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A Democratic American Science (A Glorious Enterprise–Part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2012

Peale was a showman for his museum

Philadelphia was already home, in 1812, to the American Philosophical Society, dedicated by Benjamin Franklin to all studies “that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.”  The Philadelphia Museum was also thriving then, with the entrepreneurial artist Charles Willson Peale displaying portraits of great American patriots and specimens of great American wildlife side by side.

The founders of the Academy meant to set themselves apart by focusing exclusively on the natural world, not culture or the arts.  And they wanted to do scholarly work, avoiding the kind of promotional hoopla Peale sometimes indulged in to attract paying customers.  The Academy was also determined to be democratic.  Whereas the American Philosophical Society drew its members from the elite (including 15 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence), the Academy’s founders were local businessmen and immigrants drawn together by a single idea: “We are lovers of science.”  They resolved that their organization would be “perpetually exclusive of political, religious and national partialities, antipathies, preventions and prejudices.”   This was no doubt wishful thinking.   As at most such institutions then, the Academy’s membership was entirely white and male, until the widow of one of the founders was admitted in 1841.  And even brotherhood would prove elusive.  (One founder was soon describing another as a “hot headed eccentric Irishman” and “some what crack brained.”)

Thomas Say

But the founders of the Academy were at least sincere in wanting to develop a proper American science for understanding and describing the riches of the still largely unexplored continent.  The time will arrive,” wrote Thomas Say, the intellectual force behind the Academy in its early years, “when we shall no longer be indebted to the men of foreign countries, for a knowledge of any of the products of our own soil, or for our opinions in science.” Say himself would become the father of American entomology, describing roughly 1400 insect species in his lifetime, including many of critical economic importance in agriculture.

Say would also become the first trained naturalist to visit the American West, as chief scientist on the Long Expedition of 1819-20, and he provided the first descriptions of many now beloved species there, from the swift fox to the Lazuli bunting—and also of many insects.  At one point, Say recounted how he was seated with a Kansa chieftain, “in the presence of several hundred of his people assembled to view the arms, equipment, and appearance of the party,” when a darkling beetle came scurrying out from among the feet of the crowd.  Diplomatic dignity wrestled briefly with the passion for species.  Then Say went plunging after the beetle and impaled it on a pin, for which the astonished Kansa admiringly dubbed him a medicine man.

Back home in Philadelphia, studying insects was more likely to attract “the ridicule of the inconsiderate,” as Say ruefully admitted.  But another of his discoveries, the mosquito species Anopheles quadrimaculatus, would turn out, long after his death, to be the chief carrier of “ague,” or malaria.  And identifying this culprit would become the key to eliminating a plague that routinely killed Americans from the Gulf Coast as far north as Boston and the Great Lakes.

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