The scholars and patriots who founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 had a lofty goal: to provide useful knowledge to a young republic and its enterprising citizens.
What began as an organization with a broad mandate experienced several transformations, dedicating itself at times to scientific discovery or vexing social problems. In recent decades, the Academy’s transition into an organization grappling with the country’s most pressing issues—while also celebrating the most inspiring achievements across disciplines—signals a return to its original mandate and an exciting phase in its history. What were the intervening decades in the Academy’s history like? And how did the Academy become what it is today?
An Institution for a New Nation
The Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, John Hancock, and 60 other men with a vision. This group understood that their new nation required an institution capable of advancing knowledge in service to the public. The founders signed the Academy’s Charter of Incorporation in May 1780, and in it they established a broad goal: “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
The Academy interpreted some of these goals in a very literal manner. It recorded mortality rates in towns across Massachusetts, and established committees focused on agricultural innovations. These were, after all, the pursuits that might concern a new and self-governing republic. In this same period, the Academy began distributing copies of communications of “useful knowledge” presented by members and the general public as Memoirs in 1785, establishing itself as a publishing institution. Some of these early published papers included solar eclipse observations from Penobscot Bay, ruminations on the nature of light, and reports on geological and meteorological phenomena throughout New England.
Just before the turn of the 19th century the Academy received a sizable donation from Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), ensuring the viability of the Academy for years to come, and endowing the Academy’s Rumford Prize, one of the oldest scientific awards in the country.
In 1846, the Academy also began publishing its Proceedings, to report on its meetings. It recorded such activities as correspondence with members and peer organizations and committee actions and resolutions. More importantly, the publication provided another venue for disseminating the learned contributions of those who communicated their research findings through papers presented or submitted to the Academy at meetings.
The Pursuit of Knowledge
By the mid-19th century, the Academy’s work became increasingly focused on scientific debate and discovery. This work reflects that its membership and much of the academic world were training their efforts on developing highly specialized fields and new forms of knowledge. The Academy’s participation included publishing, exhibiting, and debating this knowledge. Examples of this type of inquiry:
- David Humphreys Storer’s “A History of the Fishes of Massachusetts,” published in Memoirs in six installments from 1853-1867. Filled with delicate illustrations, Storer’s work was typical of the era’s focus on classification.
- Alexander Graham Bell gave the first public demonstration of any kind of telephone at the Academy in May 1876.
- With regard to a fiercely competitive debate on evolution and the ether controversy, the Academy assumed the role of neutral arbiter.
Challenged externally by intellectual and institutional changes in society, and particularly by the rise of the research university, the Academy responded by turning inward and addressing the needs of its growing and diversifying membership.
Programs of Imaginative Daring
From “Presidential Address: The Future of the Academy,” Howard Mumford Jones, 1944
An Academy goal in the mid-20th was to invigorate its membership, broaden its audience, and, above all, wrestle with the biggest issues of a changing time. Worldwide conflict in the 1930s and 1940s brought the realization that social and political problems were complex and widespread, and that redress called for deliberate and cooperative attention by the best available minds. From 1942 to 1944, the Academy focused on discussions of global “post-war problems”; these communications were published in a special volume of Memoirs in 1944.
Grappling with the rise of well-funded universities and the growth of government research enterprises, Academy leadership weighed how to distinguish the institution. Presidents Harlow Shapley and Howard Mumford Jones led the charge to reorient the Academy, with Jones stating in his 1944 inaugural address: “We must think largely and generously, not in terms of ad hoc projects and parochially. What enterprises can we foster? What is our potential contribution as a corporate body to the life… of the nation?”
This aspirational edict was a turning point for the Academy. In the ensuing decades, the organization produced influential work on nuclear proliferation, space and futurism, and new fields of social science. This period was also short lived; sweeping cultural change and steep budget cuts caused universities and institutions like the Academy to contract the scope of their work in the 1970’s.
The Modern Academy
Like many organizations, the Academy sought to make sense of the global cultural changes of the late 20th century. While it continued to produce projects like those on education and children’s welfare, it gave greater focus to large-scale, including school desegregation nationally and religious fundamentalism internationally.
The Academy also changed the way it worked. It focused on the broad impact of projects and expanded multidisciplinary approaches. It grew its national footprint, hosting conferences, opening regional centers, and incubating several new organizations, including the National Humanities Center (NHC) in North Carolina and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. It began to internally resemble the organization that it is today, organizing projects into distinct program areas.
One enduring achievement from the preceding era was the Academy’s new serial publication, Daedalus. Originally conceived as an extension of Proceedings, this new scholarly journal was comprised of thematic issues and visibly involved the Academy in a range of concerns outside its previous sphere of inquiry.
To Cultivate Every Art and Science
From “Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy,” 1780
Members have answered Howard Mumford Jones’s aspirational challenge of “imaginative daring” by leading impactful projects and embodying the essential stewardship emphasized in the Academy’s original charter.
Today, the Academy strives to understand the nature of our democratic institutions; produces benchmark reports on America’s engagement with the arts and humanities; and investigates ways to address some of the deepest existential threats to humanity, including armed conflict, climate change, and humanitarian disasters.
As we look ahead to the Academy’s 250th anniversary in 2030, we invite readers to learn more about Academy work underway.