Philadelphia’s Scientific Community

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Philadelphias Scientific Community


Scientific Capital. The scientific capital of antebellum America was indisputably Philadelphia, at least until the Smithsonian Institution was established in Washington in 1846. Since the days of Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, young Americans had gone to Philadelphia to study science and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania was, in fact, the only place an American could pursue a medical degree in the eighteenth century without crossing the Atlantic. The intellectual climate of Philadelphia helped sustain the American Philosophical Society and other scholarly organizations, which in turn promoted and patronized the study of the sciences.

Naturalists as Explorers. In the early nineteenth century those institutions produced most of the naturalists and illustrators who accompanied the great exploring expeditions to the unknown reaches of the transMississippi West. Meriwether Lewis, for example, studied briefly in Philadelphia to prepare for his western trek. In 1819, at the behest of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, an expedition set out to establish a post near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. One of the six steamboats that plied the western waters carried the first corps of professional scientists to join such an expedition. The group included zoologist Thomas Say, founder of the Philadelphia Academy of the Natural Sciences, geologist Augustus E. Jessup, a member of the same institution, and Titian Ramsey Peale, scientific illustrator and member of the famous family of Philadelphia artists. Nathaniel Wyeths 1834 expedition that opened the Oregon Trail included Philadelphia ornithologist John Kirk Townshend.

Patronage of Science. The American Philosophical Society was already a venerable institution by the early nineteenth century, but it was an exclusive organization open only to the Philadelphia elite. Its wealthy members did, however, serve as patrons for penniless naturalists such as Thomas Nuttall, an English botanist who explored the Arkansas Territory in 1819 and years later joined the Wyeth expedition. Nuttall, though for many years a lecturer at Harvard, also became a member of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, which soon rivaled the American Philosophical Society in collections and reputation.

Academy of Natural Sciences. The Academy of Natural Sciences was established in 1812 as a more democratic alternative to the elite American Philosophical Society. The six founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences included a radical political refugee from Ireland, a dentist, a liquor manufacturer, a Dutch immigrant who was a mineralogist, a commercial chemist, and an apothecary. The academy became one of the most important and successful scientific institutions in Philadelphia. Although it struggled financially for several years, it acquired popular support by offering public lectures on botany and chemistry, some of them specifically aimed at female audiences. Its leaders shared and helped promote the growing sentiment that national pride demanded an American scientific community and that American scientists should lead in exploring and reporting the discoveries in the newly acquired territories. The academy purchased its own press in 1817, and its members published a large number of significant works of natural history. Supplied by members who joined the western expeditions and by affluent local supporters, the academy soon amassed an enviable collection of geological and botanical specimens, scientific apparatuses, and publications and by the mid 1820s had acquired an international reputation for promoting a high standard of excellence in the study of the natural sciences.


Like the Rbus vtrnix, described in our first volume, this plant is regarded with aversion, and too frequently furnishes cause to he remembered by persons of susceptible constitution, who unwarily become exposed to its poisonous influence. The general recognition of its deleterious character is evinced in the application of the names Poison vine, Poison creeper, and Poison ivy, which are given to it in all parts of the United States,

These [symptoms] consist in itching, redness, and tumefaction of the affected parts, particularly of the face; succeeded by blisters, suppuration, aggravated swelling, heat, pain, and fever. When the disease is at its height, the skin becomes covered with a crust, and the swelling is so great in many instances to close the eyes and almost obliterate the features of the face. The symptoms begin a few hours after exposure, and are commonly at the height on the fourth or fifth day; after which, desquamation begins to take place, and the distress, in most instances, begins to diminish.

The disease brought on by the different species of Rhus appears to be of an erysipelatous nature. It is to be treated by the means which resist inflammation, such as restj low diet, and evacuations. Purging with neutral salts is peculiarly useful, and in the case of plethoric constitutions, or where the fever and arterial excitement are very great, blood-letting has been found of service.

The extreme irritability and burning sensation may be greatly mitigated by opium.

Source: Jacob Btgelow, American Medical Botany, Volume III (Boston: Cummings & Hilliard, 18171820).


Simon Baatz, Philadelphia Patronage: The Institutional Structure of Natural History in the New Republic, 18001833, journal of the Early Republic, 8 (Summer 1988): 111138;

William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York: Knopf, 1966).

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Philadelphia’s Scientific Community

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