The American Philosophical Society (APS), founded in 1743 and located in Philadelphia, is an eminent scholarly organization of international reputation that promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications, library resources, and community outreach. Considered the first learned society in the United States, it has played an important role in American cultural and intellectual life for over 270 years.
Through research grants, published journals, the American Philosophical Society Museum, an extensive library, and regular meetings, the society continues to advance a variety of disciplines in the humanities and the sciences. Philosophical Hall, now a museum, is located just east of Independence Hall in Independence National Historical Park; it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
The Philosophical Society, as it was originally called, was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, James Alexander (lawyer), Francis Hopkinson, John Bartram, Philip Syng, Jr. and others as an offshoot of an earlier club, the Junto. It was founded two years after the University of Pennsylvania, with which it remains closely tied.
Since its inception, the society attracted America's finest minds. Early members included George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James McHenry, Thomas Paine, David Rittenhouse, Nicholas Biddle, Owen Biddle, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, Michael Hillegas, John Marshall, and John Andrews. The society also recruited philosophers from other countries as members, including Alexander von Humboldt, the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Princess Dashkova.
By 1746 the society had lapsed into inactivity. In 1767, however, it was revived, and on January 2, 1769, it united with the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge under the name American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Benjamin Franklin was elected the first president. During this time, the society maintained a standing Committee on American Improvements; one of its investigations was to study the prospects of a canal to connect the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River. The canal, which had been proposed by Thomas Gilpin, Sr., would not become reality until the 1820s.
After the American Revolution, the society looked for leadership to Francis Hopkinson, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Under his influence, the society received land from the government of Pennsylvania, along with a plot of land in Philadelphia where Philosophical Hall now stands.
Illustrious names have continually been added to the membership roster, reflecting the society's scope. Charles Darwin, Robert Frost, Louis Pasteur, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, John James Audubon, Linus Pauling, Margaret Mead, Maria Mitchell, and Thomas Edison became members of the society. The society continues to attract names of high renown today, with a current membership list (as of the April 2005 elections) of 920 members, including 772 resident members (citizens or residents of the United States) and 148 foreign members representing more than two dozen countries.
Many members of the Society of the Cincinnati were among the APS's first board members and contributors; today the APS and SOC still maintain an informal, collegial relationship.
In 1786, the society established the Magellanic Premium, a prize for achievement in "navigation, astronomy, or natural philosophy," the oldest scientific prize awarded by an American institution, which it still awards. Other awards include the Barzun Prize for cultural history, Judson Daland Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Clinical Investigation, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the Lashley Award for neurobiology, the Lewis Award, and the Thomas Jefferson Medal for distinguished achievement in the arts, humanities, or social sciences.
The APS has published the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society since 1771. Currently five issues appear each year. The Proceedings have appeared since 1838: they publish the papers delivered at the biannual meetings of the society. The society has also published the collected papers of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Henry, William Penn, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Jane Aitken bound some 400 volumes for the society.
Philosophical Hall, located at 104 South Fifth Street, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, immediately south of Old City Hall, was built in 1785–89 to house the society and was designed by Samuel Vaughan in the Federal style. A third floor was added in 1890, to accommodate the expanding library, but was removed in 1948–50 when the building was restored to its original appearance for the creation of Independence National Historical Park. In 2001, it was opened to the public as The American Philosophical Society Museum, hosting revolving, thematic exhibitions that explore the intersections of history, art, and science. The museum features works of art, scientific instruments, original manuscripts, rare books, natural history specimens, and curiosities of all kinds from the APS's own collections, along with objects on loan from other institutions.
In 1789–90, the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) built its headquarters directly across 5th Street from APS. LCP sold its building in 1884, which was demolished for the expansion of the Drexel & Company Building in 1887. This building itself was demolished in the mid-1950s, during the creation of Independence National Historical Park.
APS built a library on the site in 1958, and recreated the facade of the old LCP building.
APS restored the former Farmers' & Mechanics' Bank building at 425–29 Chestnut Street, which was built in 1854–5 to the design of John M. Gries in the Italianate style, to serve as a lecture hall. It is the site of meetings and most major events hosted or produced by the society.
Constance C. and Edgar P. Richardson Hall at 431 Chestnut Street, immediately west of Benjamin Franklin Hall, is the former Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities Building, which was built in 1871–73 and was designed by Addison Hutton. It now contains offices and the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science.