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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Scientific Leadership

Joseph Henry Portrait


Joseph Henry  became the Smithsonian's founding Secretary in 1846, long before such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology were established to provide scientific input on federal policy. The demands of his new role prevented Henry from continuing to pursue his own research; instead, he became the government's chief scientific advisor. He also worked to ensure that science was supported by the government, but not compromised by politics.


Title Page of the National Institute's Catalogue of "Extraordinary Curiosities" Henry expressed his disapproval of congressional meddling in scientific matters they didn't understand well before he came to Washington, DC to lead the Smithsonian. In an 1838 review in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, he protested a favorable report by the Senate Naval Committee on a new theory of terrestrial magnetism, noting that the committee had no scientific knowledge of the subject and that the theory made no sense.1 In a letter to his friend and colleague Alexander Dallas Bache, Henry called the affair "a disgrace to the country" and dreaded the distribution of the committee's report abroad.  

Stephen A. Douglas Five years later, Henry remained skeptical of Washington insiders' ability to address scientific questions. In reference to an 1844 meeting to be held by the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, based in DC, Henry remarked that he did "not like the plan of uniting science and party politics," and called the organization a "host of Pseudo-Savants."2

Henry became more active in urging that science be conducted independently of politics upon his appointment to the Smithsonian,  developing a "Programme of Organization"  for the institution that emphasized original research and high scientific standards. Henry saw basic research as central to the Smithsonian's mission, and publicly defended this position in an 1852 exchange with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had suggested that a new federal department of agriculture be attached to the Smithsonian. In response to Douglas's charge that the Smithsonian was wasting money on studies that lacked "practical results," Henry responded, according to a contemporary newspaper account, "that agriculture is to be more advanced by the microscope than by the plough and harrow." He sarcastically commented that Douglas's criticism might be valid "if the highest cravings of the human soul were confined to the desire for good potatoes ."


Alexander Dallas Bache Henry used his stature and, as Smithsonian Secretary, his relationships in Washington, to advocate for the appointment of accomplished scientists to federal agencies and projects requiring scientific expertise. "The position of your institution as scientific adviser to the Government is becoming assured," wrote Henry's friend and Harvard professor Asa Gray in 1852, "and will be productive of excellent results." Henry had earlier described the selection of university professor Alexander Dallas Bache to head the US Coast Survey in 1843, as a victory for "real working men" of science,3 and worked to increase the Coast Survey's visibility by writing a review of its work for the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review; it was later distributed to members of the US Congress.4 When Bache died in 1867, Henry successfully lobbied for the appointment of Harvard University mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Peirce to succeed him. After convincing the US Treasury Secretary to nominate Peirce, Henry urged Peirce to accept the position, so the agency would not "be ingulfed [sic] in the vortex of partizan [sic] politics." Henry expressed similar concern that the Smithsonian, once he was no longer in charge, "may fall, as the agricultural department and the Patent office have done under political sway and the director be changed with every change of administration."


Henry's advocacy for applying professional standards to scientific appointments and decision-making extended beyond the federal government. When asked, while at Princeton University, to recommend someone for a natural history professorship at a New York college, Henry emphasized the importance of asking "'What has he done'? instead of the more usual [question] of What do his friends think him capable of doing." Almost twenty years later, he remarked to British colleague John Tyndall that scholarly opportunities for American scientists were limited. "There being such a demand for practical applications of science in this country, and the remuneration of professors being so small, few of the young men educated abroad devote themselves to pure science on their return home." Henry consistently urged college and university officials to spend money on faculty and research rather than buildings, noting in another 1872 letter to Tyndall that "the discovery of new scientific principles . . . has been almost entirely neglected" in the US and in England. Henry also sought to teach his students and the public to distinguish true science from "charlatanism" and to assure European colleagues that the pseudo-scientific claims of amateurs should not be taken seriously or be considered representative of American science.5 As a co-founder and leader of the country's two national scientific organizations, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences , Henry advocated for codes of ethics and strict membership criteria. He also admonished the editor of the nation's leading scientific journal, the American Journal of Science, to address deteriorating editorial standards by identifying a panel of experts to assist him in refereeing articles.6


Though not always successful, Henry was an influential advocate for the government's support of science at a time when few in Washington understood the significance of projects like the Magnetic Crusade, a worldwide effort to map terrestrial magnetism. In 1839, Henry petitioned the War Department on behalf of the American Philosophical Society, the nation's premier scientific organization, to fund American participation in this project, but Congress voted against it. The government also refused to fund US participation in London's Crystal Palace Exhibition, the first world's fair, providing only a ship to transport the exhibits. As an organizer of American contributions to the fair, which took place in 1851, Henry noted, "the industrial products of a country are means of judging of its progress in civilization and its relative position as to wealth and influence," and that "our reputation [will] be enhanced and our national credit increased" through participation in it. He personally helped pay for an American official's passage to London to manage the US exhibit. As it turned out, American inventions such as the McCormick reaper and the Colt revolver were found so impressive that the US presentation was the most popular at the London fair.7

In 1847, Henry successfully in convinced the Secretary of the Treasury to include geomagnetic observations in geological surveys of federal mining reserves. He also persuaded the commissioner of the General Land Office to have his surveyors make observations on the variation of the compass in the course of their surveying. Henry proudly described both of these accomplishments in a letter to his wife Harriet, who had not yet joined him in Washington. "I find I can here do a good deal for the cause of american science," wrote Henry of his new role as Smithsonian Secretary.

In 1871, on behalf of the Smithsonian, Henry invited the renowned British scientist John Tyndall to visit the United States as "a missionary as it were in the cause of abstract science, to vindicate its claims to popular appreciation and to government support."8 Tyndall accepted, and made a three-month tour of several cities, including Washington, a stop Henry felt was particularly valuable. "There is a growing disposition in congress to make liberal appropriation for scientific objects," Henry wrote to Tyndall, "and a few words from you on this point will I am sure produce a marked effect." The same day, Henry wrote to his friend and colleague, Smithsonian regent Louis Agassiz, of "a growing interest in Congress inregard [sic] to pure science," and that "measures are now in progress which will tend to render Washington as conspicuous as a center of science as it has been for politics." Indeed, if membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science is used as a criterion, by 1876 Washington was the second center of science in the country, exceeded only by the Boston-Cambridge area.9 


Louise Hoover's Painting of Joseph Henry Henry used Smithsonian funds to fill gaps in federal support of science. In 1849, he established a national network of meteorology observers  to supplement the Navy Department's meager and unreliable support of its own meteorology program and the Army's collection of weather data at military posts. The Smithsonian operated the program until 1874, when the US Army Signal Service took it over.10 Henry also provided instructions and equipment for government surveys and expeditions,  and identified scientists to participate in them. Henry's international exchange program served to distribute American scientific publications abroad and to collect and distribute within the United States publications produced elsewhere. He saw this and the Smithsonian's publications program as essential to supporting American science. Henry opposed, however, using Smithsonian funds to support the public museum it was required to operate. Henry drew a bold distinction between the museum and the research collections, and insisted that only the federal government had the resources to sustain the former. "The whole income of the bequest would be ultimately absorbed in providing house-room and accommodations for the collections," he wrote in the Smithsonian's annual report for 1862  .11  

SCIENTIFIC ADVICE TO THE GOVERNMENT Henry frequently lent his own scientific expertise to federal government projects, even prior to his appointment at the Smithsonian. In preparation for the 1838 launch of the US Exploring Expedition,  Henry met with the Secretary of the Navy, who had requested him to prepare a list of inquiries in terrestrial magnetism.12 In 1841, Henry participated for the first of many times in the annual assay at the US Mint in Philadelphia, conducted to determine whether its gold and silver coins met legal standards of weight and purity.13 Three years later, Henry advised the Secretary of War on the science behind an underwater mine invented by Samuel Colt, whose revolver would later become famous. Henry also chaired a committee charged by the Navy to investigate the 1844 explosion of the "Peacemaker," a wrought-iron cannon that had detonated aboard the USS Princeton during a demonstration cruise on the Potomac River in Washington, killing the Secretaries of State and the Navy along with four others.14 After moving to Washington, Henry continued to advise the government  on a range of issues, including protecting the Capitol Building from lightning,  and the construction of the Capitol extension . For the Treasury Department, he evaluated a new lamp for lighthouses,15 and for the Patent Commissioner, he weighed in, on whether a new discovery regarding the application of a known chemical was worthy of a patent. Henry was consulted by Congress on another patent case in 1855 after the government refused to pay a patent-holder for the Army and Navy's use of ether for anesthesia. He also advised Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1856 on the potential for manufacturing niter, an essential element in gunpowder, should natural sources become scarce. In 1863, Henry was named to the Permanent Commission of the Navy Department, a newly-established three-member board charged with reviewing hundreds of proposals for warship designs, signaling systems, torpedoes, underwater guns, and other ordnance proposed for use in the Civil War. 


National Academy of Sciences Meeting, Smithsonian Institution Building The National Academy of Sciences, created to advise the federal government on scientific matters, was also established in 1863. Although Henry initially declined any office in the academy, he soon took a leading role when the president, his longtime confidante and colleague Alexander Dallas Bache, became disabled by illness and eventually died.16 In addition to serving as the academy's president from 1868 until his death, Henry served on committees charged with investigating how to prevent the counterfeiting of paper currency, which was first issued in 1862; evaluating whether the US should adopt the metric system or some other uniform standard for weights, measures, and coinage; and determining a method for measuring the alcohol content of spirits.17   


Illustration of a Siren Fog Signal Minot's Ledge Lighthouse For nearly twenty-six years, from 1852 until his death, Henry was a member of United States Light-House Board. As chairman of the committee on experiments, Henry devoted countless hours to examining and reporting on methods of illumination and the acoustics of fog signals. In addition to meetings and administrative duties—which increased when he became chairman of the board in 1871—Henry spent summer vacations from the Smithsonian conducting experiments for the board off the coast of New York and New England.18 "The Light House Board . . . may be said to hold in its hands the fortunes and lives of thousands of individuals," he wrote to his wife one morning at 5 a.m., as he listed several projects needing his attention. Henry attended almost one hundred meetings during the Civil War alone as the board contended with the destruction of lighthouses and equipment and the resignations of both lighthouse keepers and board members.19  


Dedication of Henry Statue Henry was committed to increasing the scientific stature of the United States and the role of science in government, and began lending his scientific authority to this cause long before coming to Washington. From the many positions of leadership Henry held over the next thirty years, he continued to advocate for federal support of science and became known as the nation's foremost spokesman on science.20 When Henry died in 1878, his funeral was compared to that of Abraham Lincoln. It was attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Vice President, and members of the cabinet, the Supreme Court, and Congress. The White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings closed.21 Smithsonian Regents William Tecumseh Sherman and James A. Garfield, the nation's next President, were among those who gave eulogies during a special session of Congress held eight months later. A New York Times headline proclaimed Henry's death "a loss to all the nation," but his unwavering commitment to the cause of science made the nation far richer for his life.22 



Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Who Was He?,"   Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Science Advisor,"   Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Advocate of Basic Research,"   Smithsonian Institution Archives.  

Robert V. Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, Chapter 14.

A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government , Chapter 4.



1 Joseph Henry, "Review of the ‘Report of the Committee on Naval Affairs, to whom was referred the memorial of Henry Hall Sherwood...'" (1838)," in A Scientist in American Life: Essays and Lectures of Joseph Henry, eds. Arthur P. Molella, Nathan Reingold, Marc Rothenberg, Joan F. Steiner, and Kathleen Waldenfels (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1980), 17-22. Return to text

2 Joseph Henry to Alexander Dallas Bache, 16 April 1844, The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, John C. Rumm, and Paul H. Theerman, eds., vol. 6 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1992), 77. Return to text

3 Marc Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846,  xxvi. Return to text

4 Ibid, xxviii. Return to text

5Joseph Henry to the Editor of the Newark Daily Advertiser, 1 August 1838, The Princeton Years: January 1838-December 1840, Nathan Reingold, Arthur P. Molella, and Marc Rothenberg, eds., vol. 4 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 81-83; Joseph Henry to Charles Wheatstone, 27 February 1846, The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 382-385. See for example. Return to text

6 Reingold, Molella, and Rothenberg, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1838-December 1840, xviii. Return to text

7 "On the Crystal Palace Exhibition," in A Scientist in American Life: Essays and Lectures of Joseph Henry, 51-53. Return to text

8 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), xxxviii. Return to text

9 Joseph Henry to Louis Agassiz, 12 November 1872, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 429, doc. 200. Return to text

10 Marc Rothenberg, Paul H. 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), xxvii;  James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 68-73. Return to text

11Marc 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), xix. Return to text

12Joseph Henry to Harriet Henry, 28 December 1836, The Princeton Years: January 1836-December 1837, Nathan Reingold, Arthur P. Molella, and Marc Rothenberg, eds., vol. 3 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), 135. Henry mentions his conversation with Navy Secretary Mahlon Dickerson in this letter. Return to text

13 Nathan Reingold, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Paul H. Theerman, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1841-December 1843, vol. 5 of The Joseph Henry Papers (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 6n. Return to text

14 Rothenberg et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 47, 66-67, 115-118. Return to text

15 Marc Rothenberg and Kathleen W. Dorman, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1850-December 1853, vol. 8 of The Joseph Henry Papers (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), xxxiii. Return to text

16 Rothenberg, Dorman, and Millikan, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1858–December 1865, xxxv-xxxvi; Rothenberg, Dorman, and Millikan, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, xxi, xxiii, l-li. Return to text

17 Rothenberg, Dorman, and Millikan, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1858–December 1865, 326. Return to text

18 Joseph Henry to Felix Flügel, 17 August 1868, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 202, doc. 96. Return to text

19 Rothenberg, Dorman, and Millikan, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1858–December 1865, xxxvi-xxxvii. Return to text

20 Joseph Henry to Caroline Henry, 1 July 1870, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 303-304. In 1870, Henry testified before Great Britain's Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science (also known as the Devonshire Commission), on the role of the Smithsonian as well as broader issues such as the American educational system and federal support for science. Return to text

21 Alfred Moyer, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 6; New York Times (5/14/1878), 5. Five years later, a presidential directive closed federal offices again in Henry's honor, when his statue was unveiled on the National Mall near the northwest corner of the Smithsonian Building [the statue was later moved in front of the building]. Return to text

22 Moyer, A Scientist in American Life: Essays and Lectures of Joseph Henry, 1-7. Return to text