About: History & Archives
150 Years of Advancing Science: A History of AAAS
Putnam often described AAAS as "the great mother organization of American
associations of learning." The Association's children, however, began
to challenge their mother. As scientific disciplines grew more and
more specialized, many first sought sections of their own within the Association,
before ultimately forming independent societies. AAAS found itself
adrift as the turn of the century approached, with stagnating membership
and meeting attendance. The Association nonetheless managed to continue
serving its aims, as it sought to renew itself yet again.
Putnam responded to the challenge posed by the Academy and the new specialized societies in an essay on the history and accomplishments of AAAS published in Science in 1895. James Cattell, the new editor of Science, argued that the Association filled a unique function and was distinguished from the National Academy of Sciences by virtue of its independence from government.
In 1873, a gift of $1,000 from Elizabeth Thompson, a wealthy Boston widow with an interest in science, prompted AAAS to establish a fund to provide research grants. Part of the gift was used to publish Samuel Scudder's Fossil Butterflies, the first in the AAAS "Memoirs" Series. One of the first grants ($175) went to Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley, recipients of the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1907, for research on optical precision instruments. Michelson and Morley (both of whom subsequently served as presidents of AAAS) had reported some of their experiments at the 1887 meeting and later published their work on the "ether drift" in Science.
Despite these accomplishments, in the words of historian Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, "It was a bittersweet moment as the Association returned to Boston and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary . . . commemorating a significant record of achievement but with falling membership and attendance signaling an uncertain future."