Making New York a City for Science

Making New York a City for Science

The Academy’s name, at its founding in 1817, was the Lyceum of Natural History in the City of New York—a city renowned for commerce. But through the work of the Lyceum and its many Members, New York soon gained a reputation as a center for science too. In our first century, many Lyceum Members played pivotal roles in founding New York City institutions that remain scientific leaders today, including New York University, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.

From its founding, New York University (NYU) embraced ideas of democracy that corresponded to those of the Lyceum. While most universities of the day taught rhetoric and classical languages to prepare students for the law and the clergy, NYU was nonsectarian and focused on “practical” education. It also was among the first to place science and engineering at the center if its curriculum.

Two of the University’s founders, who also were Lyceum leaders, advocated for this scientific focus: mineralogist Joseph Delafield and anatomist John Augustine Smith. In 1831, the University of the City of New-York, as NYU was originally named, opened its doors with other Lyceum Members on the faculty. John Torrey taught chemistry and botany (for an annual salary of $500—today about $12,000). Henry Vethake was chair of mathematics and astronomy. And David B. Douglass served as professor of natural philosophy and civil engineering.

The Lyceum, in the meantime, gained prominence as a forum for science in the city—and its library and collections of natural history specimens grew with its membership. The Lyceum even displayed some of these collections to the public, with a movement was under way in the 1860s to establish a larger and more permanent Lyceum-run natural history museum. A failed fundraising drive and a fire that destroyed the Lyceum’s collections dashed these hopes.

But the idea that New York should be home to a major natural history museum lived on. Lyceum Members soon threw their efforts into founding the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in 1869. Albert Bickmore, the intellectual force behind AMNH, had long been a corresponding Lyceum Member, and Lyceum Member, and philanthropist, William E. Dodge, Jr., was a founding trustee of AMNH. Several other Lyceum Members contributed their private natural history collections to the new museum – John C. Jay’s cabinet of shells, amassed in part during Commodore Perry’s 1852 U.S. Japan expedition in 1852, was a particularly prize addition.

It was one of the Academy’s next generation of leaders who spearheaded the effort to establish the New York Botanical Garden, chartered in 1891. That year, Nathaniel Lord Britton—the eminent botanist and driving force behind the Garden—also founded the Scientific Alliance, an Academy-led umbrella group aimed at raising the profile of science in New York City. Britton’s entire career wove together the strands of the Academy and the Garden. First elected an Academy Fellow in 1880, Britton was a protégé of John Strong Newbury, himself an exceptional leader who served as Academy president from 1868 to 1891. Later, Britton led the Academy’s survey of the natural history of Puerto Rico, editing the scientific reports from his office at the Garden, and amassing collections that benefited many institutions.

By the end of the 1800s, New York was still known as a city of commerce. But its cosmopolitan culture contained a new element—science. The Academy, its Members, and its leaders had laid the groundwork and helped create the institutions that made New York a city for science.

Further Reading

Simon Baatz, Knowledge, Culture, and Science in the Metropolis: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1817-2017. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2017.

L.P. Gratacap, Formative Museum Period. Science, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 344 (Aug. 2, 1901), pp. 168-178.

Peter Mickulas, Britton’s Botanical Empire: The New York Botanical Garden and American Botany, 1888-1929. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden, vol. 94, 2007.