists of late have become quite plenty. I have now on my table six applications for assistance in obtaining situations as explores [sic] of California."

In 1852, Henry and Coast Survey Superintendent, Alexander Dallas Bache, asked the Secretary of the Navy to support naval surgeon Elisha Kent Kane's expedition to the Arctic. While his primary goals were to find a missing English explorer and to search for a northwest passage to Asia, Kane was also willing to make scientific observations and collect specimens. Although the Navy did not agree to finance the expedition, Kane was assigned to carry out the scientific work recommended by Henry and Bache with the assistance of a naturalist and an astronomer. A letter from Henry that was read at a special meeting of the American Geographical and Statistical Society in 1860 endorsed another expedition to the Arctic, led by Isaac Israel Hayes, and recommended wind and temperature observations to help determine whether an open polar sea existed.

In 1870, Henry wrote to Representative James A. Garfield to urge congressional funding for John Wesley Powell's continued exploration of the Grand Canyon. Referring to the "chasm" created by the Colorado River as "more remarkable, perhaps than any other on the face of the Earth," Henry emphasized its apparent impact on the region's climate and on agriculture. Determining "how far the mountain streams . . . may be applied in the way of irrigating the contiguous country," was of utmost importance, and Henry was "therefore, decidedly of the opinion that the small appropriation asked for by Major Powell could not be better applied." Congress appropriated $12,000 for Powell's expedition.

Spencer Fullerton Baird In addition to securing funding and scientific personnel for expeditions, Henry and Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird provided equipment and detailed instructions for collecting data and specimens. Arctic explorers were given dredges for collecting invertebrates along with supplies for storing and preserving plant and animal specimens.2 Henry also outfitted these and other expeditions with barometers, thermometers, and other meteorological instruments.

In 1850, Howard Stansbury, who led the first scientific survey of the area surrounding Utah's Great Salt Lake, responded to an inquiry from Henry regarding the whereabouts of two barometers. Stansbury explained he had written to Henry five months earlier regarding the first barometer, but the letter's messenger had "been killed on the plains by Indians." The other barometer had become so warped by the dry climate "that the attempt to transport it on a mule caused it to leak so badly that it became useless, & it was therefore abandoned."

Joseph Henry sometimes made requests from colleagues across the ocean to supply equipment the Smithsonian did not possess, such as the seismometer he ordered from a Scottish geologist for James Melville Gillis's expedition to Chile. In 1853, he wrote to one of Britain's foremost scientists to acknowledge receipt of magnetic instruments for Kane's Arctic expedition. He then requested more instruments: "at least another dip circle and an instrument for intensity and declination," for two Pacific Railroad surveys Congress had just authorized.

In addition to providing equipment, Henry and Baird prepared detailed instructions to expedition leaders for carrying out scientific work. In reference to their instructions for the Mexican Boundary and Pacific Railroad surveys, Henry wrote3 that "persons without previous practice were enabled to master all the general principles required for making observations and collections of every kind." As president of the National Academy of Sciences, Henry was charged with overseeing the scientific research of the Polaris Expedition, an attempted journey to the North Pole led by Captain Charles Francis Hall in 1871. Twenty-one pages of instructions   contributed by specialists in astronomy, magnetism, geology, and other subjects were provided to Hall and his director of scientific operations, Emil Bessels. Although they succeeded in reaching "the most northerly point ever attained by civilized man," wrote Henry, relatively few specimens were brought back to Washington, DC, because the crew ultimately had to abandon its ship, which had been damaged by ice.4


Smithsonian Explorers, The Megatherium Club After his return from the Arctic, Emil Bessels was given space in the Smithsonian Institution Building  for compiling the Polaris Expedition's scientific results.   Although Bessels maintained a residence near Washington, Henry permitted a number of explorers to actually live at the Smithsonian while they organized specimens and data. After accompanying expeditions to the Great Plains, geologist Fielding B. Meek lived and worked at the Smithsonian for over fifteen years, until he died of tuberculosis in 1876.5 Western surveyor Ferdinand V. Hayden also resided at the Smithsonian at various times during his career.6

Through his publications program, Henry provided expedition scientists with the means to disseminate specimen lists and observations. In 1865, Hayden and Meek's Paleontology of the Upper Missouri,  with its 48 engravings, appeared in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Henry also published Hayes's Physical Observations in the Arctic Seas and Kane's work on the same topic.  Princeton botanist John Torrey's description of plants collected in California was published in 1853.


Laboratory of Natural History, SI Building Henry's enthusiasm for publishing the scientific results of expeditions did not extend to housing the massive number of specimens and artifacts collected in the field. He was opposed to the Smithsonian serving as a museum or permanent repository for collections not needed for research. However the Congressional act establishing the Smithsonian directed it to take charge of over sixty thousand items from the Wilkes expedition, then housed at the Patent Office, as well as any additional specimens donated to the government. As result, the Smithsonian housed around 560,000 specimens by 1865 and over a million ten years later.7

Assistant Secretary Baird, a naturalist himself, wanted very much to see the Smithsonian become a true national museum, but even he recognized the difficulty of keeping up with all the collections donated to the Institution. As early as 1854, Baird wrote of the "hosts of things pouring in from the Pacific Rail Road explorations & private enterprise. With the very limited sums allowed by Prof. Henry, I am somewhat like the magicians apprentice who knew the word to cause the broom to bring buckets of water, but could not stop it."

Although Henry was unsuccessful in transferring responsibility for the collections to the US government, he successfully argued that congressional appropriations be made for their care. However these funds only partially covered the cost of managing the unceasing influx of collections. In an 1868 appeal to Congress, Henry and Smithsonian Chancellor Salmon Portland Chase wrote that the "annual appropriation of $4,000 is wholly inadequate to the cost of preparing, preserving and exhibiting the specimens, the actual expenditure for that purpose in 1867 having been over $12,000."

Visitors to Lower Main Hall, SIB In an effort to decrease the burden on the Smithsonian and to provide other institutions with collections, Henry shipped duplicate specimens to museums in more remote locations of the United States, and overseas. In 1850, his friend John Torrey informed him that "[Asa] Gray sailed last week for Europe—taking with him 13 large boxes—mostly filled with plants of the Exploring Expedition!"

Sadly, the Smithsonian lost ten thousand jars of Crustacea, including most from the US Exploring Expedition, in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Prior to his appointment as director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, marine zoologist William Stimpson had been in charge of the Smithsonian's invertebrates. In Chicago, he had continued working with the collections, which included over five thousand he had collected as the naturalist for the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. Two days after the fire Stimpson wrote to Henry, "All my collections, books, manuscripts and drawings, the results of twenty years of labor are destroyed."

Although Joseph Henry long held to the goal of reducing the mass of collections the Smithsonian accumulated from expeditions, he also recognized their value. He made these collections even more valuable by ensuring expeditions included well-qualified scientists with proper equipment. The objects and data they brought back were the raw materials behind the Smithsonian's swift evolution into the nation's premier center for scientific research. They are also what prepared it to later become the country's most esteemed museum.8



1 Nathaniel Philbrick, "The Scientific Legacy of the US Exploring Expedition," Smithsonian Institution Libraries,; Curtis M. Hinsley, Jr., "'Magnificent Intentions': Washington, D.C., and American Anthropology in 1846," in Museum Studies: an anthology of contexts, ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publications, 2004), 163. Return to text

2 John Dryden Kazar, Jr., "The United States Navy and Scientific Exploration, 1837–1860" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts, 1973). Return to text

3Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1853 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1854), 52. Return to text

4Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1873 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1874), 38. Return to text

5 Herman Viola, Exploring the West (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1987), 147; Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1858–December 1865, vol. 10 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2004), 44, 318. Return to text

6 Viola, Exploring the West, 147. Return to text

7 Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1866-May 1878, vol. 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2007), xxx. Return to text

8 For a more detailed discussion of the Smithsonian's involvement with expeditions during Joseph Henry's tenure, see Viola, Exploring the West (see note 5), 120–207. Return to text