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 Life

Joseph Henry as a young man



Joseph Henry (1797-1878) became the Smithsonian's first Secretary when the Institution was founded in 1846. As its director for the next thirty-one years, Henry profoundly influenced the future of American science. In keeping with Henry's commitment to basic research, the Smithsonian provided essential institutional support for coordinating and funding research, publishing original studies, and facilitating communication among scientists in the United States and abroad. "The worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building," Henry wrote, "but by what it sends forth to the world."1


Albany Academy Where Joseph Henry Taught
Born in 1797 near Albany, New York, Henry experienced a difficult childhood, living with relatives. He apprenticed to a watchmaker and a silversmith briefly, but was drawn to a career on the stage. An accidental encounter with a popular book on science, George Gregory's Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry (1808), gave his life new direction. He attended the Albany Academy from 1819-1822, although older than most students, and was appointed a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy there in 1828. In 1820, he married his cousin, Harriet Alexander, and they had four children, Will, Mary, Helen and Caroline. 

Joseph Henry's Home in Princeton, New Jersey
In 1832, Henry accepted a position as professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. A popular lecturer, he taught natural philosophy, geology, and architecture. He published scientific articles on his original research on a wide variety of subjects, including electromagnetism, optics, acoustics, astrophysics, molecular forces, and terrestrial magnetism, but his reputation was built primarily on his work in basic and applied electromagnetism. His reputation as a scientist was solidified on his 1837 tour of European science centers where he established a network of scientific colleagues. 


The Smithsonian Board of Regents  appointed Henry the first Secretary of the newly founded Institution in December of 1846. It was a difficult decision for Henry as a scientist and for his family. He knew the new position would make significant demands on his time, but he was committed to advancing American science and seeking federal support for scholarly research. When Joseph Henry moved to Washington, DC, in 1847, he was accompanied by his wife of sixteen years, Harriet, and their four children, William (15), Mary  (13), Helen (11), and Caroline (8). For the previous fifteen years, the family had lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where Henry was a well-liked professor. Moving to Washington uprooted the family from a tight-knit college community and took them farther from their extended family in Albany, New York. As evidenced by Henry's repeated reassurances in letters written after he had arrived in Washington but before his family had joined him, his wife did not look forward to the move.2 The swampiness, poor sanitation, and sweltering summer heat caused the English author Charles Dickens to comment that "few people would live in Washington . . . who were not obliged to reside there."3 Henry found the city "almost intolerable with heat, dust, and mosquitoes" during the summer of 1853 and later became involved with the effort to bury Washington's open canal, "a vile nuisance" which he believed to be a source of disease during the city's long, humid summers.

Henry Family at East Door of Castle
Upon moving to Washington in 1847, the Henrys initially lodged with renowned ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his family, but moved several times before settling into their permanent quarters in the east wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building,  or "Castle," in 1855. Cut off from downtown Washington by the canal, it was not prime real estate, and the ever practical Henry disliked the monumental building designed by the Board of Regents. Harriet and the four children, like other middle-class Washingtonians, spent summers in cooler locales, often staying with family and friends in Princeton or Albany. Although Henry was required to stay in Washington for part of the summer, he too left during the hottest period. "The thick walls of the [Smithsonian] building," Henry wrote, "become like the sides of an oven sufficiently hot to cook whatever they may enclose." The south tower, where Henry worked in 1853, was "hot beyond endurance." In 1865, he complained that the heat left him without the energy "to do any thing to which [he] was not urged by dire necessity." Henry often escaped by heading north to conduct experiments for the United States Light-House Board off the coast of New York and New England.

Henry's prominence and his large network of colleagues brought the family many prestigious visitors. Although both Joseph and Harriet came from modest backgrounds, Henry's position made them members of Washington's social elite. While Henry had assured Harriet that the city's transient character "will enable you to choose to mingle or not in society," she was required to adjust to the expectations of a Washington hostess. Henry would find it impossible to continue his electromagnetic research once he arrived at the Smithsonian. "Of all places in the country," he later wrote, "Washington is I think the worst in which to persue [sic] scientific investigations. The constant drudgery and anxiety of an office unfits a man for profound and continuous thought."4


Programme of Organization for the Smithsonian Institution
Henry remained committed to basic research, however, and saw the support of original scientific work as the Smithsonian's primary mission. His 1847 "Programme of Organization," therefore, included the publication and distribution of scientific papers as a key component. Without support from an institution such as the Smithsonian, "many valuable articles [would] never see the light," Henry wrote in 1847. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, launched the following year and usually published annually, disseminated original research in a wide variety of fields, including archaeology, astronomy, chemistry, and natural history. This and other scientific publications were distributed abroad via an international exchange system Henry launched in 1851. In return, the Smithsonian received foreign publications for distribution in the United States.

In addition to his research, Joseph Henry had to give up teaching when he came to Washington. As evidenced by his students' notebooks, letters, and later reminiscences, Henry had been a gifted and beloved teacher, "a genius for education" in the words of Asa Gray,5 a botanist at Harvard and Henry's contemporary. Henry continued to share his knowledge in his new role as the federal government's chief scientific adviser.  Appointed in 1852 to the United States Light-House Board, Henry chaired a committee responsible for testing oils, lamps, and other equipment. During the Civil War (1861-65), Henry served on a three-member naval commission responsible for evaluating and reporting on proposals for new models of ships and weapons. His interest in aeronautics and support for one balloonist's efforts to provide balloons to the Union Army for reconnaissance led to the establishment of a balloon corps during the Civil War. Henry was also called upon to advise on such matters as how to prevent the Capitol Building from being struck by lightning. Throughout his tenure, Henry helped identify scientists to participate in government surveys and exploring expeditions, and outfitted them with scientific equipment. Henry also used the Smithsonian's private funds to fill gaps in federal support of science. For

Louise Hoover's Painting of Joseph Henry
instance, when the US Naval Astronomical Expedition to Chile lacked critical equipment, Henry purchased meteorological instruments for the expedition.

Henry also distributed equipment to a select group of meteorological observers throughout the United States, participants in a network of over six hundred individuals who regularly reported local weather data to the Smithsonian. In addition to providing basic information, Henry's observers were asked to report on unusual phenomena such as earthquakes. Henry's meteorological network and collection of daily weather reports via telegraph were precursors to the National Weather Service.

National Academy of Sciences Meeting, Smithsonian Institution Building
In 1863, Joseph Henry helped found the National Academy of Sciences to advise the federal government on scientific questions. Five years later, he became the academy's president, a position he held until his death in 1878. Henry was also called upon to advise on scientific appointments at universities and other institutions, and by individuals such as Samuel F. B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell, later known as the inventors of the telegraph  and the telephone.  Henry's untiring advocacy for scientific advancement and his leadership within the scientific community helped professionalize American science and guide its future.


Mary Henry, Daughter of Secretary Henry
The Henry family was surrounded by those at the top of the scientific community and had an insider's view of life and politics in the nation's capital. Their tenure in Washington also included the Civil War, which brought thousands of troops to the city. Joseph Henry's eldest daughter, Mary, described the war in her diaries . In April 1861, she wrote, "we are now entirely cut off from all intercourse with the North. The bridges have been burned, the rails injured & telegraph wires destroyed between Baltimore & Philadelphia. The New York papers of Saturday were received yesterday by pony express. Our friends are of course very anxious about us but we have no means of letting them know of our safety. We cannot now leave the city & must face the danger whatever it may be." Although the Smithsonian Building did not suffer physical damage from the war and was spared from housing troops, the Institution faced considerable financial strain during the Civil War years.

Fire in Smithsonian Institution Building
In addition, a major fire struck the Smithsonian Building in January 1865, destroying much of its contents.The fire, said to have attracted thousands of spectators, destroyed the second floor and roof of the main building, as well as portions of the towers. The lecture room, apparatus room, and picture gallery were destroyed, almost all of John Mix Stanley's irreplaceable collection of American Indian portraits, which had been on exhibit in the building since 1852, the contents of Henry's office between the two front towers burned, including virtually all of his official correspondence since the founding of the Smithsonian in 1846 as well as scientific papers, diaries, and the completed manuscript of the 1864 annual report.

Joseph Henry and his family also suffered a profound personal loss during the war with the sudden death of Henry's son William in 1862. Will, as he was known, was employed in the Smithsonian's library and had returned early from a family vacation when he was suddenly struck by jaundice. Within just a few days, he passed away in the Henry family's quarters at the Smithsonian Building. 


Joseph Henry Statue on Mall
In December 1877, while preparing to conduct experiments for the Light-House Board at Staten Island, New York, Joseph Henry suffered what he described as a "paralytic attack" in his right hand, accompanied by chest pain and shortness of breath. Initially diagnosed as a stroke, Henry's condition was soon revised to a kidney problem known as Bright's Disease.6 Five months later, at age 80, Henry passed away at his Smithsonian residence. After a funeral the press compared to Abraham Lincoln's in its impressiveness and its prestigious list of attendees, which included President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Vice President, and members of the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and Congress, Henry was interred at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington.7 "Never before or since have Americans memorialized a scientist to the extent that they memorialized Joseph Henry,"   wrote historian Albert E. Moyer.8



  • 1Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1852(Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1853), 20. Return to text
  • 2 Marc Rothenberg, Paul Theerman, Kathleen W. Dorman, and John C. Rumm eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1847-December 1849, vol. 7 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1996), xxxi. Return to text
  • 3 Ibid. Cites Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 2d ed., vols. 1 and 2 (London, England: Chapman and Hall, 186, Strand, 1842): 283. Return to text
  • 4 Joseph Henry to Henry Wurtz, 26 July 1861, Henry Wurtz Papers , New York Public Library. Return to text
  • 5 Asa Gray, "Biographical Memorial in Behalf of the Board of Regents," in A Memorial of Joseph Henry   (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880), 62. Return to text
  • 6 Joseph Henry, “On Paralytic Attack” 19 December 1877, in The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan, eds., vol. 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2007), 637-638, doc. 294. Return to text
  • 7 Rothenberg, Dorman, and Millikan, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 656n, doc. 304. Return to text
  • 8 Albert E. Moyer, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 1997), 7. Return to text