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From the Academy Archives

December 7, 1847

Academy submits report on proposed plan for the Smithsonian Institution.
On December 7, 1847, an Academy committee submitted its opinions on the proposed plan for the Smithsonian Institution. The United States Congress had organized the Smithsonian the previous year as "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Joseph Henry, a distinguished physicist and an Academy Fellow (1840), was selected as the Smithsonian's first Secretary. He wrote to the Academy in September 1847 to request a response to the outline of proposed programs for the new institution. The Academy appointed Edward Everett, Jared Sparks, Benjamin Peirce, Henry W. Longfellow, and Asa Gray to a committee to consider Henry's plans.

The Fellows overwhelmingly supported the methods the Smithsonian intended to use to accomplish its dual tasks of encouraging scientific research and distributing scientific publications. They were especially excited about the emphasis given to research subsidies: "No systematic plan of compensation for the preparation of works of scientific research is known by the Committee to have been attempted in this or any other country."

Financial support for scientists would inevitably lead to increased knowledge, the committee wrote: "Narrow circumstances are too apt to be the lot of genius when devoted to scientific pursuits; and the necessity of providing personal and domestic wants too often absorbs the time and faculties of those who might, if relieved from cares of this kind, have adorned their age and benefited mankind. … It may be hoped that by offering a moderate pecuniary compensation for researches of real merit, valuable contributions to knowledge will be produced."

Source: Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 1 (1846-1848), pp. 185-194. Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1854), pp. 140-147.
Letter from Joseph Henry asking for the Academy's opinion on the proposed plan f...
Letter from Joseph Henry asking for the Academy's opinion on the proposed plan for the Smithsonian. Academy records.