The Papers of Joseph Henry


1847

1. FROM LOUIS AGASSIZ[1]

Prof. Henry in Washington

My dear Sir,

As I happen to be in Cambridge at the receipt[B] of a letter from Dr Torrey[2] explaining to Dr Gray[3] your views about the Smithsonian Institute[4] I can not help writing a few lines to you to congratulate you and your country upon the prospect of a well established national scientific Institute. I think your view of printing Transactions of approved, valuable memoirs is especially important, as nothing will put the Institute on a higher level among scientific men, than such a publication, which will undoubtedly rise ↑ raise↓ it more in the estimation of foreigners than any palace in which it could be established. Besides the publication of such transactions would at once supply you with the most convenient means for securing the published Transactions of all scientific societies in Europe;[5] and I have little doubt that the value of the Memoirs you will receive in exchange ↑for↓ of yours will partly repay the expense of printing and engraving your illustrations. Annual Reports of the state of things in science and arts I consider also as of first rate importance; but they should be printed in a more pocketable form, then the original Transactions, which necessarely require the 4° forme on account of the plates. I know too well the deficiencies and advantages of our european scientific institutions (as) not to consider with you helping scientific men in their original researches, where they can make no money by them, as a duty ↑of↓ to any liberal government or large scientific Institution;[6] but there is a difficulty in doing it by permanent appointments of the men. The best plan is to help them as long they are at work, but not give them sinecures for doing nothing.[7] The case is quite different with teachers, who have their every day's business to perform and must be permanent in their position.
I understand that you do not wish to have the charge of Natural history specime[n]s and such things. Pray let me insist upon the necessity of having them. I have seen the Collection of the Expl. Exp. and I can testify that I have seen no where larger and better collections arising from a single Journey round the world.[8] The naturalists of that expedition who have had the charge of making these collections deserve the greatest credit; especially two[C] departments stand above all praise.[9] Now I consider that it would be very creditable to Your Institution if these collections where properly arranged according the actual state of our knowledge,[10] ↑which↓ what is nowhere the case in our ancient Museums, which have been successively enlarged, without being ever rearranged and adapted to the newer views of the subject.[11]
As You contemplate also the introduction of a large library, let me remind you of the difficulties I have seen ↑arising↓[D] everywhere with us, from the mere fact that they attempted to unite ↑the books of↓[D] all departments in one library. Incessant quarrels about the increase of this or that branch are unavoidable; whilst limiting yourself to Sciences and arts you could at once establish your library on the most respectable footing, by having from the beginning every thing which is published in these[E] departments and leaving for the future to supply the books of past times and of mere historical value.[12]
Excuse my liberty in adressing you so freely upon a subject upon which my opinion has not been asked; but I feel so much interest in the prospect of a truly scientific national Institute, established in a contry where every[F] thing is done in a highly liberal way, that I thought it allowed to one who has spend his whole live in the devotion to science, to introduce a few remarks upon the subject.

Beleive me,

My dear Sir, most sincerely Yours

J L Agassiz
Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives. Enclosed in Doc. 2. Interlineations and parentheses, possibly written by someone other than Agassiz, are in pencil except as noted.
    [1] An eminent Swiss-born naturalist, Agassiz was currently delivering a course of lectures at Boston's Lowell Institute. He was soon to become professor of natural history at Harvard University's Lawrence Scientific School. Henry Papers, 6:530n.
    [2] Professor of chemistry and botany at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, and professor of chemistry and natural history at Princeton, John Torrey was one of Henry's closest friends. Henry Papers, 1:159n.
    [3] Asa Gray, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard, was another of Henry's close friends. Henry Papers, 2:281n.
    [4] While Torrey's letter has not been found, its summary of Henry's plans presumably resembled that which Henry had provided in other recent letters, such as those to Gideon Hawley and James H. Coffin; see Henry Papers, 6:610–615 and 623–625.
    
[5]As early as 1694, the Royal Library of France began trading duplicate volumes for foreign materials; other European libraries and, after 1846, the Library of Congress, also relied on international exchanges to build up their holdings. Leading learned societies adopted a similar approach, exchanging their transactions with other societies. In the United States, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia all sent their transactions to foreign societies.
An international exchange of the Smithsonian's publications did not figure in Henry's earliest ideas for the Smithsonian (for which see Henry Papers, 6:493–501, 607–609, 611–619, 623–625). However, it was included—perhaps owing to Agassiz's prompting—in the revised report issued by the committee of organization and approved by the Board of Regents on January 25, 1847, which formed the basis for Henry's "Programme of Organization."
George H. Boehmer, "History of the Smithsonian Exchanges," Smithsonian Report for 1881, pp. 703–810, especially pp. 703–711; A. Hunter Dupree, "The National Pattern of American Learned Societies, 1769–1863," in The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic, ed. Alexandra Oleson and Sanborn C. Brown (Baltimore, 1976), p. 24; Patsy A. Gerstner, "The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1812–1850," in Oleson and Brown, pp. 178–179; Murphy D. Smith, Oak from an Acorn: A History of the American Philosophical Society Library, 1770–1803 (Wilmington, Delaware, 1976), pp. 12–13, 36–39, 42–43; Rhees, Documents (1879), p. 939; Rhees, Documents (1901), p. 434.
    [6]Agassiz spoke from personal experience on the value of financial assistance for those engaged in original research. While at work on his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Neuchâtel, 1833–1844), he received support from scientific institutions, governments, and private individuals, including some £240 from the Geological Society of London and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and several research grants from the Prussian government. Such assistance also enabled Agassiz to provide means for his personal artist, Joseph Dinkel, whom he had hired to make illustrations of specimens in museum collections. Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960; Chicago, 1966), pp. 90–91.
    [7] In September 1846, in his earliest statement on the organization of the Smithsonian, Henry had proposed the creation of a corps of researchers, the elected members of which would receive support for their research from the institution. By December 1846 he had abandoned this idea, instead proposing that the institution would pay for original memoirs and award premiums to the authors of the best submissions. Henry Papers, 6:496–497, 613–614, 623–624.
    [8] Agassiz was referring to the voluminous natural history collections gathered by the United States Exploring Expedition, which, together with an assortment of other scientific, art, and ethnological specimens belonging to the government, were housed in a gallery of the Patent Office known as the "National Gallery." The act establishing the Smithsonian stated that these collections should be turned over to the institution after a building had been erected to contain them. Fearful that the expense of housing and caring for the collections would drain so much of the income from the Smithsonian fund that nothing would be left for other programs, Henry was deeply opposed to the plan of having the institution take charge of them. See Henry Papers, 6:466–467, 471, 604, 608, 611–612.
    [9] During a visit to Washington in October 1846, Agassiz saw the exploring expedition collections at the Patent Office. Their richness impressed him; "in some departments," he wrote, "the collection at Washington surpasses in beauty and number of specimens all that I have seen." He singled out for particular praise the work done by the expedition's chief zoologist, Charles Pickering (Henry Papers, 3:106n), and its geologist, James Dwight Dana (Henry Papers, 3:126n). Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence, 2 vols. (Boston, 1885), 2:420–421 (quotation on p. 420).
    [10] Section 5 of the act establishing the Smithsonian had termed the collections at the Patent Office "the national cabinet of curiosities." This was an apt characterization. While some of the exploring expedition collections had been scientifically arranged—notably the small mammals and fishes—others, including the insects, birds, quadrupeds, and plants, were still awaiting arrangement. Section 6 of the act directed the Smithsonian to see that these collections were "arranged in such order, and so classed, as best [to] facilitate the examination and study of them." Douglas E. Evelyn, "The National Gallery at the Patent Office," in Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington, 1985), pp. 226–241, especially pp. 237, 239.
    
[11] Agassiz's assessment was overly harsh. Curators at leading European museums who hoped to rearrange their collections confronted problems such as the weight of tradition, backlogs of existing specimens and the continual infusion of new accessions, and shortages of space. Still, some efforts were being made, particularly by enterprising curators who took advantage of opportunities as they arose. At the British Museum, for example, John Edward Gray (Henry Papers, 3:229n), since 1840 keeper of the zoological department, used the occasion of the removal of the collections to a new building in 1845 to make changes in their arrangement. Reflecting current interests in "the ancestry of living forms," Gray took fossil shells—formerly under the care of the mineralogical department—and arranged them in a series with contemporary specimens. Albert E. Gunther, A Century of Zoology at the British Museum through the Lives of Two Keepers, 1815–1914 (Kent, England, 1975), pp. 98–100 (quotation on p. 100); Gunther, The Founders of Science at the British Museum, 1753–1900 (Suffolk, England, 1980), pp. 83, 87–91.
After failing to convince Henry that the Smithsonian should take custody of the exploring expedition collections, Agassiz adopted a new course: he began lobbying for the policies which he felt the institution should follow in collecting and arranging its own museum specimens. He urged the institution to pursue two approaches. First, it should assemble a large collection of living and fossil shells which could be used to study the influence of climate upon organisms during different eras. Second, it should assemble developmental series of common animals, such as the cat or the pig, from the embryo to the adult. "Taking care that such series be put up in the Smithsonian Institution," Agassiz wrote, "would at once give to the collections of that establishment the stamp of a true progressive scientific museum." "Communication from Professor Agassiz, Relative to the Formation of a Museum," Smithsonian Report for 1849, pp. 24–26 (quotation on p. 25).
    [12] Henry firmly rejected the idea that the Smithsonian bequest should be used to create a national library and instead favored using only a portion of the income to establish a small working library. See Henry Papers, 6:471, 498, 565n, 612, 624.
    [A] Moved from end of letter.
    [B] Altered from receit
    [C] Altered from to
    [D] Interlineation in ink.
    [E] Altered from this
    [F] Altered, possibly from everaye