Carnegie Institution of Washington

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CARNEGIE INSTITUTION OF WASHINGTON. In 1901 Andrew Carnegie offered the federal government $10 million in bonds of the U.S. Steel Corporation as an endowment to finance the advancement of knowledge. His gift was declined, and he gave the money in 1902 to establish the private Carnegie Institution. In 1904 it received a congressional charter of incorporation and was renamed the Carnegie Institution of Washington. The wealthiest organization of its kind in the country, the institution was intended to encourage original research by providing opportunities to exceptional scholars and scientists. The trustees decided to accomplish this purpose by spending a small part of the institution's income on grants to individuals and the bulk of it on large, well-organized projects. Carnegie, pleased by this conception, added $2 million to the endowment in 1907 and another $10 million in 1911.

Under presidents Daniel Coit Gilman (1902–1904) and Robert S. Woodward (1904–1920), the institution created ten major departments in various fields of the physical and biological sciences as well as in history, economics, and sociology. Under presidents John C. Merriam (1920–1938), Vannevar Bush (1939–1956), Caryl P. Haskins (1956–1971), and Philip Abelson, the emphasis on large projects remained the standard policy of the institution, the last vestiges of the program of grants to individuals having been eliminated during Bush's tenure.

The ten departments evolved into six in different parts of the country, each distinguished in its field: the Mount Wilson Observatory; the Geophysical Laboratory; the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism; the Division of Plant Biology; the Department of Embryology; and the Department of Genetics. The facilities of the institution were mobilized for defense research in both world wars. After World War II the institution's administration chose to avoid major financing by federal grants and, receiving a New capital gift of $10 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the institution continued to operate almost wholly on income from endowment.

By the end of the twentieth century, the institution dedicated most of its expenditures to research carried on by employees in its own departments, although it also sponsored research programs at both predoctoral and postdoctoral levels for upcoming scholars. Through programs such as First Light, a Saturday school that teaches science to elementary school students, and the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, a summer school catering to elementary-school science teachers, the institution also promoted its program for science research and education to a broader audience.


Good, Gregory A., ed. The Earth, the Heavens and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Washington, D.C.: American Geophysical Union, 1994.

Haskins, Caryl Parker. This Our Golden Age: Selected Annual Essays of Caryl Parker Haskins. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1994.

Daniel J.Kevles/a. r.

See alsoFoundations, Endowed ; Geophysical Explorations ; Laboratories ; Philanthropy ; Think Tanks .