American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES. The Massachusetts legislature established the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on 4 May 1780. Following the broad vision of John Adams, the Academy's founder, the charter directed the Academy's programs toward both the development of knowledge—historical, natural, physical, and medical—and its applications for the improvement of society. The sixty-two incorporating fellows, all from Massachusetts, represented varying interests and high standing in the political, professional, and commercial sectors of the state. The first new members, chosen by the Academy in 1781, included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington as American fellows, as well as several foreign honorary members.

The initial volume of Academy Memoirs appeared in 1785, and the Proceedings followed in 1846. The early publications reveal the important place that science and technology held in the Academy from the outset, reflecting an era when the learned population could comprehend and even contribute to the development of scientific knowledge. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the professional scientists had largely come to represent the public face of the institution. Presentations on historical or other general interest topics at the meetings of the Academy, however, helped to sustain the founding concept of a broader learned culture, and this practice began to accelerate early in the twentieth century. The linkage of specialized and general knowledge in the Academy's history is exemplified by the important debates over Darwin's Origin of Species in the early months of 1860. Though viewed retrospectively as a clash between Harvard naturalists Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz—pro and con, respectively—a number of other Academy members participated as well. Much of the debate was summarized in the Proceedings, the publication of which continued for more than a hundred years; the content of the Proceedings now appears in the annual Records. In the 1950s the Academy launched its journal Daedalus, reflecting a postwar commitment to a broader intellectual and socially-oriented program.

The Academy has sponsored a number of awards throughout its history. Its first award, established in 1796 by Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), honored distinguished work on "heat and light" and provided support for research activities. Additional prizes recognized important contributions in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In 2000, a scholar-patriot award was inaugurated to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the work of the Academy and whose lives exemplify the founders' vision of service to society.

During most of the nineteenth century, the Academy shared the headquarters of the Boston Athenaeum. Its first home was acquired in Boston in 1904. In the 1950s the Academy moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, and in 1981 the society moved into a new house in Cambridge, built with funds provided by former Academy president Edwin Land.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the Academy took significant steps to strengthen its ability to promote service and study. Projects became a central focus of the Academy, and a full-time professional staff was engaged. In an age of specialization, the multidisciplinary character of the Academy was seen as an important asset in dealing with the array of new problems that characterized the post–World War II era. In the late 1950s, arms control emerged as a signature concern of the Academy as scientists, social scientists, and humanists grappled with the social and political dimensions of scientific change. The Academy also engaged in collaborative institution-building, serving, for example, as the catalyst in establishing the national humanities center in North Carolina.

A new strategic plan, developed in the late 1990s, focused the Academy's efforts in three major areas: science, technology, and global security; social policy and education; and humanities and culture. In 2002, the Academy established a new visiting scholars program to support younger scholars.

Since its founding, 10,000 fellows and foreign honorary members have been elected to the Academy, with over 4,000 currently on the roster. From the beginning, the membership has included not only scientists and scholars but also an increasing number of writers and artists as well as representatives from the political and business sectors. Academy fellows have included such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John James Audubon, Joseph Henry, Washington Irving, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Edward R. Murrow, Jonas Salk, Eudora Welty, and Edward K. (Duke) Ellington. Foreign honorary members have included Leonhard Euler, Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander von Humboldt, Leopold von Ranke, Charles Darwin, Jawaharlal Nehru, Werner Heisenberg, and Alec Guinness. Astronomer Maria Mitchell was the first woman to be elected to the Academy, in 1848.

Until the 1930s the privilege of voting and holding office in the Academy was effectively reserved to those resident in Massachusetts. The postwar years saw a significant change. With a larger number of members elected from across the country, the Western Center was established in the late 1960s and the Midwest Center several years later. In 2000, the first international meeting was held in Paris. Now in its third century, the Academy is an active national and international learned society whose independence enables it to help shape public policy, contribute to intellectual debate, and advance the life of the mind.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Home page at

Whitehill, Walter Muir. "Early Learned Societies in Boston and Vicinity." In The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic: American Scientific and Learned Societies from Colonial Times to the Civil War. Edited by Alexandra Oleson and Sanborn C. Brown. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.


See alsoLearned Societies .

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

views updated Jun 27 2018


The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an international learned society dedicated to the promotion of critical analysis of the important social and intellectual issues of the day through the free exchange of ideas and perspectives. Through its publication, Daedalus, as well as its meetings, conferences, and symposia, it strives to develop useful policy initiatives while encouraging the development of new generations of scholars committed to improving the level of social discourse and creating a truly civil society.


The academy brings multidisciplinary, collaborative attention to bear on three major areas of interest: science, technology, and global security; social policy and education; and the humanities and culture. Within these broad areas of interest, a wide range of topics are explored with the goal of achieving practical improvements that will benefit society as a whole.


The academy is governed by a council consisting of seventeen voting members and six nonvoting, advisory members. The council meets three times annually to set policy and plan initiatives. Although its base of operations remains in Massachusetts, it has two regional centers, one at the University of Chicago and another at the University of California at Irvine. In addition, it maintains affiliations with many of the nation's public and private universities.


From its initial sixty-one members, the academy has grown dramatically. At the end of the twentieth century it had a membership of 3,700 American fellows and 600 international (honorary) fellows. Among these were 160 Nobel laureates and 50 Pulitzer Prize winners. Membership is divided into classes, defined by the intellectual disciplines represented. There are five classes: mathematics and physical sciences; biological sciences; social sciences; humanities and the arts; and public affairs, business, and administration. To become a member, an individual must be nominated by a current member and elected by the academy as a whole. Once exclusively male, the academy inducted its first female member in 1848.

Financial Support

The academy is a private, nonpartisan organization that maintains its independence in order to encourage the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. It receives its funding from individual charitable contributions as well as from grants provided by foundations and public agencies. In addition it receives revenues from the sale of Daedalus, a highly respected journal of opinion and policy. Most of its budget is devoted to covering the costs of individual research projects, as well as sponsoring seminars and symposia.


During the American Revolution, a group of gentleman scholars gathered together in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to form a scholarly society: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Numbering such leaders as John and Samuel Adams, James Bowdoin, and John Hancock among them, the first academy's membership shared the belief that, as "men of genius," they had a duty to their country and their fellow citizens to cultivate the arts and sciences and to spread knowledge of them throughout the populace.

The founders did not believe that a true scholar should remain aloof from the mundane world. Rather, they were convinced that the arts and sciences were fundamental to success in all aspects of life, from agriculture to commerce, architecture to industry. Further, they believed that these pursuits were vital to the happiness, dignity, and advancement of the populace.

Their goal was to create a forum in which intellectuals of all sorts would share their learned insights in order to come up with practical solutions to problems as wide ranging as international affairs, farming and animal husbandry, medicine, and meteorology. Drawing on the example of learned societies in Europe, they foresaw an important role for the "citizen scholar" in the new nation. Through their writings, speeches, and other activities, the early members of the academy were highly successful in spreading new ideas throughout New England's educated class and creating a culture that celebrated the practical application of scholarly knowledge.

At the outset, the academy took special interest in antiquities (archaeology), natural history, mathematics and philosophy, astronomy, meteorology, geography, and advances in medicine. Over time, however, the disciplinary focus of the organization changed, and by the twentieth century the emphasis was placed more squarely on the public service and policymaking aspect of the original charter. Nonetheless, the academy continues to take seriously its goal of mentoring new generations of scholars and honoring scholarly achievement.

Throughout its history, the academy has fulfilled its purpose by facilitating discourse among educated and interested people both in the United States and abroad. The present academy still holds tightly to the founders' conviction that knowledge is best shared, and as a matter of principle insists on the swift publication and wide dissemination of any findings, reports, or data it generates. It remains committed to the belief that the advancement of knowledge can only enhance the strength, welfare, and security of a healthy nation.

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John Voss

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Nancy E. Gratton

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American Academy of Arts and Sciences