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American Philosophical Society

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY is the oldest learned society in America. The botanist John Bartram made the first proposal for a general scientific society in Philadelphia in 1739, but it was Benjamin Franklin who issued a public call to found a society of "Virtuosi or ingenious Men," offering his services as secretary. The new society held several meetings in 1743, elected members from neighboring colonies, and members read learned papers and made plans to publish them. However, Franklin complained, the members were "very idle"; consequently, the society languished and by 1746 it had died. In 1766, stimulated by the feelings of American nationalism engendered by the Stamp Act, some younger Philadelphians—many of Quaker background and belonging to the Assembly political party—formed the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, which sought to develop and promote better agricultural methods, domestic manufactures, and internal improvements. In response, surviving members of the 1743 group and some others, Anglican and Proprietary in sentiment, then revived the "dormant" American Philosophical Society. Wisely, the rival societies merged in 1769 as the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. In a contested election, the members chose Franklin, then in London, as the first president.

The society's first important scientific undertaking was to observe the transit of Venus (3 June 1769). Its reports were first published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, then, in full, in its own Transactions (1771), which, distributed among European academies and philosophers, quickly established the society's reputation. Reorganized in 1784 and 1785 after wartime interruption, the society expanded its membership, erected a hall (still in use), and resumed publication of the Transactions. In the ensuing half-century it became the single most important scientific forum in the United States. Its tone was Jeffersonian, republican, deistic, and pro-French. By loaning its facilities, it encouraged such other learned bodies in Philadelphia as the College of Physicians, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Agricultural Society.

Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States and the society simultaneously, used the society as a national library, museum, and academy of sciences, asking it to draft instructions for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and, after the explorers' return, depositing their specimens and report in its museum and library. Materials on American Indian languages collected by Jefferson and another society president, Peter S. Du Ponceau, also went into the library. Joel R. Poinsett donated an impressive collection of ancient Mexican artifacts. During the nineteenth century, the Transactions carried many descriptive articles on American natural history, including those by Isaac Lea on malacology (the study of mollusks), Edward D. Cope on paleontology, F. V. Hayden on geology, Joseph Leidy on anatomy, and Leo Lesquereux on botany. The society's Proceedings also frequently reported Joseph Henry's experiments on electromagnetism.

The society lost preeminence during the mid-1830s to mid-1860s, when specialized learned societies arose. The federal government created its own learned institutions, such as the Smithsonian, and the American Journal of Science was founded. At midcentury the society seemed without imagination or energy—Henry Thoreau called it "a company of old women"—but it continued to meet, publish, and elect persons to membership, overlooking hardly any outstanding scientists.

The bicentennial of Franklin's birth in 1906 brought a renewal of activity, especially in historical publication. From 1927 to 1929 the society drafted plans to reorganize itself as a clearinghouse for scientific knowledge—with popular lectures, a newsletter, and a publications office designed to disseminate "authoritative news of forward steps in all branches of learning." Those plans collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Private bequests and gifts in the 1930s, particularly from R. A. F. Penrose and E. R. Johnson, produced striking changes, however. While retaining its old organization and traditional practices, the society extended its activities in several directions. It expanded its scholarly publications program, adding a book series, The Memoirs, and a year book to its highly respected monograph series, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. In 1933 it inaugurated a program of research grants, including the gift of large amounts for some projects, such as for extensive archaeological work at Tikal, Guatemala, and a number of smaller grants to individuals (these totaled roughly $400,000 annually by the end of the twentieth century), primarily as a way of fostering scholarly publication. The society continued to develop its library, in 1959 opening its Library Hall, which houses one of the principal collections on the history of science in America, including rare first editions of Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations, Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. In addition, the society sponsors three specific re-search programs in clinical medicine, North American Indians, and the history of the physical sciences. Since the late eighteenth century the society has also maintained an active awards program across a range of disciplines, from the arts and humanities to science and jurisprudence, including the Magellanic Premium (established in 1786), the Barzun prize, the Franklin and Jefferson Medals, the Lashley and Lewis awards, and the Moe and Phillips prizes.

A large percentage of the society's annual operating budget derives from its sizable endowment. The society's Annual Fund (launched in 1992) and foundation grants provide the remainder. Society membership is confined to those who are elected for "extraordinary accomplishment" in their professional fields; more than two hundred society members won the Nobel Prize for their work during the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, society membership stood at over seven hundred, 85 percent of whom resided within the United States.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

American Philosophical Society. Year Book. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, published annually since 1937.

Bearn, Alexander G., ed. Useful Knowledge: The American Philosophical Society Millenium Program. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1999.

Hindle, Brooke. The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.

Whitfield J.BellJr./c. w.

See alsoLearned Societies ; Lewis and Clark Expedition ; Philanthropy .

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"American Philosophical Society." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"American Philosophical Society." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/american-philosophical-society

"American Philosophical Society." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved September 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/american-philosophical-society

American Philosophical Society

American Philosophical Society, first scientific society in America, founded (1743) in Philadelphia. It was an outgrowth of the Junto formed (1727) by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was the first secretary of the society, and Thomas Hopkinson the first president. In 1769 it merged with the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The combined organization elected Franklin its first president, an office he held until his death. David Rittenhouse and Thomas Jefferson were his immediate successors. The society, which has a notable library located in Philadelphia, confers membership upon people of distinction in all fields of intellectual and scientific study.

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"American Philosophical Society." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"American Philosophical Society." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/american-philosophical-society

"American Philosophical Society." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/american-philosophical-society