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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, established by the Massachusetts legislature on May 4, 1780, is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. When the Academy was created, the War for Independence had not ended and the Constitution was yet to be drafted. The Academy’s founders, led by John Adams and James Bowdoin, were already looking to the future, anticipating the young republic’s needs for new knowledge and practical ideas.

Permit me, as a friend to all establishments which have a tendency to promote useful knowledge, to congratulate you upon the institution of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences....

— Letter from Ebenezer Hazard to James Bowdoin, July 8, 1780

From its beginnings, the Academy has engaged in the critical questions of the day. It has brought together the nation’s and the world’s most distinguished citizens to address social and intellectual issues of common concern and, above all, to develop ways to translate knowledge into action. Since 1780, Academy members have included both those who discover and advance knowledge and those who apply knowledge to the problems of society. Working together, they have established a legacy of leadership that continues to produce reflective, independent, and pragmatic studies that inform public policy and lead to constructive action.

In 1780, sixty-two individuals – clergymen and merchants, scholars and physicians, farmers and public leaders – signed their names to the Charter of the American Academy. Along with John Adams and James Bowdoin, the founders included Samuel Adams, then a delegate to the Continental Congress; John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts; and Robert Treat Paine, Attorney General of Massachusetts and, with Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Before the turn of the century, the Academy’s Fellowship broadened with the election of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, among others.

During the nineteenth century, the elected membership included Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John J. Audubon, Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Alexander Graham Bell.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, membership in the Academy continued to grow as noted scholars, scientists, and statesmen were elected. These individuals included A. A. Michelson, Percival Lowell, Alexander Agassiz, Charles Steinmetz, Charles Evans Hughes, Samuel Eliot Morison, Albert Einstein, Henry Lee Higginson, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Henry Cabot Lodge.

Over the centuries, the Academy has extended honorary membership to prominent scholars, scientists, and statesmen from abroad. Notable foreign members have included Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, John Singleton Copley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Niels Bohr, Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, Albert Schweitzer, Claude Levi-Strauss, Kazuo Ishigoro, Stephen Hawking, and Abba Eban.

View a list of all active Academy members and access the online Book of Members.

Academy Leadership

The Academy has a distinguished tradition of leadership, dating back to James Bowdoin in 1780.

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Charter of the American Academy

Since its founding in 1780, the Academy has provided a forum for scholars, members of the learned professions, and government and business leaders to work together on behalf of the democratic interests of the republic. As stated in the Academy’s Charter, the “end and design of the institution cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

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Seal of the Academy

With Minerva — the goddess of wisdom, science and trade, the arts, and war — as the principal figure, the Academy’s seal “...depicts the situation of a new country, depending principally on agriculture but attending at the same time to arms, commerce, and the sciences...”

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Academy Location

In 1981, the Academy’s first permanent home, known as the “House of the Academy,” was designed at 136 Irving Street in Cambridge.

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