Category Archives: North America

The “Disturbingly Informative” Mütter Museum, Philadelphia

By Robert Hicks

A view of the main Museum Gallery
A view of the main Museum Gallery. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Adorning the century-old Beaux Arts College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a large banner advertising the Mütter Museum as a “disturbingly informative” place. This prestigious historical building — now a national landmark as “the Birthplace of American Medicine” — embodies the historical medical legacy of Philadelphia and its numerous firsts: first medical school, first hospital, first school of optometry, first medical college for women, first school of pharmacy, first children’s hospital, first hospital dedicated to the eye, and more. The College hosts two collections, the Historical Medical Library and the Mütter Museum, the latter having become a cultural landmark for an audience that extends well beyond the medical cognoscenti.

The College has grown with the nation. Founded in 1787 by physicians including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, MD, the College aimed to raise the competence and standing of physicians and to relieve human suffering. The fellows, accomplished physicians who are elected to fellowship by their peers, remain at the core of the College and now number over 1400. One fellow, Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, a popular lecturer and successful physician in private practice, donated a pathological anatomy collection that opened as the namesake museum in 1863. Although the museum’s collections have been used for teaching and research throughout the museum’s history, public visitors began arrive in ever-increasing numbers from the early 1980s and now over 130,000 come yearly. At the museum people see what they cannot see elsewhere: they can explore intimately and viscerally what it means to be human.

Less conspicuous to casual visitors, the Historical Medical Library has been known internationally as one of the largest history-of-medicine collections in the United States with over 325,000 volumes including monographs, journals, manuscripts, archives, prints and photographs, pamphlets and incunabula (books printed before 1501). The library functioned as Philadelphia’s central medical library from the 1850s to the 1970s, serving its medical schools, hospitals, physicians, and other health professionals. Now, the library is conducting strategic planning to reinvent itself as a 21st-century special collections library. Administratively, the College is combining library and museum collections to elicit wider research interest and to use all collections for exhibits, web-based projects, and other initiatives. Most important, the library participates as an active member of the Medical Heritage Library, a digital consortium of east-coast libraries with substantial medical history collections (see:

To reckon with the new reality of electronic access and research, the Historical Medical Library has embraced the “humanities” epithet to recognize its interest in courting new audiences and to situate itself within a broader intellectual territory. Even the “Historical Medical” moniker is a re-invention to reflect a changing status. Informally, we describe the library and museum collections jointly as the Center for Medical Humanities. Our web-based outreach speaks to this humanities approach: the College collections inform our award-winning History of Vaccines website and our popular YouTube programs, What’s on the Curator’s Desk, the Mütter Minute, and No Bones about It (see: History of Vaccines speaks to the manner in which the College aims to use medical history to inform public health. In effect, the College has created its own television channel with social media and web-based programs. Additionally, happenings at the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library are followed through Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.

The Hyrtl Skull wall
The Hyrtl Skull wall. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

The museum, on the other hand, contains about 25,000 specimens and artifacts with well-defined collecting foci; approximately 12% of the collection is on display. An unusual institutional survivor, the museum features its displays in 19th century vitrines and cabinets, contributing to an ambiance that visitors find attractive. To some degree, then, the Mütter is a museum of itself although its collections remain vital for historic and scientific research. The permanent exhibit contains specimens that many people return to visit as old acquaintances. The tallest skeleton in North America (7’6″) stands alongside Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf; the conjoined livers of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, reside underneath a plaster cast of the twins, produced post-autopsy; and a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln includes tissue removed from assassin John Wilkes Booth. Over a hundred skulls of the Hyrtl Skull Collection face the viewer, and on each skull anatomist Josef Hyrtl, MD wrote the data of scientific interest in the 1850s: name, occupation, cause of death, age, birthplace, and religion, data constituting brief and poignant life histories. Facing a collection of teratology (“monstrous births”), the tools of pioneer bronchoesophagologist Chevalier Jackson surmount drawers and drawers of swallowed objects recovered without surgery, hundreds of specimens that enthrall many visitors as unusual medical curiosities. In a corner nearby stands the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, the only complete skeleton on display in North America that shows his disease, fibrodisplasia ossificans progressiva, a rare disease in which the connective tissue ossifies, eventually suffocating the victim. Although a rare phenomenon, the key to understanding this disease is the key to understanding bone growth.

The Mütter American Giant
The Mütter American Giant. Photograph credit: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Exhibits and collections as rich and varied as these specimens attract researchers. Recently, a Canadian team removed samples of 19th century cholera tissues in a search for viable cholera DNA. The research aims to map cholera epidemics world-wide over two centuries and to date no pickled 19th century specimen has yielded viable DNA—until now. One sample produced the sought result. The Hyrtl skulls have always attracted researchers: following the end of civil war in former Yugoslavia, war crimes investigators studied Croat skulls in the collection to help identify anonymous victims of mass murder. Some recent exhibits have highlighted public health challenges. In response to a (funded) request from the City of Philadelphia to complement its public health program to reduce lead poisoning, the museum created The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health which featured library and museum collections to explore our love-hate relationship with lead since antiquity.

In 2013, the 150th anniversary both of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Mütter Museum, the College will open a permanent exhibit on the medical dimension of the war, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia. The exhibit will focus on the body, affording an intimate look at a white soldier, black soldier, and white female nurse. It asks visitors to consider the health of the soldiers and nurse, expectations for health care and mortality, and their relationship to physicians. The exhibit argues that during the war, injury, recovery, and death were managed in new ways and the war changed soldiers’ relationships with their own minds and bodies.

The College has developed a close relationship with the visual arts, most recently by commissioning internationally-renowned film artists, the Quay Brothers, whose meditation on the collections resulted in the film, Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos and Afterbreezes from the Mütter Museum), funded by the Philadelphia Exhibits Initiative of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. More information can be found here: The Museum of Modern Art curated a small exhibit on the making of the film, now on view at the College, and the film is shown throughout the day.

Our resources related to the history of science are abundant, even if a little disturbing. We invite visits or communications from historians of science. We also have a small travel grant program available to researchers: Contact the Director, Dr Robert Hicks, at

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

By Robert Peck

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University today

This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.

The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.

The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.

By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.

Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.

Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.

A close-up of a Golden Eagle from Audubon’s Birds of America

One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of The Birds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.

Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.

Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.

Further reading

Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

Richard Feynman’s Grave, California

By Tim Jones

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones
Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones
Richard Feynman's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, California, by Tim Jones

This last December, I paid my respects at the grave of physicist Richard Feynman, interred with his wife Gweneth at the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California.  Feynman died of cancer in 1988 and his wife died the following year.

The grave is marked by a very simple plaque, which my wife and I would never have found without the help of the cemetery staff.  Even then, until we brushed it off, the plaque was barely visible among the leaves and twigs –  fallout from the Santa ana winds that have just ripped through the region.

Today was calm and sunny though, and the cemetery is a beautiful spot to find yourself.  Lots of trees with birds and squirrels running about, the whole overlooked by the San Gabriel Mountains and Mount Wilson (of 100 inch telescope fame).

Richard_Feynman at Fermilab

Feynman researched and taught as Professor of Physics at the nearby California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1950 until his death.

If you don’t know about Richard Feynman, I recommend in addition to his Wikipedia  page you check out the biographies Genius by James Gleick, and Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss.  I also enjoy failing to completely understand (note the word order) Feynman’s 1979 Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures on Quantum Electro-dynamics (QED).

More recently, here’s physicist Leonard Susskind’s personal insight on the man in his January 2011 TED talk ‘My friend Richard Feynman’

and the BBC Horizon ‘No Ordinary Genius’:


Emmy Noether’s Grave, Philadelphia

By Paul Halpern

Emmy Noether’s grave, the Cloisters, Bryn Mawr
Emmy Noether’s grave, the Cloisters, Bryn Mawr

One of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century was German-Jewish mathematician Emmy Noether. Born in 1882, she was remarkable in that her accomplishments in the field of abstract algebra emerged despite considerable prejudice against her, first because of being a woman, and second because of her ethnic background. She taught in the 1920s and early 1930s at the University of Goettingen. Then in 1933, with the rise of the Nazi regime, an act was passed “The Law of the Restoration of the Civil Service” forbidding those of Jewish background to teach in Germany, unless they had been World War I veterans (a concession made to placate Hindenburg). Noether fled Germany and obtained a position at Bryn Mawr College in the US. She died two years later.

Einstein wrote a beautiful obituary about her in the New York Times:

“In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”
-Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 1, 1935.

Emmy Noether’s grave is in a quiet, monastery-like part of Bryn Mawr campus, known as The Cloisters.

Emmy Noether’s simple grave marker
Emmy Noether’s simple grave marker

The grave marker, with her initials and years of birth and death only, is very plain and right in the pavement.

Map location (Emmy Noether’s grave, Bryn Mawr College): 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA, USA

This article is adopted from a piece posted on the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (PACHS) blog. Photos by Aden Halpern.

Related link: Emmy’s Noether’s birthplace in Germany by Thony Christie

David Rittenhouse in Philadelphia

Ask Philadelphians what is the fanciest address in the city and they are likely to say Rittenhouse Square. Located at the intersection of Walnut Street and 19th Street, Rittenhouse Square houses many posh hotels and restaurants. Few locals know, however, that the prime location is named after astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse.

David Rittenhouse was born in 1732 in an early industrial community, set on a stream, that was then outside the boundaries of Philadelphia. Later incorporated into the city, the enclave is now called Historic RittenhouseTown.

Circa 1702 Mill, photographed in 1890
Circa 1702 Mill, photographed in 1890, courtesy of Historic RittenhouseTown.

The story of RittenhouseTown dates back to the 17th century, when German-born papermaker William Rittenhouse emigrated from Holland to Philadelphia and established the first paper mill in the Colonies. Because of its success, a second mill and bakehouse were constructed, along with the Rittenhouse Homestead. Generations of papermakers, weavers, and other industrial workers lived in the community supplying important products for the colonies.

Historic RittenhouseTown is open for tours. Surrounded by parkland, it is located at 206 Lincoln Drive in the northwest part of Philadelphia. It is open summer weekends from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm. It is also open on weekdays, if arranged in advance, for groups of 10 or more.

Rittenhouse Homestead, photographed in 2006
Rittenhouse Homestead, photographed in 2006, courtesy of Historic RittenhouseTown.

The great-grandson of William, young David demonstrated great mathematical and scientific prowess, studying Newton’s Principia on his own. He became adept at building mechanical devices and established his own clock-making and instrument-making business.

Combining his scientific interests, particularly in astronomy, with his mechanical skills and craftsmanship, Rittenhouse set out in 1767 to build an orrery: a machine replicating the motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System using Kepler’s laws as a guide. He also constructed a modified refracting telescope to record the transit of Venus.

In 1786, politician Francis Hopkinson, a friend of Rittenhouse, sent him an intriguing question, “why… when he looked through a fine silk handkerchief at a light source, did he see a grid of dark lines which did not move at all, even though he moved the handkerchief back and forth?” (Hindle, p. 276)

After repeating Hopkinson’s experiment, Rittenhouse decided to resolve the issue by developing what became the first diffraction grating. By placing fine hairs parallel to each other, he constructed a grating with about 250 lines per inch. He then turned to the subject of precision timekeeping and astronomical measurement, constructing the first collimating telescope.

Rittenhouse was honoured much in his life. In the 1780s he was appointed the University of Pennsylvania’s first Professor of Astronomy and Vice-Provost. In 1791, one year after the death of Franklin, Rittenhouse was elected to be the second president of the American Philosophical Society. Rittenhouse held that position five years, until his own death. In 1825, Philadelphia renamed what was previously called Southwest Square after him, and Rittenhouse Square soon became known as one of the fanciest locations in the city. The physics and mathematics building at the University of Pennsylvania is named David Rittenhouse Laboratory in his honour.

Map location (Historic RittenhouseTown): 206 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia, PA 19144, USA


I thank Chris Owens, Director of Historic RittenhouseTown, for his help and for supplying the photos for this article.

Parts of this article are adopted from “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” by Paul Halpern, published in Physics in Perspective.


  1. Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, (Princeton,: Princeton University Press, 1964)
  2. Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11, No. 2, (2009), pp. 209-227.
  3. Historical RittenhouseTown website:

The Franklin Institute and Other Sites in Philadelphia Related to Benjamin Franklin, USA

By Paul Halpern

In honour of Benjamin Franklin’s 306th birthday (this article was published on 17 January 2012) and the upcoming 2012 Three Societies’ Meeting in Philadelphia, we have a special BSHS Travel Guide entry on sites relating to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia written by Paul Halpern, Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, and statesman, lived in Philadelphia from 1723 until his death in 1790 (aside from multiyear stays in London and Paris). His contributions to the study of electricity capped an impressive career dedicated to public service. In Philadelphia numerous places and institutions carry his name. The Franklin Institute, funded in part through funds set aside from Franklin’s will, is one of many sites honouring Franklin in the city.

Located on Logan Square, at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district, the Franklin Institute is a large, classically-styled building with a columned façade. It houses one of the leading hands-on science museums in the United States, a collection of Franklin artifacts, and the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.

Benjamin Franklin National Memorial
Benjamin Franklin National Memorial

With a spacious rotunda designed by noted architect John Torrey Windrim and modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Memorial serves as the Institute’s main entrance. It is the only section of the Institute building that is free to the public; the science museum has an entrance fee. In the center of the Memorial is a six-metre high statue of Franklin, sculpted by James Earle Fraser. Beyond the Memorial is the science museum, which features numerous exhibits including a 26-metre Foucault pendulum, and a large steam train built in 1926. Outside the museum building is a Grumman Lunar Module, built for the Apollo program.

Another Philadelphia museum dedicated to Franklin is Franklin Court, the site of his former home and print shop, located near the corner of Market Street (Philadelphia’s high street) and Third Street. Although the original building had been demolished, in 1976, during the bicentennial of American independence, the ruins of the house’s cellar and foundations were excavated, and new structures were built to offer a sense of how it looked. An underground museum, free to the public, showcases Franklin’s achievements.

Bolt of Lightning sculpture
Bolt of Lightning sculpture

Several streets away from Franklin Court are other notable sites related to Franklin. Franklin’s grave is located in Christ Church cemetery near the corner of Fifth Street and Arch Street. It is a tradition to toss pennies on his grave marker for good luck. At Fifth and Vine Street is the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Within its entrance plaza stands a metal sculpture commemorating Franklin’s reported ‘kite and key’ electrical experiment. Designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi to depict a kite and a lightning bolt, it is called Bolt of Lightning and was erected in 1984.

Franklin Wall Plaque at the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia
Franklin Wall Plaque at the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia

Franklin was the founder of many organisations and scholarly institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania. The original site of the latter, the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, is commemorated by a wall plaque.

The current site of the University of Pennsylvania is in the western part of Philadelphia. There stands yet another Franklin memorial, a bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.

Bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.
Bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.

Further information

Address: Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103


  1. Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11, No. 2, (2009), pp. 209-227.
  2. The Franklin Institute website:

Following in the footsteps of James Smithson

By Steven Turner

This article was originally published on “O Say Can You See?”, the blog of the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and has been reproduced here with the generous permission of the author, Steven Turner.

Somewhat late in the summer of 1784, James Smithson embarked on his first scientific expedition. This “expedition” might have seemed a bit odd to a modern viewer—as it consisted of four gentlemen, with their servants, driving north from London in carriages—but in the 18th century science was often a gentleman’s pursuit and this was how gentlemen traveled.

Their goal was to explore the remote island of Staffa, off the Northwest coast of Scotland. Staffa had recently been visited by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and his description of the island’s distinctive basalt columns and remarkable marine caves had captured both the popular and scientific imaginations of the time. In the 19th century Staffa would become a major tourist destination, but in 1784 Smithson’s party would have been one of the first scientific groups – and certainly the first mineralogists – to attempt the rigorous overland journey to see it.

The island of Staffa
The island of Staffa. In Smithson's time there was great disagreement about how an island like this could have been formed. Staffa has also inspired a range of artistic works over the years.

Smithson would later become famous for leaving his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. But at this time he was only 19 years old and fresh from his studies at Oxford. The driving force behind the expedition was Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist and mineralogist who planned to use the trip as field-work for a book on Scottish volcanoes. Smithson only learned about the expedition at the last minute from one of his professors, who urged him to join and provided letters of introduction. Smithson dropped everything and rushed to London, arriving just a few days before it departed.

Smithson's group's route to Staffa
The route Smithson’s group took to Staffa. Today's highways take essentially the same path.

The events he witnessed, the places he visited and the ideas he encountered propelled Smithson’s early scientific career and influenced much of his later scientific work. As a Smithsonian curator researching the science of James Smithson, I’ve spent much of the last year trying to unravel the story of what Smithson saw on this trip and what it would have meant to him. So much of the story is connected to the specific geology of Scotland and to Enlightenment-era Edinburgh that I came to realize the importance of seeing these places in person. And when I mentioned this idea to my intrepid volunteers Jeff Gorman and Frank Cole, it was not long before we all found ourselves on a unique vacation: following in the footsteps of James Smithson.


Averaging less than 20 miles a day, it took the expedition several weeks to reach Edinburgh (more than 300 miles from London), and for me this was their first important destination. This is where Smithson encountered the remarkable intellectual flowering now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

We know that Smithson carried letters of introduction and that he met and later corresponded with the famous chemist Joseph Black. Black was noted for his use of the chemical balance and at the National Museum of Scotland we were able to see some of his actual instruments. Smithson wrote about carrying a balance “of Black’s design” when he traveled in Europe.

Scottish National Museum
The Scottish National Museum's galleries about 18th century life provided a glimpse into the world Smithson explored.

Smithson arrived in Edinburgh at a very interesting time. The city was home to some of the most brilliant men in Europe and they all seem to have been close friends. Smithson was able to meet many of them and although the expedition could not linger more than a few days, he seems to have been strongly affected by the experience and returned for a second visit on his way back to London.

In particular he seems to have been impressed by James Hutton, now known as the father of geology. At the time of Smithson’s visit Hutton would have been just developing his revolutionary theories about underground heat and pressure, and we know that he was recruiting visiting scientists to send him rock samples. Hutton seems to have recruited our hero as well, as Smithson later tried to send him fossils. If Hutton spent any time with Smithson, one of the places he would have taken him was “Salisbury Crags” – an ancient lava flow that literally loomed over the back yard of his house.

The Salisbury Crags
The Salisbury Crags, near Hutton's home

This image was taken just a short distance from where Hutton lived, and it’s easy to see why his attention was drawn to this formation. In his time the hard basaltic stone at the top was being excavated for use as paving stones. As new material was exposed Hutton would study it for evidence of structures that could only have been formed by underground lava. To help us understand the unique geology of Edinburgh we arranged a geologic tour of the city, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Edinburgh area was shaped by ancient volcanoes and in Holyrood Park, in the center of the city, we were able to see some of the same formations that Hutton would have studied—and presumably shown Smithson.

On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park


Edinburgh was the intellectual center of 18th century Scotland, but the expedition encountered a different side of the Enlightenment at the next place it lingered – Inveraray Castle. This was, and still is, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and Smithson’s group reached it only after a long, difficult journey up the west side of Loch Lomand and then overland to Loch Fyne. A modern highway now follows this same route and as we drove we were able to enjoy the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs. But we could imagine the challenge of getting carriages over muddy mountain roads and of finding food and lodging in the rain and dark. We could also imagine the joy of Smithson’s group when they finally reached the Castle.

Inveraray Castle
With large windows and a decorative moat, this castle was never intended for military use, but served as an example of enlightened ideals and manners for this part of Scotland.

Located on the shore of Loch Fyne and situated at the base of a low mountain, the Castle remains today much as Smithson would have seen it. Much more a home than a fortress, the Castle was just being finished when they arrived. The Duke and Duchess were famous for their hospitality and refinement, and Faujas later reported that French was spoken at dinner and that French wines, tableware and manners were at all times employed.

The Duke of Argyll, his family, and guests outside Inveraray Castle
Continuing the tradition of hospitality that Smithson experienced, the Duke of Argyll graciously welcomed us to his home.

For me, Inveraray Castle presents the romantic side of the Enlightenment. The artwork and tapestries, the elaborate gardens and hothouses, even the design of the Castle itself all express something of the idealization of nature and reason that characterized Smithson’s time. And there is also an underlying belief in progress and human improvement, which is an interesting connection to Smithson’s later founding of the Smithsonian.

Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.
Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.

Smithson almost certainly saw this work and one wonders how he would have understood it. Did he see, as many in his time would have, a metaphor of nature and the power of reason?

The expedition could only linger three days at Inveraray, although the Duke urged them to stay longer. They must have looked back fondly to this time during the subsequent days, because they now began the most difficult part of their journey.


The expedition now headed northwest to the fishing village of Oban, from which they would sail to the island of Mull and, from there, to Staffa. The road was the worst they had yet encountered and they were exhausted by the time they reached Oban.

Our own drive to Oban was much more pleasant and took only a few hours. We arrived in time to visit the local historical society and learn a bit about its’ history. Oban would have been a small fishing village when Smithson saw it, with a population of only about 600. It began to grow in the 1790s – partly due to interest in Staffa – and today is a pleasant community of about 8,500.

The launching point on Mull to Staffa
The launching point on Mull to Staffa

Today it’s an easy ferry ride from Oban to Mull, although for Smithson the 33 mile trip could have been daunting – it was the beginning of the stormy season. Once on Mull, Smithson’s group crossed to the west side of the island and the embarkation point for Staffa. They stayed at Torloisk, an estate the Duke had recommended, and from which (on a clear day) they could see Staffa. It took several days before the seas were calm enough to attempt to reach Staffa and even then Smithson reported a harrowing trip. He spent the night on the island, returning the next day with a cache of mineral samples and a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Our own expedition to Staffa was less successful. Modern tour boats leave Mull from the same spot that Smithson used, but on the days we were there the seas were too rough to venture out. The seas around Staffa are notoriously unpredictable—Smithson had to wait almost a week for good weather—but having gotten so close made me determined to come back and try again during another trip.


The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead
The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead. The mine Smithson visited is now closed, but this one is in the same area and dates from the same period.

At the museum in Wanlockhead we were able go a short way into one of the original lead mines, which was an interesting experience. I was intrigued to learn that this area had both lead and zinc mines. Smithson wrote about the chemistry of both minerals and the zinc ore Smithsonite is named after him. Did his interest in these ores begin during this visit?


Smithson’s last stop before returning to London was to visit a salt mine in the Northwich area, southwest of Manchester. The underground salt deposits in Northwich have been worked since Roman times and the extraction of salt has led to a series of subsidences (or “fells”) throughout the area. Many of the lakes in Northwich are actually old salt mines that collapsed after the salt was removed.

The Trent and Mersey Canal
The Trent and Mersey Canal. Finished in 1777, the canal was one of the first in England.

This was also our last stop, although the mine Smithson visited no longer exists. Instead we visited the Lion Salt Works in Marston which is one of the few remaining 19th century salt mines. It closed in the 1970s and is now in the process of being restored as an industrial museum. It used a “brine” method of extraction, which is different than the mine Smithson visited, but the site is adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed just a few years before Smithson’s visit. The canal was built to facilitate shipping salt and, like so much of what Smithson saw on his trip, was what we now think of as the beginning of the British industrial revolution.


Smithson returned to London just over three months after he had left. His newfound reputation as an explorer opened doors for him, as did the large cache of mineral samples he brought back. Just 3 years later, in 1787, he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society, becoming its’ youngest member. Smithson’s scientific career had started.

Washington DC

Historians are more commonly found in libraries and archives than on road-trips, and I must admit to being a bit uncertain about how useful this trip would actually be. But having seen the places Smithson visited and having, in some ways, shared his experiences has proved immensely helpful as I try to piece his story together. In particular, the depth of his interest in geology has been a revelation and my research since returning has been largely devoted to exploring that topic.

Steven Turner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. He’d like to express his appreciation for his “support group” on this trip: Jeff Gorman, Ginni Gorman, Frank Cole and Mary Lou Cole; with a special thanks to Frank, who took on the daunting task of planning this trip and without whom it certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Albert Einstein Memorial, Washington D.C.

By Paul Halpern

Einstein statue, Washington DC
Einstein statue, Washington DC

The Albert Einstein Memorial, located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. near the corner of 21st Street northwest and Constitution Avenue, is the official monument to Einstein in the United States. Free to the public, it is situated in a shady grove of trees in front of the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) . Einstein was elected a foreign associate of the NAS in 1922 and a full member in 1942.

The Einstein Memorial features a 12 foot bronze statue of Einstein that weighs about 4 tonnes. The sculptor, Robert Berks (1922- ), modeled it after a bust he had made from a portrait sitting with Einstein in 1953. Consequently, it portrays the founder of relativity in his final years.

Einstein is depicted sitting on a three-step granite bench reading a paper with a set of equations. These equations summarize the results of three of Einstein’s most important contributions to physics: the photoelectric effect, the general theory of relativity and the famous relationship between energy and mass.

Einstein statue detail
Einstein statue detail showing a set of Einstein's most famous equations

Engraved in the bench are three different quotations attributed to Einstein:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion …

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

At the base of the statue is a granite field speckled with over 2700 metal studs. These represent the position of the celestial objects in the sky at the time the memorial was dedicated, as ascertained by astronomers at the US Naval Observatory. The unveiling took place on April 22, 1979, during a meeting of the NAS that honoured Einstein’s centennial year.

The stately NAS building, just a few steps from the Memorial, stands as an emblem of the dedication of astrophysicist George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) to construct suitably elegant quarters for the esteemed organisation. A pioneer in the field of solar spectroscopy, inventor of the spectrohelioscope and founder of Mt. Wilson Observatory, Hale was elected to the NAS in 1902. Almost immediately, he set out to reform the organisation and transform it into an active force for the promotion of science. An 1863 act of the U.S. Congress had established the NAS as an honorific society but didn’t provide it with dedicated quarters. Hale pushed for the founding of an arm of the NAS, called the National Research Council (NRC), to enable scientists to help guide government policy. With the establishment of the NRC in 1916, Hale argued that the NAS required a proper headquarters. He personally sought out noted architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, led a fundraising campaign for the building, oversaw its design and even contributed the motto inscribed in the dome of its Great Hall. Hale wrote:

To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

Location: 2101 Constitution avenue northwest, Washington, DC

Parts of this description are excerpted from my article “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour.”


  1. Paul Halpern, “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour,” Physics in Perspective 12, No. 4, (2010), pp. 443-466
  2. “The Einstein Memorial,” National Academy of Sciences,

Torpedo Factory Art Center (and Alexandria Archaeology Museum), Alexandria, Virginia

By Thad Parsons

Open daily from 10:00am to 6:00pm (except on Thursday when it is open until 9:00pm – Second Thursday Art Night is from 6 to 9p – and when it closed at 5:00pm because of a private function).  Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.  Individual studios are required to be open a minimum number of hours per week but actual schedules vary, while the larger group galleries and workshops have regular schedules (available here).  Metro accessible via the Blue or Yellow Lines to King Street, where the free trolley service will deliver you to the waterfront.

Aerial View of Torpedo Factory in 1920s

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a world-renowned art center housed in an early twentieth-century munitions factory. Construction began on 12 November 1918 – the day after Armistice Day – and the building became known as the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station.  Its immediate post-World War One service was brief and as world-wide armament reductions occurred, the Alexandria factory was mothballed.  The facility continued to serve as a munitions storage facility and manufacture was able to resume shortly after the beginning of World War Two.  During the War, a number of torpedoes were built at the facility, including:

After the War, production stopped and the building reverted to a storage facility.  It was used by the Smithsonian to store art objects and dinosaur bones, by Congress to store documents, and by the Military to store German films and records acquired during the War.  In 1969, the building was purchased by the City of Alexandria and in 1974, the Torpedo Factory Art Center opened to the public.  After years of questionable working conditions, it was renovated in 1983 with some of the more artful touches that you can see today, such as the spiral stairs.

Today, the Torpedo Factory producing a wide-range of beautiful and interesting artwork but nothing that explodes!  Luckily for the interested visitor, some of the building’s history has been preserved in a number of exhibits, including this bright green target torpedo.  It was built at the factory in 1945 and is accompanied by its logbook of tests.  Besides this large display, there are smaller displays and wall panels that give further information about the building and its various uses.

Finally, it is also the home of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which works with citizens and professionals to manage the historic remnants of Alexandria.  The small museum has a number of displays about Old Town and is a useful resource center for historians interested in area attractions.

The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Thad Parsons

Open Monday to Friday from 11:00am – 4:00pm, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments is presented in three display spaces: the main Putnam Gallery (Science Center 136), the Special Exhibitions Gallery (Science Center 251), and the Foyer Exhibition Space (Science Center 371).  The galleries are closed on University Holidays.  It is open to the public and admission is free.  Children must be supervised.  For inquiries, call 617-495-2779.  Nearest T Station is Harvard Square on the Red Line.

The collection of scientific instruments for teaching and research has been occurring at Harvard since 1672.  In 1948, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments was established to preserve the rich legacy of science and technology present at Harvard.  In 1987, it was placed under the direction of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science.  Today, it is one of the largest university collections of its kind in the world with over 20,000 objects.  Covering periods from the fifteenth century until today and a broad range of scientific disciplines, it is an important research resource for the historian of science and the collection can be accessed online at Waywiser.

The Putnam Gallery contains the Collection’s permanent display, entitled “TIME, LIFE, & MATTER: Science in Cambridge”.  The exhibition is book-ended by two large pieces – a decorative orrery and a cyclotron console – and it covers everything from early astronomy and physics to psychology and physiology (download the thematic guide for full coverage).  The interested historian can find plenty to interest themselves for hours but the casual visitor can easily experience the permanent gallery in less than an hour.

The other exhibition spaces contain regular special exhibitions, details of which can be found online.