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.
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 ."
PROFESSIONALIZATION OF AMERICAN SCIENCE
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
FEDERAL SUPPORT OF SCIENCE
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.
THE SMITHSONIAN AND AMERICAN SCIENCE
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
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