View header image
Photograph of a portrait of Joseph Henry (1797-1878), physicist and first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1846-1878). Portrait painter Henry Ulke first painted Henry in 1875, for display at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. That portrait was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1917, and hung for many years in the Secretary's Parlor in the Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle." This is an 1879 version by Ulke derived from the original 1875 portrait.

Joseph Henry, 1797-1878


Joseph Henry Portrait, by Ulke, Henry, 1879, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 10191or AI-10191.

The first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, served from 1846 to 1878. A professor at the College of New Jersey, he was a physicist who conducted pioneering research in electromagnetism and helped set the Smithsonian on its course. Henry was born in 1797 in Albany, New York, to William and Ann Henry. Too poor to pay tuition, Henry did not attend the Albany Academy until the late age of 21 despite being admitted to the school earlier. At the Academy, Henry worked as both a chemical assistant and lecture preparer. When a position opened up in 1826, Henry accepted a job as the school’s professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and it was here that he began his scientific research on electromagnetism and worked on development of the telegraph. In 1832 Henry was named professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and his tour of European scientific centers in 1837 established his international reputation in science. Henry’s achievements as both an educator and scientist made him a prime candidate for the position of Smithsonian Secretary.

First Smithsonian Secretary

Henry Family on the Smithsonian Grounds After receiving seven out of the twelve votes from the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Henry became the Institution’s first Secretary on December 3, 1846. Henry’s reputation as one of the leading American scientists helped the Board make their decision, and his experiences reflect the path he set forth for the Institution of which he took charge. Henry laid out his plan for the new Institution in his Programme of Organization. The Programme contained fourteen guiding considerations, including the suggestion that the Smithsonian only undertake programs that cannot be adequately carried out by existing United States institutions, and that the Institution produce a publication, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, and periodical reports on scientific progress. Henry was reluctant to take on the responsibilities to care for a museum containing the national collections and eliminated the national library provisions from the Smithsonian’s enabling act. Henry also established the principle that James Smithson’s gift would be maintained as an endowment, and began soliciting additional gifts. The Smithsonian Institution Building, or "Castle," was built during his administration, despite his opposition due to concerns over wasting money on a monumental building. It was completed in 1855 with space for exhibitions and lectures, research laboratories, and living quarters for Henry and his family.

Henry’s Research Program

Henry focused the Smithsonian on research, publications, and international exchanges. The system of international exchanges begins in 1849, with the Smithsonian providing a clearinghouse function for the exchange of literary and scientific works between societies and individuals in this country and abroad. Also by 1849, he created a program to study weather patterns in North America, a project that eventually led to the creation of the National Weather Service. The Smithsonian Meteorological Project had a network of more than 600 volunteer observers, including people in Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The Smithsonian supplied volunteers with instructions, standardized forms, and, in some cases, with instruments. Volunteers supplied the Smithsonian with monthly reports of weather observations, charting daily temperatures, barometric pressure, humidity, wind and cloud conditions, and precipitation amounts.

Henry & American Science

National Academy of Sciences Meeting, Smithsonian Institution Building Henry worked tirelessly to support the field of American science. He encouraged young scientists and provided living quarters in the Castle for them. Henry participated, and often led, American science societies including the National Academy of Science and the US Lighthouse Board. Additionally, Henry traveled to Europe engaging in scientific discussions and promoting American science abroad. He kept the Smithsonian going during the difficult Civil War years, and served as one of President Abraham Lincoln’s science advisors. Henry handled the budget issues the war caused and even sent a memo asking people to save paper so that it might be re-sold. The Institution also helped in the war by cooperating with the Sanitary Commission and Surgeon-General of the US Army in improving the health and comfort of soldiers, while at the same time collecting data of interest to ethnologists and other researchers.

Henry’s Legacy

Joseph Henry Statue on Mall After rapidly deteriorating in the wake of his December 1877 paralytic attack, Henry died in his quarters in the Smithsonian Castle on May 13, 1878. Henry was a pioneer in the study of electromagnetism and its use in a variety of technologies, and was a tireless advocate for American science at home and abroad. For 32 years Henry focused his energies on establishing the Smithsonian as a great research center, despite the challenges of the Civil War. Today his efforts are marked with a statue outside of the Smithsonian Castle, the first building in the Institution he helped create.

Further Exploration

Related Collections

Other Resources