Joseph Henry's Life
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
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'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
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
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.
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.
FIRST AMONG AMERICAN SCIENTISTS
- The Papers of Joseph Henry, volumes 1-12, are available from Science History Publications. Volumes 1-11 contain selected edited documents tracing Joseph Henry's life and career as a scientist and administrator. Volume 12 is a cumulative index to volumes 1-11.
- Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Science Advisor," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- David Hochfelder, "Joseph Henry: Invetor of the Telegraph?," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Frank Rives Millikan, "Joseph Henry and the Telephone," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Who Was He?," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- "Joseph Henry Quotations," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Bibliography of Joseph Henry Resources.
- 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