The 2,500th Meeting of the Society

September 6, 2024 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The 2,500th Gala Meeting — “Uniting All the Men of Science in this City in One Organization”

Joseph Henry, the Philosophical Society of Washington, and the Status of Science in Post-Bellum Washington

Marc Rothenberg

Editor, The Joseph Henry Papers Project (Ret.)
Research Associate
Smithsonian Institution

About the Lecture

The selection of Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, as the first president of the Philosophical Society of Washington was just another acknowledgement that Henry was the leader of science in the United States. International renowned researcher, Presidential science advisor, President of the National Academy of Sciences, Henry held a status in this country unrivaled by any other scientist. When at the end of the nineteenth century sixteen individuals were selected to represent, in statuary in the rotunda of the Library of Congress, eight areas of human achievement, the two scientists were Isaac Newton and Joseph Henry. By studying the life of Henry we can illuminate three different themes in the history of nineteenth-century American science. One is the central role of organizations in the life of the scientist and the advancement of science. Science was not a solitary activity. Second, we see the growth of Washington as a center of scientific importance and the role of the Federal government in the advancement of American science. And last, but not least, we see that in some circles at least, science was recognized as a path of public service.

About the Speaker

Marc Rothenberg is a retired Federal historian, having spent nearly 30 years at the Smithsonian Institution with the Joseph Henry Papers Project and another seven as the agency historian for the National Science Foundation. In addition to his work on Henry and the early history of the Smithsonian Institution, he has worked on science education in the nineteenth-century U.S., the relationship between professionals and amateurs in astronomy, and the role of the Federal government in the funding of science. As Editor of the Henry Papers, he oversaw the publication of volumes 6 through 11, documenting Henry’s life in Washington. Among his publications is a two-volume critical and selective bibliography of the history of science and technology in the United States. He was general editor of the Garland Encyclopedias in the History of Science. He has served as President of the Society for History in the Federal Government, Chair of the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, and Treasurer of the History of Science Society. The Henry Papers volumes received the Thomas Jefferson Prize for Documentary History from the Society for History in the Federal Government and the Eugene S. Ferguson Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. His undergraduate work was in astronomy at Villanova University and his graduate work in the history of science was at Bryn Mawr College.