The story of the Wisconsin Academy began with the explosion of scientific discovery happening in the 19th century. At the time, knowledge—not only in the sciences, but in the arts and letters as well—was viewed as increasingly important to the social and economic security of America. Educated leaders across the nation were organizing to exchange scientific information and a network of leaders began to develop through regular scientific meetings around the country. As a result, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1848. Fifteen years later, President Lincoln signed the Congressional charter establishing the National Academy of Sciences to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science."
In the infancy of its statehood, Wisconsin had a group of leaders who embraced the ideal of knowledge as essential to growing a healthy civil society. Inspired by state Academies of Science that were springing up across the country, especially in the frontier states, a group of Wisconsin scholars and civic leaders led by John Wesley Hoyt met to organize a formal association “to encourage investigation and disseminate views of the various departments of science, literature and the arts.” The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters was born.
While science was at the heart of the Wisconsin Academy, the founders understood the value of the breadth of liberal arts disciplines, and embraced the arts and letters as well. The people who built the organization are among some of the most well-known historical figures in Wisconsin’s history: John Wesley Hoyt, Thomas Chamberlin, and Increase Lapham. John Wesley Hoyt studied both law and medicine, became a chemistry professor, managed the state’s first agricultural society, and also served as governor of the Wyoming territory. Thomas Chamberlin was a Beloit College-educated geologist who led the state’s first geological survey and also helped establish the Chicago Academy of Science. Increase Lapham was a great naturalist and renaissance man who catalogued much of the flora of the state. Lapham wrote the first book ever published in Wisconsin, drew the first widely circulated map of the state, investigated Wisconsin's effigy mounds, led the State Historical Society, served as chief geologist, and somehow also found the time to establish the National Weather Service.
Drafted by these three men and other leaders commited to the suceess of the nascent state, the Academy’s constitution declared a mission of “gathering, sharing, and acting upon knowledge in the sciences, arts and letters for the benefit of the people of Wisconsin.” Recognizing the importance of the group and its goals for the state, the Wisconsin Legislature enacted the Charter of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters in 1870.
The spirit of what Charles McCarthy phrased in 1912 as “The Wisconsin Idea” has been deeply embedded in the work of the Academy from its beginnings as a membership organization designed for the free exchange of knowledge. Charles Van Hise, who served as the Academy’s Council [today the Board] President from 1894 to 1896 and who later as University of Wisconsin Chancellor established the University Extension service, is credited with framing the concept with his 1904 statement “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.”
For nearly 150 years, this steadfast organization has been a steward of the Wisconsin Idea, even though the Academy’s mission has been carried out in many different ways. Transactions, a journal highlighting Wisconsin-based research across disciplines, was published by the Academy for over a century. Many of the papers shared in print through Transactions were also shared with Academy members at annual Member Meetings held across the state. During the time the Academy was located in the Wisconsin State Capitol building, it housed a library of scientific papers and research material available to the public and curated a collection of rare fossils and minerals available for study. Much of this historical material was, unfortunately, lost in two fires. Beginning in 1954, the Academy moved from publishing an academic journal to a membership magazine called Wisconsin Academy Review, which in 2003 became the Academy's magazine of contemporary Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.
In the 1970s, the Academy was able to hire staff and purchase an office building at 1922 University Avenue with the help of two significant bequests from long-time members Harry Steenbock and Elizabeth McCoy. The Academy became involved with a NSF-funded initiative aimed to strengthen science education in public schools, leading to increased growth for the organization through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, a Fellows Award was established to celebrate excellence and achievement across the sciences, arts, and letters. Academy membership shifted from invitation only to open enrollment in 1994 as a way of expanding Academy program participants and readers of its magazine, the latter of which announced that same year two Writing Awards to support Wisconsin poets and writers. In this period the Academy also began to undertake collaborative multi-sector investigations of challenges and opportunities in the state. A few of these projects include its landmark Waters of Wisconsin Initiative between 2000 and 2003, and the Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin Initiative that concluded with an influential report in 2007. In 2004 the Academy opened its James Watrous Gallery to showcase contemporary Wisconsin art in Madison's Overture Center for the Arts and that same year began an ambitious series of statewide Academy Talks exploring ideas at the intersection of the sciences, arts, and letters, many of which were recorded for broadcast on WPT's University Place.
In the 21st century, the Academy has evolved to become an organization that showcases Wisconsin art, opens doors for Wisconsin writers and poets, and explores complex issues such as climate change through civil exchange and science-based inquiry. Open to anyone who values curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, and civil discourse, the Academy today is a place for people to come together to learn from Wisconsin leadership and from each other.