Founded more than 240 years ago, the Academy has not wavered in its commitment to recognizing excellence, but what has changed is the increasing diversity of its members and the broader array of expertise they possess.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an honorary society that began with 62 members named in its charter in 1780 and whose membership has dramatically expanded and changed since then, most recently with the nearly 270 members elected in 2023. The overview of the change and growth in membership on this page is a preliminary exploration that will be further researched and understood in advance of the Academy’s 250th anniversary in 2030.
The forming and incorporating of men of genius and learning into public societies
Academy Charter, 1780
The Academy’s founders were a group of 62 men based predominantly in or near Boston, who attached their names to the Charter of the institution and became the first members. Among them were leaders in the movement for American independence such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine.
By profession, these members were clergymen and merchants, judges and lawyers, scholars and physicians, farmers and public leaders. They were united by pursuits that would benefit the nation, including the application of knowledge in agriculture and commerce, and an improved understanding of history, mathematics, medicine, and sciences.
Historian Bernard Bailyn in the Introduction to Advancing Knowledge: Selections from the Archives of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote “The signed list of Charter Members, however incomplete, reveals one of the Academy’s basic characteristics. The Academy was not then, as it is not now, a center exclusively for scholars and scientists. The original membership included men of accomplishment, local prominence, and worldly experience from the entire range of occupations and statuses: merchants, politicians, preachers, lawyers, physicians, and teachers as well as men of learning and ‘philosophy’— just the mix of people of distinction that John Adams had dreamed of years before.”
The expansion and transformation of the Academy’s membership
Over the two centuries after the Academy’s founding, the composition of the Academy’s membership expanded and transformed.
As the size and influence of the United States grew, as the pursuit of knowledge expanded with each new discovery and artistic endeavor, and as more people were able to pursue and achieve excellence, the Academy grew.
There were multiple factors in the growth and change, some of which we are only beginning to understand and others that are understood as part of the Academy’s official development as an institution.
The Academy Charter established the procedures by which new members would be added to the rolls, so that “…the Fellows of the said Academy may from time to time elect such persons to be Fellows thereof, as they shall judge proper.” The existing membership would submit for consideration the names of individuals they felt were eminent in their respective fields and who would contribute to the aims and goals of the Academy. The first election was held in January 1781. Members elected in the earliest years included Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, as well as scholars and diplomats from France. By 1800, the membership had increased to nearly 225 members (total) throughout New England, New York, and western Europe.
Another important aspect of the Academy’s nominations and elections that has remained constant throughout the centuries is the anonymity of the process. Removing information about the nominators allows for more open and honest voting, as there is no pressure or obligation to agree with someone else’s opinions on a candidate. This rule, however, does impact research into the historical membership and who was elected, when they were elected, and how.
Today new members are still nominated and elected by current Academy members through an established election process.
Over time, the Academy’s membership has become more diverse, but the developments have not yet been fully recorded or researched. Until the past few decades, the Academy did not track demographic information on race, ethnicity, nationality, and country of origin. As a result, the Academy is unable at this time to provide as much information as is desired on these topics. Further, much of the relevant historical record is not within the Academy’s own archives.
Research is underway, especially in advance of the Academy’s 250th anniversary, to provide more information about representation and lack thereof in our membership since the founding. There is some initial information:
- The Academy’s first elected class, in 1781, included Foreign Honorary Members—all of whom were French. The Academy’s growth over time has included more members based in other countries, who are now known as International Honorary Members. Research is underway to determine the trajectory and locations of the growing international membership.
- The first woman elected to the Academy was Maria Mitchell. She was an astronomer from Nantucket who was elected at the annual meeting of 1848. Mitchell had discovered a new comet the previous October.
- Research conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education determined that the Academy’s first Black member was Ralph Bunche, who was elected in 1951—one year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
- The Academy’s first female Black member was Marian Anderson, elected in 1957.
- Research conducted by ICT News, suggests that the first Indigenous member was Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), elected in 1992.
Understanding these changes and others—some of which happened quickly and some slowly—is an important part of reckoning with Academy history.
The understanding of ‘expertise’ has changed over time, with developments marked by establishing, defining, and then revising categories of knowledge. Subsequently, the makeup and designation of membership in the Academy has also evolved to reflect such changes.
No specific membership designations existed in the early years of the Academy, except to distinguish members who resided within the United States (“Fellows”) and those abroad (“Foreign Honorary Members”). In 1815, however, the society established three classes to foster and encourage discussion at Stated Meetings: mathematical and physical sciences; natural history; and moral sciences, philology, and fine arts.
Another major re-organization of the membership and resultant revisions to the Statutes of the Academy came in 1852, as the classes were expanded and divided into sections for the first time. The Academy also added a new membership category distinguishing individuals within the United States who lived outside of the greater Boston area as Associate Members. In the succeeding three quarters of a century, the sections within classes were restructured to accommodate the growth and subdivision of various disciplines. The Academy added a fourth class to encompass the humanities in 1931. Sections within each class expanded and contracted in response to the same changes in each field of study, but the four-class structure remained until 2000, when a fifth class was added for business and public affairs.
Today there are thirty-one sections organized into five classes, in accordance with this listing.
Promoting broad inclusivity of people and perspectives is of great importance
Academy Strategic Plan, 2018
The members elected most recently demonstrate the Academy’s commitment to becoming more inclusive in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and more. In the past five years, each year’s newly elected members have been about one-third racially or ethnically diverse and the percentage of women has been around half.
The diversity of our membership has also increased with regard to the disciplines and professions that qualify an individual for membership. Today’s classes and sections are a testament to a rapidly changing world in which the Academy continues to honor scholarship and leadership, but with recognition for the ways in which expertise has evolved with new fields such as artificial intelligence, documentary filmmaking, and organogenesis.
Recently, the Academy’s newly elected members have reflected an intentional desire to recognize and celebrate excellence diversity, as established in the organization’s 2018 Strategic Plan.