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Celebrating Girls and Women in Science in NYC and Beyond

A woman works inside a science lab.

The New York Academy of Sciences has been promoting women and girls in science since at least 1877. Those efforts continue today.

A black and white photo of a woman.
Erminnie Smith

As the world celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, The New York Academy of Sciences is proud to reflect on its efforts of making the sciences more accessible for all.

The Academy began admitting women as members in 1877, more than four decades before passage of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. Erminnie Adele (Platt) Smith, an ethnologist and geologist, was the Academy’s first female member in 1877.

With funding from the Smithsonian Institution, Smith established herself as a credible anthropologist through her work that examined American Indian ethnology. She published her research findings in Myths of the Iroquois in 1883. Smith founded and served as the inaugural president for the Aesthetic Society, a Jersey City-based organization that promoted “cultivation and education…in literature, science, and art.”

Women Scientists of the 20th Century

Eunice Thomas Miner

Moving into the 20th century, the Academy saw more of its women members making significant scientific contributions in their respective fields. Nobel Laureates Gertrude B. Elion and Barbara McClintock are honorary Academy members from this era.

Eunice Thomas Miner’s impact on the Academy was immense from the moment she became involved in 1932. At that time the Academy’s membership was a mere 300 and its finances were in a state of flux. Miner worked her way up to serve as the Academy’s Executive Director. By the time of her retirement, membership had grown to more than 26,000 worldwide. Miner also played a significant role in procuring the Ziegler-Woolworth Mansion (2 E. 63rd Street), which served as the Academy’s home from 1950 to 2006.

Margaret Mead

The Academy promoted the research of Margaret Mead, who holds the distinction of being one of the 20th century’s most prominent anthropologists. Her fieldwork in Bali utilized both photography and film, which was unprecedented for its time. Mead always had a concern about the place of science in society, contributing to the Academy’s mission of advancing science for the public good.

After becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States, Marie Maynard Daly led innovative research connecting heart attacks and cholesterol. Daly served as a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors in the 1970s, helping to guide the Academy at a time when men outnumbered women nearly 10 to 1 in STEM fields.

A woman works inside a science lab.
Marie Maynard Daly

Charlotte Friend established herself as pioneer in cancer research decades before becoming substantially involved with the Academy. Alongside fellow female scientist, Cecily Selby, the duo was among the first to link viruses and cancer. She briefly served as Chair of the Fellowship and Honorary Life Membership committee for the Academy, before becoming the Academy’s first female president in 1978.

Under Friend’s leadership. the Academy hosted the Women in Science and Engineering Conference in 1972. Organized on the heels of the affirmative action ruling, the conference focused on women pursuing studies and careers in STEM fields, which remains an emphasis at the Academy today.

Continuing a Proud Legacy

Brooke Grindlinger, PhD, the Academy’s Chief Scientific Officer, recently wrote in the Washington Post about parallels between the popular 2023 Barbie movie and gender equity.

A woman poses for the camera inside a science lab.
Charlotte Friend

“As a former Barbie doll aficionado, I see a future in which the screen portrayal of diverse women in STEM careers is the norm, breaking free from stereotypical depictions,” wrote Dr. Grindlinger. “STEM characters in ‘Barbie’ could catalyze a transformative shift, urging society to embrace a reality in which life imitates art.”

The Academy continues to promote girls and women in its current programming. Sixty percent of Junior Academy program participants identify as young women, and 60 percent of Team Leads within the program identify as young women. Surveys conducted by the Academy have found a nearly 50/50 split of female-identifying and male-identifying attendees during Academy-sponsored conferences.

This year’s observance of International Day of Women and Girls in Science serves as a potent reminder of the Academy’s ongoing commitment to its founding principles to enhance access to science for all.

Prehistoric Sloth-Like Creatures May Have Roamed the US, said Academy President 200 Years Ago

A skeleton of a prehistoric sloth-like creature.

An Annals article and lecture given by Samuel L. Mitchill in 1823 presented paleolithic research suggesting that the territory of the Megatherium americanum may have extended farther north than scientists had previously thought.

Published November 28, 2023

By Nick Fetty

An illustration of what the Megatherium americanum may have looked like.
Image by Nobu Tamura. Licensed via CC BY-SA 4.0.
No changes were made to the original work.

Massive sloth-like creatures may have been roaming the land that we now call the United States during the Pleistocene Epoch (between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago), according to research presented by The New York Academy of Sciences’ first president two hundred years ago this month.

Samuel L. Mitchell, a prominent physician, scientist, politician, and founding member of the Academy (then known as the “Lyceum of Natural History in the City of New York”) gave a talk at the Lyceum on November 17, 1823, entitled “Observations on the teeth of the MEGATHERIUM recently discovered in the United States.”

This was followed by an article by the same name published in the inaugural issue of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1824. The article and lecture covered findings from Mitchell’s paleolithic research which suggested that the territory of the Megatherium (Megatherium americanum), a now-extinct species of giant ground sloth, may have extended farther north than scientists previously thought. This marked the first such recorded discovery north of the equator.

A Noteworthy Discovery

Mitchell received a set of fossil teeth that were discovered on Skidaway Island, just south of Savannah, Georgia. Mitchell noted that the teeth marked a noteworthy scientific discovery at that time, but bones that were discovered alongside the teeth were not able to be studied because of improper handling.

“These teeth are very remarkable, and differ much from any hitherto discovered in North America,” Mitchell wrote, adding “…there can be no doubt that the teeth in question belong to that extinct species, [known as] the Megaterium.”

A Megatherium americanum skeleton on display at the Natural History Museum in London.
Photo by Ballista.
Licensed via CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED.
No changes were made to the original work.

Built Upon Previous Findings

This discovery built upon similar findings from the late 18th century (about fifty years prior) when a near-perfect skeleton of the Megaterium was discovered near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Years later, another specimen was discovered in Paraguay. The full skeleton was on display at the Royal Cabinet of Madrid (Spain) at the time Mitchell published his findings. Charles Darwin, another prominent member in the early history of the Lyceum, would go on to discover remains from another Megatherium in Argentina between 1832 and 1833.

The Megatherium was described as similar in size to a rhinoceros or elephant. Biologically, the furry creature occupied a space between a sloth (Bradypus Lin.) and an ant eater (Myrmecophaga Lin.), though it shared more characteristics with the former. Based on the form of the teeth and the structure of the claws, researchers hypothesized that the creature subsisted on vegetables, predominately roots.

5 1/2 Inches in Length

Mitchell described the fossils in his possession as “one tooth entire, with the exception of the fang which is broken transversely off, and the half of another, with the fang separated.” Each sample was square in shape, with rounded edges. Their approximate length of five and a half inches matched the description provided by previous researchers, indicating to Mitchell that these teeth were, in fact, likely those of a Megatherium. The teeth were black in color and the cutting edges were well-worn, indicating the animal’s likely advanced age at the time of its demise.

Mitchell, who arranged the Lyceum’s first formal meeting in 1817, concluded his paper by reemphasizing the importance of this discovery within the context of the natural history of the United States.

“Although, from the circumstances previously mentioned, it is hardly possible that a complete skeleton will be found, yet enough has been discovered to satisfy us, that the United States, which contains so many relics of huge animals, may add to her ‘giant brood,’ the Megatherium.”

Our History

The Inception of The Academy

The New York Academy of Sciences stands as a venerable institution with a rich and storied history that spans over two centuries. Established in 1817, the Academy has consistently been at the forefront of scientific exploration, education and the formulation of policies that shape our world. This enduring legacy continues to influence the course of science and society into our third century.

The Academy’s first home: On January 29, 1817, Academy founder Samuel Latham Mitchill convened the first meeting at the College of Physicians & Surgeons in lower Manhattan.



At a time when New York City north of Canal Street was fields and forests, when the only academic route to a scientific education was medical school, and when learned societies were often reserved for men of wealth, a small group of young naturalists banded together to create the Lyceum of Natural History, founded on egalitarian principles. On January 29, 1817, Academy founder Samuel Latham Mitchill convened the first meeting at the College of Physicians & Surgeons in lower Manhattan. A U.S. Senator from New York, Mitchill was a professor of chemistry and natural history and was also responsible for establishing the first medical journal in the US.

That same year, an upstate farmer unearthed the jaw of a mammoth on his property—a spectacular first at a time when fossils were rarely encountered. He contacted Mitchill, who organized an expedition under Lyceum auspices to investigate further.


From the Lyceum’s earliest years, members could keep abreast of science around the world through it sever-expanding library. In 1824 the Lyceum launched its journal, Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. By exchanging Annals for the publications of scientific organizations worldwide, the Lyceum built its collections. Known today as Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, it is one of the oldest continuously published science journals in the United States.


From the very beginning the Lyceum welcomed many renowned Members, including Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.


Commissioned by New York State, Lyceum members Lewis Beck, John Torrey and James DeKay led this landmark assessment of the state of New York’s natural resources, including minerals and forests, its flora and fauna. Also this year, Botanist Asa Gray became curator and librarian of the Lyceum; later, as a Harvard professor, Gray was one of Darwin’s lead supporters in the US.


Chemist, physician, photographer, and Lyceum member John W. Draper presented the first photograph, an early daguerreotype, showing details for the moon’s surface at a Lyceum meeting on March 23.  

A 19th century shot of Lower Manhattan in New York City
Illustrations of various reptiles and amphibians.


An illustration of the NYU Medical School building.

From 1850-1900, Academy membership grows with some of the greatest names in science, welcoming in a new century of discovery.

One of the earliest photographs of the moon.
A sketching of an old building.
A black and white photo of a woman.
A ticket for a public lecture from 1893.


Renowned geographer, naturalist, explorer and philosopher Alexander von Humboldt was among the early Members of the Academy.


In 1865, Academy Member Lewis M. Rutherfurd, who invented the first telescope designed for astrophotography, published one of the first high quality images of the moon.


On the night of May 21, 1866, fire broke out in the building next door to the Lyceum headquarters on 14th Street. It soon engulfed the entire block, destroying the Lyceum’s library, as well as its collection—including John James Audubon’s Birds, John Draper’s chemistry apparatus, and an unrivaled mineralogical cabinet—dashing hopes of establishing a natural history museum and leading the Lyceum to move to Mott Memorial Hall at 64 Madison Avenue. The Lyceum persevered, turning this catastrophe into an opportunity to adapt to the changing landscape of science.


Members of the Academy played key roles in founding a number of important institutions across the city of New York, including the American Museum of Natural History.


In the late 1800s science was becoming more specialized. Professional societies began to form, and natural history no longer represented a unified body of knowledge. In order to reflect the larger scope of scientific disciplines represented in the organization, such as Chemistry, Engineering, and Technology, the Lyceum changed its name to The New York Academy of Sciences on January 5, 1876, and created specialist sections under the Academy’s umbrella. 


In keeping with its egalitarian principles, the Lyceum voted to begin inviting women to attend its meetings and to become members. Geologist and anthropologist Erminnie A. Smith became the first woman elected to Academy membership.


Academy members also played important roles in national organizations, coordinating the first New York meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an event that gave the local scientific community visibility on the national stage. At the AAAS meeting, Albert A. Michaelson and Edward W. Morley made public their experiment disproving the existence of an “ether” through which light was through to travel in the form of waves. This shocked the audience—and paved the way for Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity.


The Academy created the Scientific Alliance, an organization that united New York’s scientific clubs and societies—and began publishing the Bulletin to announce meetings and foster collaboration among member groups. Through these efforts, the Academy emerged as a leader.


Scientist, inventor, engineer and Academy member Alexander Graham Bell opened long-distance telephone service from New York to Chicago in 1892.


The Academy launched a series of annual exhibitions showcasing the research of its members and of other institutions in New York City.


The turn of the century brought in a new president to the Academy, along with new conferences and initiatives.

An illustration of the American Museum of Natural History.


Nathaniel Britton was elected president of the Academy in 1906. Britton had been instrumental in founding the New York Botanical Garden, chartered in 1891, and had served as its first director. This year, the Academy moved into rooms at the American Museum of Natural History, where it maintained its offices until 1950. Academy members were among the Museum’s founders.


Britton launched the Academy’s ambitious survey of Puerto Rico—the first of its kind—by marshaling the expertise of members in diverse disciplines: geology, meteorology, oceanography, archaeology, anthropology, botany and zoology. Though it began as a small-scale botanical and entomological exploration, it grew into a multi-year project, publishing 19 volumes and earning the Academy a reputation for scientific excellence.


Serbian-American physicist and Columbia professor Michael Pupin was elected Academy president.


Eunice Miner, a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, joined the Academy with just over 300 members. Miner became the Academy’s Executive Director in 1939 and through legendary energy and ambition, expanded membership to more than 20,000 by 1967.


Two pioneering conferences—one on electrophoresis in 1938, the other on the internal composition of stars in 1939—established the Academy conferences in the eyes of the international scientific community.


The Academy published the book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, by Gregory Bateson & Margaret Mead. Both Academy Members, Bateson and Mead compiled over 700 photographs depicting their cultural studies in Bali. Read the book here.


In January of 1946, the Academy held the first-ever large scientific conference on antibiotics, only two years after the discovery of streptomycin. Proceedings from this groundbreaking conference were published in the September 1946 volume of Annals.


The Academy launched the first Science and Technology Exposition, New York City’s science fair.

A diagram of various seashell varieties.
A black and white photo of a Balinese woman dancing.
An advert for a 1946 antibiotics conference sponsored by the Academy.


The Academy spent the entire latter half of the 20th century in its newly acquired Woolworth Mansion building, the longest period to date that the Academy remained in a single location, which helped to provide stability and promote advancement.

An illustrated primate graces the cover of "The Sciences" magazine.
A woman works inside a science lab.
A woman poses for the camera inside a science lab.
Findings from research on AIDS.
Participants interacting during a 1993 science and technology conference.


After hearing a talk by Eunice Miner in the late 1940s on the Academy’s need for a home, Norman Woolworth donated the Woolworth Mansion on East 63rd Street. This became the Academy’s headquarters for the next 50+ years.


The Academy launched The Sciences, seven-time National Magazine-award-winning science publication for an audience of both experts and lay readers; publication continued until 2001.


Leaders of the Academy had long been aware that advances in health and living could only be secured by developing a new generation of scientists and science-savvy adults. The launch of the Junior Academy fostered the next generation of scientist-researchers, including George Yancopoulos, co-founder of cutting-edge biotech company Regeneron. 


Leading anthropologist Margaret Mead became a Vice President of the Academy in the 1960s. 


The first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the U.S., Marie Maynard Daly had a distinguished career in biochemistry and was an Academy Member, as well as a Member of the Academy’s Board of Governors.


Charlotte Friend, renowned for establishing that cancer could be caused by a virus, became the Academy’s first female president. 


The Science in Research Training Program was established, giving high school students an opportunity to do research in real laboratory settings. The Academy also established the Albert Einstein public lecture series, given by notable scientists including Sydney Brenner, Freeman Dyson, Susumu Tonegawa and Steven Weinberg.


When many were still fearful of addressing the AIDS crisis, the Academy took the lead and hosted the first major scientific conference on AIDS in December of 1983. Conference proceedings were published in a December 1984 volume of Annals.


The Academy published a fifth volume of reports from the Moscow Refusnik Seminar, papers by persecuted scientists from the Soviet Union and by concerned colleagues.


Physicist Andrei Sakharov and Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi credited the Academy for the coordination of international pressure around the human rights of scientists that resulted in their release. Both made the Academy their first stop during U.S. visits.


Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Academy held science fairs for high school students, continuing a long tradition begun in the 1940s.


With increasing focus on public health and policy, the Academy convened a landmark conference on the effects of cocaine on the developing brain.


Moving into the 21st century, the Academy returned to its roots in lower Manhattan and celebrated its bicentennial, marking two centuries of advancing science for the public good.

An illustration of the 7 World Trade Center building.


Ellis Rubinstein became Academy President and CEO.


The Academy moved downtown as the first tenant of the new World Trade Center at 7 WTC, 250 Greenwich Street—four blocks from its birthplace on Barclay Street.


In November of 2007 the first-ever Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists were announced at the Academy’s annual gala. The Blavatnik Awards were created to honor exceptional young scientists and engineers by celebrating their achievements, recognizing their future potential, and providing them with unrestricted funding.  


The Harbor Project achieved consensus among 70 stakeholder organizations on the industrial sources of contaminants in New York Harbor and ways to protect the watershed.


In February of 2010, the Academy published one of its most downloaded volumes of Annals, “The Biology of Disadvantage: Socioeconomic Status and Health.” 


The Academy convened a panel discussion to debate perceived censorship of highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1.


On September 22, 2014, the Academy announced the Global STEM Alliance before a packed audience at the United Nations. The programs aimed to improve the STEM pipeline with a focus on mentoring and inspiring students and scientists at all stages. The GSA has evolved into Academy Learning [ck], which continues to be dedicated to STEM education for K-12 students and serves to keep the scientific career pipeline filled with promising young minds.  


The Academy turned 200 years old, celebrating two centuries of bringing together extraordinary people to drive solutions to society’s challenges by advancing scientific research, education, and policy.


On March 12, 2020, the Academy held a webinar “What You Need to Know About the New Coronavirus.” Attendance exceeded 5,000 participants. The Academy continued to provide important, unbiased scientific information on the spread of SARSCoV-2, and the development of therapeutics and vaccines against the coronavirus, convening nearly 25 events in the first months of the pandemic. In so doing, the Academy built on a proud tradition of bringing together diverse, international stakeholders to address global issues as was done with antibiotics in 1946, AIDS in 1983, SARS in 2003, and H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009.  

A man wearing a suit and tie poses for the camera.
A group of award winners pose for the camera.
H5N1 avian influenza virus particles, coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM). Each virus particle consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), surrounded by a nucleocapsid and a lipid envelope (green). The natural hosts of this virus are wild birds, which show few symptoms. However, infected domestic birds suffer a 90-100% mortality rate. Humans that have contact with infected birds can become infected. The first such infection was identified in South-East Asia in 1997, and the virus has steadily spread across the world, with an outbreak in a poultry farm in the UK in 2007. There are fears that the virus may mutate into a human-transmissible form, which could lead to millions of deaths worldwide. Magnification: x670,000 when printed 10cm wide.


An exterior shot of the U.S. Realty Building.

As the world was grappling with the COVID pandemic, the Academy introduced Nicholas B. Dirks as its next president, at a time when advancing science for the public good was crucial.

A man smiles for the camera.


In June 2020, Nicholas B. Dirks took the helm as President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences.


The Academy introduced the International Science Reserve (ISR), a global network of scientific experts committed to collaborating across borders to accelerate solutions to help mitigate global crises that may arise from another pandemic, a cyberattack, or disasters associated with climate change. In its first year, more than 2000 scientists from 100 countries joined the ISR community.  


From May 23-24, the Academy presented another groundbreaking first—the first convening of experts to address “The New Wave of AI in Healthcare.” This was just the first of many upcoming Academy endeavors, including a multi-year AI fellows-in-residence program, that aims to examine the potential applications of AI in various sectors for the public good.

Then, on September 14, the Academy christened its newest home by welcoming the Academy community to 115 Broadway to hear stimulating discussions about the future of science and to engage in hands-on science activities. The spirit of discovery of Charles Darwin—an early Member of the Academy—is very much alive to this day. A sculpture commissioned by our Members welcomes staff and guests alike in the lobby of our latest headquarters.


Laying the Scientific Foundation in New York City

A black and white headshot of Samual L Mitchell

Described by his contemporaries as a “chaos of knowledge,” a “living encyclopedia,” and a “stalking library,” first Academy President Samuel L. Mitchill dabbled in a variety of disciplines, building a unique level of scientific proficiency that was very rare at the time.

By Douglas Braaten, PhD

Samuel Latham Mitchill was a rare polymath for his time.

Born in North Hempstead, New York, in 1764, he had remarkably varied interests, which ranged from medicine to geology, botany and mineralogy. A farmer’s son, Mitchill exhibited great interest in the natural sciences early in life. After studying the foundations of medicine with his uncle, doctor Samuel Latham, Mitchill went to the University of Edinburgh to earn his medical degree in 1786 and then returned to New York, where he received a license to practice medicine. The route he chose, however, was far from a typical doctor’s path.

Because of his boundless thirst for knowledge, Mitchill couldn’t fully settle on pursuing any one scientific field. His contemporaries described him as a “chaos of knowledge,” a “living encyclopedia,” and a “stalking library.”

He kept dabbling in a variety of disciplines, building a unique level of scientific proficiency, which was very rare at the time. It wasn’t surprising that his wide array of interests and expertise earned him an appointment as a Chair of Natural History at Columbia University, at the age of 28. At Columbia, Mitchill’s scientific career truly flourished. He taught chemistry and botany, and expanded his work into other areas of science.

Promoting Geology, Agriculture, Chemistry

Mitchill was a prolific publisher and produced a variety of works, once again on a wide variety of topics. He prompted the geological survey of the New York State. He contributed to the development of agriculture by surveying the mineralogy of the Hudson River Valley. His chemistry studies led to improved detergents and disinfectants, and even better gunpowder. For 23 years, Mitchill served as a chief editor of the Medical Repository, one of the top scientific publications of the time.

It would only make sense then, that an erudite man like Mitchill would lay the foundation for the New York Academy of Sciences. In 1817, he organized the first meeting of the Lyceum of Natural History (the Academy’s early name), which took place at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Lower Manhattan. Later elected as the Lyceum’s first President, Mitchill remained in that post until 1823.

Under his supervision, the Lyceum hosted lectures, preserved samples of natural artifacts, and established a library. Seven years after the Lyceum’s commencement, it began publishing The Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York — one of the first American journals of natural history and science. The Annals published articles on myriad topics, from research on swallows by its Member John James Audubon, to descriptions of newly found species.

As the years progressed, the organization started by Mitchill continued to grow, adding more activities to its list. New York State commissioned the Lyceum to do a survey of its mineralogy, botany, and zoology. The Lyceum also became instrumental in launching organizations dedicated to scientific research and literacy, including New York University in 1831, and the Museum of Natural History in 1868.

Science and Politics

Like many other great scholars who sought to educate societies about science, Mitchill worked to emphasize the importance of scientific progress in the American legislature and politics. In 1801, he resigned his Columbia appointment and took a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Later, he served a term in the Senate, and then once again in the House. He was an advocate of quarantine laws, and an avid proponent of the Library of Congress.

Mitchill was also instrumental in the creation of educational institutions including Rutgers Medical College, where he served as Vice President during the college’s first four years. Despite being preoccupied with his political efforts and other endeavors, Mitchill never stopped working on his scientific pursuits, and remained very productive in his research publications throughout his life.

As historian Alan Aberbach once wrote, “To Mitchill it was axiomatic that with diligence and empirical practices, developing systematically and organically, one could come to grips with and resolve the historical plagues of mankind’s ills.”

The New York Academy of Sciences – A Concise History

An illustration of the Academy's original home in 1817.

By Douglas Braaten, PhD

Founded in 1817 as the “Lyceum of Natural History in the City of New York,” by a small group of science enthusiasts, led by Samuel Latham Mitchill, a polymath and prominent politician who represented New York in the U.S. Congress, determined to create an organization that anyone interested in natural science could join in order to learn from experts, and that provided a venue for public consumption of scientific ideas and advances of the time.

For the next 100 years, the trials and tribulations of the Academy were in many respects the trials and tribulations of progress of science in New York and other states of the new American republic. In March 1817, James Monroe became the fifth American president. That same year he was elected an honorary member of the Lyceum, along with the third American president, Thomas Jefferson.

The intentionally anti-patrician nature of the Lyceum not only distinguished it from other institutions of the day, it served as the basis for a new type of democratic institution that later was instrumental in the progress of science, especially in the New York City area, though this was also felt throughout New York State and beyond.

On the national scene, Philadelphia, originally owing to its centrality as the first American capital and birthplace of major figures in politics and science—e.g., Benjamin Franklin—was home to the first science societies in the nascent country, although with the exception of Franklin’s Academy of Natural History the societies were aristocratic and elitist. They were institutions largely, if not exclusively, for men of wealth who were not themselves scientists; nor probably even much interested in science. Membership was a symbol of status, indicating, among other things, that a person had the financial means to support these 19th century social clubs.

Even by name—Lyceum: an institution for popular education providing discussions, lectures, concerts, etc.—the first incarnation of the Academy was fundamentally different from other societies. Its raison d’être was not social climbing and show, but the dissemination of science, and bringing people who were keenly interested in science, together.

This fundamental democratic principle determined the course of the Academy’s history, and with it the development of key institutions of science and learning in New York City today, including Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden and New York University. It was by inclusion of people on the basis of only their interest in science that the Academy could bring together so many different stakeholders—indeed so many key individuals at just the right moments—to influence, if not forge the development of many New York City institutions.

The founding meeting of the Academy, then the Lyceum, occurred on January 29, 1817. To tell the history of the Academy’s accomplishments since then is to tell the history of science in New York State and America, and beyond. It is the history of an institution, but more importantly of the tens of thousands of individuals who have been Academy Members since 1817, from around the globe and from many diverse institutions, cultures and walks of life.

Indeed the history of the Academy would not have been possible without the devotion, energy and creativity of its Members. This collective engagement—today we refer to this as the Academy’s network—has enabled and driven fundamental changes in the landscape of science and science-based institutions in New York City and throughout the world. This is history worth telling, and re-telling.

Two centuries later, on January 29 2017, the Academy unveiled a permanent 200th Anniversary Exhibition in the lobby of its headquarters at 7 World Trade Center in New York City (see photos below). The folded timeline insert in this issue of the magazine provides a concise history of key Academy events, members and accomplishments since 1817. A prominent feature of the physical exhibition is a 17-foot-long timeline with images and text that tells the story of some of the enormous challenges and successes over the Academy’s 200 years.

In addition, as part of the 200th anniversary celebration, the Academy is publishing a revised edition of a critically acclaimed history of the Academy and of science in New York City and the early United States, Knowledge, Culture, and Science in the Metropolis: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1817–2017 by historian and professor Simon Baatz (John Jay College).

Originally published as special issue of Annals (Ann NY Acad Sci 584: 1–269) in 1990, professor Baatz’s book provides an, “engrossing account of the role of the sciences within the great American metropolis”… “this masterly account of science in its social context will be of the greatest interest to everyone who cares about New York, about the growth of knowledge, and about the importance of voluntary associations in our national life.” The revised edition, published in January 2017, contains a new chapter on the Academy’s history from 1970 to 2017.

An even earlier account, A History of the New York Academy of Sciences, formerly the Lyceum of Natural History, published in 1887 by Herman Le Roy Fairchild, is also available in electronic form by contacting the Academy at Fairchild’s account is a detailed discussion of many facets of the Lyceum’s early days, including biographical sketches of many of the important founders, lists of all of the first Lyceum officers and administrators, dates and addresses of locations of the Academy during its early peripatetic days, copies of the original constitution, by-laws and other legal documents.

Finally, a very brief history, “The Founding of the Lyceum of Nature History,” by historian Kenneth R. Nodyne, was published in 1970 (Ann NY Acad Sci 172: 141–149).

Some Prominent Members of the Academy

From its inception, the Academy has been a member-driven organization. And while it was a democratic organization that welcomed anyone, the Academy, for its first 100 years or so, proposed and voted on bestowing memberships.

As specified in the original constitution of 1817, admittance to the Lyceum was by three categories of membership. Resident members were from NYC and “its immediate vicinity” and thus could take part in Academy meetings, while Corresponding members, largely on account of travel times in the early 19th century—it took a day and a half to travel to Boston!—were less involved; Honorary members were selected on the basis of “attainment in Natural History,” no matter where they resided.

Categories of membership changed over the years. In the 1980s there were eight: Active, Life, Student, Junior, Institutional, Certificate, Honorary Life and Fellows. The total number of members had reached its highest, 48,000 from all 50 states and over 80 countries around the world. This membership apogee was in large part the result of two factors. One was the enormous influence of the Academy’s executive director from 1935 to 1965, Eunice Miner, whose zeal and “stubbornness” increased membership from 750 in 1938 to over 25,000 by 1967! The other influence was a membership policy in the 1980s of mailing out membership certificates to people worldwide.

Today’s Academy membership of 20,000 is composed of Professional, Student and Postdoctoral, Supporting and Patron, and—continuing a long tradition—Honorary Members. Over the course of our history there have been well over 200 Honorary Members, including 110 Nobel Laureates. Below are profiles of just a few of the Honorary Members.

Lord Kelvin (1824–1907)
Elected Honorary Member 1876

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, a Scots-Irish mathematical physicist and engineer who did important work on electricity and thermodynamics. Absolute temperatures are stated in units of Kelvin in his honor.

Louis Pasteur (1822–1895)
Elected Honorary Member 1889

A French chemist and microbiologist known worldwide for his work on understanding vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization. He was director of the Pasteur Institute, established in 1887, until his death. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1853, promoted to Commander in 1868, to Grand Officer in 1878 and made a Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor—one of only 75 in all of France.

Niels Bohr (1885–1962)
Elected Honorary Member 1958

A Danish physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for making fundamental contributions to the studies of atomic structure and quantum theory. He spent much of his life and worked in Denmark, where he founded the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen.

Barbara McClintock (1902–1992)
Elected Honorary Member 1985

An American cytogeneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of genetic transposition. Her work concentrated on studies of maize, for which she developed techniques for visualizing the chromosomes; she produced the first genetic map for maize and demonstrated the important roles of telomeres and centromeres. McClintock spent her entire professional career in her own laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Rosalyn S. Yalow (1921–2011)
Elected Honorary Member 2006

Born in New York City, Yalow was a medical physicist and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA), an in vitro technique used to measure concentrations of immune proteins called antigens. This revolutionary technique helped to marshal in the modern era of immunological research. Yalow also won the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1976) and the National Medal of Science (1988).

#IAmNYAS Historical Edition: Marie Maynard Daly

Meet the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the US.

The first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the US, Marie Maynard Daly, PhD, had a distinguished career in biochemistry and was an Academy Member, as well as a Member of the Academy’s Board of Governors in the 1970s.

Daly was born in 1921, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens in New York City, to a father who immigrated to the US from the West Indies and a mother born in Washington, DC. She went on to earn her doctorate from Columbia University and helped make important contributions to our understanding of the links between cholesterol and heart attacks.

Who was her biggest science inspiration?

While we can’t say for sure, many of the available biographies of Daly speak about the influence of her father, Ivan C. Daly, on her early decision to study chemistry.

Ivan attended Cornell University as a young man and hoped to complete a degree in chemistry there but had to leave school before finishing because of a lack of funds. As a young woman, both her father and mother, along with her maternal grandfather, encouraged Daly to pursue a career in the sciences.

It was on a visit to her grandparents’ house in Washington, DC, where she discovered Paul de Kruif’s 1926 book The Microbe Hunters, which is also said to have been an important inspiration to her. However, the clue that seems to reveal just how important her father was to her comes later in her life, when she established a scholarship fund in his name for African-American students studying science at her undergraduate alma mater, Queens College.

Did she have a science mentor?

During her doctoral studies at Columbia University, Daly’s doctoral advisor was Mary Letitia Caldwell, PhD. Caldwell was the first and only female senior faculty member at Columbia for a number of years and spent the bulk of her career working to isolate the enzyme amylase.

Caldwell is credited in a couple of the available biographies with encouraging Daly to focus on studying aspects of digestion, and the title of Daly’s dissertation reflects Caldwell’s intellectual influence: “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch.” We can only speculate about the other early influences that Caldwell might have provided Daly, both of whom are remembered for being important “first” women in their fields.

What was one of her biggest career accomplishments?

In the mid-1950s, Marie began working with Quentin B. Deming, MD, first at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, and later at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. The work they did together helped to lay important groundwork for our understanding of the relationship between heart attacks and cholesterol, along with other blockages in the arteries.

Click here and go to page 1340 to read the abstract for their paper, “Effect of Hypertension on Cholesterol Synthesis in Rats,” which they presented, along with three others, at the 1962 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

More Resources on Marie Maynard Daly


Chemical Heritage Foundation

Guiding the Academy in Growth

Eunice Thomas Miner played a significant role in growing the Academy’s membership in the 20th century.

When Eunice Thomas Miner became involved with the New York Academy of Sciences in 1932, the Academy was in a state of great flux. Its records showed just $6,000 in assets and double that amount in unpaid bills. And its Membership numbers were dire.

“We had the grand total of exactly one active Member,” Miner later recalled in an interview, noting that while 317 people were listed on the books, only one was recorded as having paid dues.

But the worst part, in Miner’s view, was the general apathy about the Academy’s proceedings. She recalled a geology paper presentation attracting a total of four participants: “the section head, my husband, myself, and a janitor.” Miner, at the time a young research assistant in the American Museum of Natural History’s Zoology Department — the Academy’s offices were housed within the museum in those days — felt something had to be done to turn things around.

Bringing the Academy “Back to Life”

She decided to “bring the Academy back to life.” Her goal was more idealistic than merely increasing participation and reviving publications. Miner wanted to create a place for scientific debate, where researchers could share their work, present recent discoveries and argue new ideas.

“I felt the Academy, if it could be rejuvenated, would provide a true forum, a unique institution that scientists could call their own,” she later said.

Miner took the Academy’s future not only into her own hands, but also into her own apartment. To draw more participants, she and her husband, Roy Waldo Miner, hosted paper presentations at their own dinners. That earned the Academy 72 Members within a year.

A Goal of 100 New Members Each Year

Miner promised to hit 100 new people annually, with a total goal of 1,000 Members. That required significant time and energy, so she left her research position at the museum and fully devoted herself to the Academy’s needs.

Miner’s Membership drives, which she began running in 1936, exceeded all expectations. She recruited 110 new Members the first year, more than doubled that amount the next year, and by 1940 reached her 1,000 Member goal — much sooner than planned.

Given her successes, the Scientific Council of the Academy appointed her as the organization’s Executive Secretary. By the time Miner retired from her role as Executive Director of the Academy in 1967, after serving in a number of positions, the Academy counted over 26,000 Members across the world. Among her many impactful achievements was securing the organization a new home, through a gift from wealthy philanthropist Norman Woolworth, who donated his mansion to the Academy.

The Role of the Academy

However, Miner’s vision for the Academy and the sciences it represented was far more than a permanent home and stable financing. She saw the organization playing a key role in fostering scientific collaborations and educating the public about scientific progress.

“The time has long since passed when the scientist could afford to isolate himself in his laboratory or think of his discipline as a world unto itself,” Miner said in one of her later interviews. “Today, more than any other time in history, disciplines interact with each other and are dependent upon each other, both in a research and social sense.”

Moreover, Miner wanted scientists to build public awareness of what was developing in their respective fields; to involve them in the inspiring process of discovery.

“More than ever, the public needs to be informed about science,” she said, emphasizing the critical role of research in modern society.

Miner envisioned the Academy as an enabler and disseminator of the scientific progress, and, a half-century later, the Academy still upholds this vital tradition.

Learn more about the history of the Academy.

Charlotte Friend: A Trailblazer in Cancer Research

How a cancer researcher in the 1950s persevered when others were skeptical about her hypothesis — and ultimately changed the scientistific mindset.

It was the early 1950s and two female scientists at Sloan Kettering were peering into a new electron microscope when they saw something unusual.

Both of them, Charlotte Friend and her co-worker Cecily Selby, had already earned their PhDs in bacteriology and were conducting further research on Ehrlich ascites carcinoma, a type of mouse tumor often used in cancer studies. Suddenly, the women noticed that the arrangements of particles in the tumor cells looked similar to cells infected with certain types of viruses. Could this point to a possible link between viruses and cancers?

At the time, the hypothesis that viruses can cause cancer was in its infancy — a few researchers had pondered the idea, but most scientists viewed it as illogical. To make researchers consider this seemingly absurd concept required a major shift in scientific mindset. But Friend, who would go on to become the first female President of the New York Academy of Sciences, was not the type of person to give up easily.

Growing Up

A daughter of Jewish immigrants, she was born in New York City in 1921 in Lower Manhattan, and developed her interest in medicine early — possibly because her father died from a heart infection when she was three.

After the stock market crash of 1929, her family was forced to go on public assistance, but despite growing up poor Friend was very focused on school and education. At ten, she had already mapped a scientific path for herself, detailing it in her school essay “Why I Want to Become a Bacteriologist.” She studied at Hunter College, received her Ph.D. at Yale, and continued her research as an associate professor in a program run jointly by Sloan Kettering and Cornell University.

Friend spent several years testing the viral-cancer-link hypothesis on mice. After multiple attempts, she showed that it was possible to transmit leukemia from one rodent to another, by injecting one mouse with tissue taken from another.

Overcoming Skepticism and Ridicule

Conducting research proved easier than presenting its results. When Friend first spoke about her findings at the American Academy of Cancer Research, she was met with such strong skepticism and ridicule that the memory stuck with her for the rest of her life. Twenty years later she described that experience in her presidential address to the American Academy of Cancer Research: “By no stretch of the imagination could the violent storm of controversy that erupted after the presentation have been anticipated.”

She bravely submitted to the barrage of questions despite the emotional turmoil, but didn’t necessarily manage to convince the attendees of her theory. Despite the cold shower of skepticism, Friend remained convinced of her idea, and continued to pursue it.

In 1957 she published her controversial findings in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. Shortly after, well-known researcher Jacob Furth replicated her results. Other scientists began pondering similar hypotheses, and the idea that cancer can be caused by a virus started to take hold. The scientific mindset was changing, finally.

An Overdue Recognition

By the 1960s Friend’s work was receiving its due academic recognition. In 1962 she became a recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Cancer Research. She helped establish the concept of the oncovirus, a virus that causes cancer. Her research is now used in developing HIV vaccines, and the leukemia virus she discovered, which was named after her, serves as the model for viral leukemogenesis studies.

But Friend wasn’t finished. In 1966 she began working at the new medical school at Mount Sinai Hospital, directing their Center for Experimental Cell Biology. While there, she made another crucial oncological discovery: cancer cells can be stopped from multiplying and revert to being normal cells through a chemical treatment by a compound called dimethyl sulfoxide. Such treatment could lead to new ways of fighting cancer, different from the traditional chemotherapy that works by killing tumor cells.

In the 1970s, Friend finally received the recognition she deserved. She was asked to serve as President of the Harvey Society and the American Association for Cancer Research. In 1976, she was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, which was a great scientific honor. Only a year later, she was serving as the New York Academy of Science’s Chair of the Fellowship and Honorary Life Membership committee, charged with reviewing nominations from Academy Members.

The Impact of the Academy’s First Female President

Within another year, Friend became the first female President of the Academy. The appointment was well-deserved for such a visionary pioneer of the sciences, as the Academy’s newsletter noted: “The more than one hundred papers she has published have been in such fields as viral oncology, regulation of cell growth and differentiation, virus/host-cell relationships, immunology and molecular biology.”

While working as the Academy’s President, Friend continued her scientific quests, all the while serving as a role model for young female researchers who pursued a science career at a time when few women were able to choose that path.

Pioneering Anthropologist Advances the Academy

Anthropologist Margaret Mead brought attention to cultural perspectives on scientific change.

“The Academy has stood for new ideas, for the adventurous and experimental,” said Margaret Mead, at a celebration of the Academy’s 150th anniversary in 1967.

“Adventurous and experimental” well describes Mead’s own career. As a new PhD in the 1920s, she carried out pathbreaking—and controversial—anthropological fieldwork on childhood and adolescence among indigenous South Pacific peoples. She later turned her attention to the context of youth in her own society, famously commenting on the “generation gap” of the late 1960s.

An outspoken public intellectual, Mead became, during her lifetime, America’s most famous anthropologist. And she used her decades-long association with the Academy to bring attention to cultural perspectives on scientific change in an era that spanned the development of nuclear weapons to the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Getting Involved with the Academy

Mead first became involved in the Academy in the 1930s. By then she had already made her mark with her best-selling books Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing Up in New Guinea.

Her professional home was in New York City, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where she became Curator of Ethnology—and where the Academy’s headquarters occupied two rooms during the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s possible that Eunice Thomas Miner, the Academy’s Executive Director at the time, recruited Mead—Miner initiated an unprecedented Membership drive in the late 1930s. Both women held the title of Research Assistant at AMNH, where they became friends as well as colleagues.

For the next 40 years, Mead’s perspective as an anthropologist shaped Academy affairs. She understood science as a product of culture. In Academy forums and elsewhere, she compared science in different national contexts, professional and public understanding of science, and perception of science by young people and older generations.

Her many articles and talks on the implications of these different perspectives—whether for nuclear war, space exploration, science education, scientific literacy of the public, and other issues—converged with a growing concern within the Academy about the place of science in society.

Contributions to the Academy

Throughout this time, Mead contributed research to Annals, organized meetings, and served the Academy in official capacities, at different times as Chair of the Anthropology section, Vice President of the Scientific Council, and Vice President of the Academy.

The Academy first provided a platform for Mead’s research in 1942, when it published her book with Gregory Bateson, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Carried out from 1936 to 1938, Bateson and Mead’s fieldwork in Bali made unprecedented use of photography and film, generating some 25,000 still images.

Earlier anthropologists had taken photographs, but this project was the first to do so on such a large scale, and also the first to present the visual record as the primary scientific evidence with written documentation secondary. The book helped launch the new field of visual anthropology and it remains a classic today.

As she became more involved with the Academy, Mead valued its ability to convene experts in “symposia on the growing edge of knowledge,” as she put it—and “the structure it provided for creative interchange among the sciences.”

Considering the Cultural Implications

In October of 1957, one of these frontiers was launching earth-orbiting satellites. Mead later recalled that the announcement of the Soviet Sputnik launch came only two hours after she had mailed invitations to an Academy conference on the cultural implications of “man in space.” The conference was held later the same month, and the proceedings were published in Annals the next year.

By the 1970s, when the cultural relevance of science came more and more into public view, Mead returned to theme that she often explored—the distance between specialists and non-specialists; between scientists and the public. To her thinking, improving science education at all levels was vital to bridging this gap and ensuring both scientific advances and informed public debate and decision-making.

These and many other issues that Mead tackled in the 1960s and 1970s remain relevant to the Academy today, including childhood nutrition and the challenges faced by women in science. She was, “Always helpful to this Academy,” in the words of a 1973 citation praising her as an Academy Governor, and could “be counted on for sound advice based on high principles.”

Learn more about Mead