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

Henry Papers Database

Joseph Henry's Letter to Alexander Bache (July 30, 1864)
In 1966, three of the country's foremost institutions of learning—the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian Institution—launched and became co-sponsors of the Joseph Henry Papers Project, the only documentary editing project to focus on the life of an American scientist. The Smithsonian provided office space and institutional support. As the result of a worldwide search, the Joseph Henry Papers Project obtained copies of nearly 136,000 Henry documents from some three hundred repositories in seventeen nations. A subset of these documents was published in the twelve volume series, The Papers of Joseph Henry, 1972–2008. This collection is especially valuable because in 1865 a devastating fire in the Smithsonian Institution Building destroyed much of Joseph Henry's early correspondence as Secretary of the Smithsonian, a position he held from 1846 to 1878, as well as documentation of his career as a distinguished physicist. The Henry Papers Database recreates the early archives of the Smithsonian that was lost in that fire.

These documents, including correspondence between Henry and such figures as Alexander Dallas Bache and Michael Faraday, provide a wealth of information on the 19th century scientific community. They also shed light on science as a broad social and cultural phenomenon in American life. They document life in the nation's capital in the 19th century as well, including the impact of the Civil War on the fledgling Smithsonian. Because Henry was Secretary of the Smithsonian from its founding in 1846 until his death in 1878, the documents are also a rich resource for understanding the early history of the Institution and its influence on the development of a variety of disciplines.

To access this material, the project developed a document database that allows researchers to conduct searches by subject, name, and date. The database provides access to historical documentation on the following disciplines, among others:

art historyastronomybotany
geologymeteorologynatural history


The database includes more than fifteen thousand names. Some of the more prominent cultural, political, and scientific figures include: Louis Agassiz, Alexander Dallas Bache, Spencer F. Baird, George Bancroft, Alexander Graham Bell, Jefferson Davis, Dorothea L. Dix, James A. Garfield, Asa Gray, Henry James, Sr., Matthew F. Maury, Maria Mitchell, Lewis Henry Morgan, Samuel F. B. Morse, Titian Ramsey Peale, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, William Tecumseh Sherman, Benjamin Silliman, Sr., John Torrey, and Thomas U. Walter.

Researchers interested in making use of this database, which is available at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, should e-mail, or call 202-633-5910. Note that the database contains citations to documents from many repositories. Smithsonian Institution Archives can provide copies of documents from the Smithsonian itself, but the researcher should contact other repositories for copies of their documents.

Selected edited documents from the Henry Papers Database can be found in print in The Papers of Joseph Henry, volumes 1-12. Volumes 1-11 contain documents tracing Joseph Henry's life and career as a scientist and administrator. Volume 12 is a cumulative index to volumes 1-11. Copies of the volumes are available from Science History Publications.

The Model Editions Partnership

Historical Editions in the Digital Age

The Model Editions Partnership explored ways of creating editions of historical documents which meet the standards scholars traditionally use in preparing printed editions and made these materials more widely available via the Web.   The MEP Sampler includes samples from the participating projects which can be browsed or searched, information for documentary editors, and technical information for people who need to look `under the hood'.  To explore the sample Joseph Henry documents online, visit The Papers of Joseph Henry.   To learn more about the MEP and see other Model Editions samplers, visit