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150 Years of Advancing Science: A History of AAAS
Origins: 1848-1899

At noon on September 20, 1848, in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, members of the former Association of American Geologists and Naturalists convened to resolve their society into a new organization:  the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Eighty-seven of the most distinguished members of the nascent American scientific community took part in the first AAAS meeting.  William Redfield of New York, meteorologist, geologist, and promoter of railway and steamship development, was elected president.  Following the organizational meeting, members adjourned to the Hall of the University of Pennsylvania where they reconvened at 4 p.m. to begin five days of scientific sessions. 

The aims of the Association were stated clearly in its original "Rules and Objects." 

Geology was central to the development of American science in the early to mid-19th century as Americans explored the continent and its natural resources. The founders of the American Society of Geologists (which was founded in 1840 and became the American Society of Geologists and Naturalists in 1842) spent several years discussing the notion of expanding their organization into an association for the promotion of all fields of science.  The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), formed in 1831, provided a model. 

In its early years, AAAS sought to establish a cohesive organization that would "aid in bringing together and combining the labours of individuals who are widely scattered, into an institution that will represent the whole."  This quest began under the forceful leadership of Alexander Dallas Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and head of the U.S. Coast Survey, and founding members Louis Agassiz, Joseph Henry, Benjamin Peirce, Henry Darwin Rogers and his brother William Barton Rogers, James Dwight Dana, Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, Benjamin A. Gould, William Redfield, and Benjamin Silliman, Jr. 

Over two thousand people joined AAAS for at least one year during the period from 1848 to 1860.  Most were scientists or engineers, but some such as Buffalo attorney and former U.S. President Millard Fillmore and writer Henry David Thoreau, were laypersons with an interest in science. 

The first woman to become a member of AAAS was astronomer Maria Mitchell of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Mitchell, discoverer of a comet and recipient of a medal from the King of Denmark, joined in 1850.  At least two other women, Almira Phelps, a science writer from Troy, New York, and Margaretta Morris of Germantown, Pennsylvania, joined before 1860. 
 
The Inauguration of Albany's Dudley Observatory by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1857. Photo courtesy of the Albany Institute of History and Art.
AAAS's early  meetings were major events for the cities in which they were held.  Members were lionized by the newspapers, treated to reduced fares on the railroad lines, and feted by local dignitaries.  Local scientific leaders used the meetings to catalyze support for their own institutions.  The 1856 meeting in Albany, New York, orchestrated by state geologist and AAAS president James Hall, involved the dedication of two major scientific facilities:  the state geological museum and the Dudley Observatory.   Hall also presented his paper on the theory of  "geosynclines" at this meeting. 

As sectional tensions rose in the United States, AAAS deliberately chose Nashville, Tennessee for its August 1861 meeting.  The Civil War intervened, however, and the meeting was postponed indefinitely.  AAAS neither met nor elected officers during the next four years and by the end of the war it was virtually moribund.  The Association was revived under the leadership of Frederick A. P. Barnard, president of Columbia University, and it met again in Buffalo, New York, in 1866.

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