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American Philosophical Society

The oldest scholarly society in the United States was founded in Philadelphia in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin "for the promotion of useful knowledge among the British plantations in America."

The society was small and inactive until 1769, when Franklin became its president. By 1771, 241 distinguished scientists, statemen, public servants, and scholars from America and Europe belonged to it. The society received an official charter from Pennsylvania in 1780, and at the same time a portion of present-day Independence Square was deeded by the state to the society for the purposes of erecting a permanent home for the society; Philosophical Hall was built between 1785 and 1789, and remains the headquarters of the American Philosophical Society to this day.

Membership in the society has always been limited to persons distinguished in science, scholarship, and public affairs. Past members have included 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 18 members of the Constitutional Convention, 13 U.S. Presidents, and more than 200 receipients of the Nobel Prize. The first woman -- Russian Princess Dashkova, president of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg -- was elected to the society in 1789. John J. Audubon, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Margaret Mead, Louis Pasteur and Linus Pauling are just some of the more well-known names that have graced the society's membership roster.

Today there are over 700 members around the world. Two general meetings are held each year. Hundreds of members and guests attend these meetings to present and discuss papers on topics ranging from underwater archaeology to nuclear magnetic imaging, from the writings of Shakespeare to race relations.

The APS sponsors five research grant/fellowship programs, including the Franklin Grants Program initially endowed by Benjamin Franklin. Past receipients of grants have included Thomas C. Poulter of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, to measure the depth of the polar ice cap; Lyman Butterfield, for his edition of the Letters of Benjamin Rush; Samuel N. Kramer, for work on the Sumerians; and Paula R. Backscheider, for her biography of Daniel Defoe.

Transactions of the American Philosophical Society publishes papers written by members of the society. Begun in 1771, Transactions is still a respected monograph series (five are presently published in a calendar year). Authors have included John Bartram, Franz Boas, Otto Neugebauer, and David Rittenhouse. Proceedings, a quarterly journal begun in 1838, publishes papers delivered at the biannual meetings of the society, as well as others submitted independently. Memoirs, begun in 1935, publishes papers on general topics ranging from ancient Egyptian science to modern-day Pennsylvania flora.

The archives of the society hold a wealth of letters and manuscripts dealing with early colonial history and the beginnings of the U.S. government including: the charter of privileges granted by William Penn to the colonists in 1701; the original manuscript minutes of the provincial council from 1663 to 1716; the minutes of the commission to determine the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, now known as Mason and Dixon's Line, of 1760-1768; a set of several treaties with the Indians; one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson; and the largest collection of the letters and works of Benjamin Franklin in the world. The society's library houses over 200,000 volumes and bound periodicals, seven million manuscripts, and thousands of maps and prints. Anyone with an interest in learning is allowed to use the library resources, view historical scientific exhibits and artifacts, and/or use the society's facilities for professional gatherings -- without fee.

More information about the history, collections, and/or current work of the American Philosophical Society can be obtained directly from the society's website:

Benjamin Franklin
Nobel Prize
John J. Audubon
Marie Curie
Thomas Edison
Louis Pasteur
Linus Pauling
David Rittenhouse
Thomas Jefferson

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This page was last updated on 10/04/2017.