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Academy History

The Promotion of Knowing and Feeling: 125 Years of Activity at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters

Originally published in the Wisconsin Academy Review, Spring 1995

By Arthur Hove

In 1906, John J. Davis gave this valedictory following two years of service as president of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters:

He who knows but does not feel may be a bad citizen; he who feels but does not know may be fully as dangerous; he who both knows and feels is the ideal citizen. The promotion, then, of knowing and feeling, of knowledge and culture, of the sciences, the arts and letters, is the work of the Academy.

That work has been continuous over the past 125 years, since a group of more than a hundred men and women assembled in Madison in the winter of 1870 to establish the Wisconsin Academy. (Although women were present at that first meeting, they were not admitted to membership until six years later.) Those who gathered were citizens of a still young and often boisterous state, an entity less than a quarter century old and changing rapidly as the frontier pushed farther westward.

Enormous changes had taken place from the time when Wisconsin was a territory to the time when the Academy was founded. Former University of Wisconsin President Thomas C. Chamberlin, a charter member of the Academy, spoke at the fiftieth anniversary and put its founding into a context. He noted that the state's first stage of development was characterized as a "pioneer struggle" in which "the trackless forests of Wisconsin had been replaced by cultivated fields, comfortable dwellings, and prosperous towns…bound together by a network of roadways and railways that united the whole into an intercommunicating cooperative community ready to enter upon a common organized career in pursuit of its higher interests."

The scene is not quite so idyllic from a revisionist's perspective. The settlement of the state involved more freebooting than nobility of purpose. The events that were a significant part of the early territorial and statehood days substantially transformed what many had regarded as an Edenic setting. The arrival of the frontier produced what Alan Moorehead has described in his book The Fatal Impact as "that fateful moment when a social capsule is broken open, when primitive creatures, beasts as well as men, are confronted for the first time with civilization; the moment which is not so much one of truth, nor even of recognition, as of an eager awkward fumbling to try and understand" (Harper and Row, 1966, pages xiii-xiv).

In this instance, the fateful contact included the displacement and subjugation of the indigenous Native Americans, a relentless series of incursions which reached a climax in the Black Hawk War of 1832. As Yankee settlers from the East and ethnic groups from Europe moved into the area, land speculation became commonplace. The state's natural resources, which seemed so abundant, were taken for granted and the virgin forest, which covered a major portion of the land was systematically cutover, making way for agriculture at the same time it altered the ecological balance of plants, wildlife, and humans.

The resulting openness of the landscape was a magnet for settlers. It produced such an inpouring that the population grew from 11,000 in 1836 when Wisconsin was organized as a territory to more than a million by 1870, twenty-two years after statehood.

There were some among the new Wisconsin citizenry who saw the dangers of profligate expansion. In securing the frontier, efforts were needed to take stock of what was being lost and what needed to be preserved. These concerns were among the primary considerations in the drive to organize the Academy in 1870.

The practical organization of the first meeting was left to John Wesley Hoyt, secretary of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society and editor of the Wisconsin Farmer. In a Wisconsin Magazine of History article (Spring 1970) commemorating the Academy's centennial, Mary Frost Kroncke noted Hoyt's "abundant energy and organization ability." A native of Ohio, he had cleared and developed three separate farms early in his career, of the Wyoming Territory before coming to Wisconsin.

More than a hundred prominent citizens from around the state joined Hoyt in the call for a meeting. The call noted that "the prosperity and power of a State depend not more upon its material resources than upon the culture of its people and the extent of their knowledge of nature and man." Information had to be gathered and transmitted through a proper mechanism: ". . . such culture and knowledge as are furnished by all schools and colleges are themselves primarily dependent on the discoveries, inventions, and labors of men and associations of men devoted to original investigation; and that, therefore, it has been the policy of every enlightened country of modern times to encourage the establishment of societies and institutions for the promotion of such objects."

The proposed Wisconsin Academy would bring together those "who, though already more or less engaged in original studies and investigations of various kinds, accomplish less than they would had they frequent associations with each other, a common storehouse into which they bring their material collections, and some proper medium through which to publish the approved results of their scientific labors to the world."

While many of those invited could not be present for the meeting, they expressed their support in letters responding to Hoyt's call. The letters, which were read at the meeting and incorporated into the record, were uniform in their enthusiasm and came from throughout the state—from Prairie du Chien to Milwaukee, from Shullsburg to Appleton.

Hoyt's plans for the Academy were articulated in the first issue of Transactions, the Academy's annual scholarly journal which has been published continuously since the founding. He offered an ambitious program. The academy would "employ and fairly compensate one or more competent and efficient officers" and, through cooperation with existing societies, would serve as the major catalyst for research in the state. Its physical resources would include a museum, library, and an art gallery. The Academy's many activities would be supported through an endowment of $100,00 augmented by private donations.

Hoyt moved on to California after serving as the Academy's president for six years. A short time later, he returned to Wyoming and served for three years as the first president of that state's university. He subsequently settled in Washington, D.C., where he spent the balance of his professional life promoting the establishment of a national university. While many of his plans for the Academy were not realized, he provided the conceptual framework for the broad scope of today's program.

In this light, it is important to remember that the Academy rose out of the frontier which imbued it and the state with a distinctive character. The distinguished American historian and Wisconsin native Frederick Jackson Turner was an Academy member early in his career and gained some of his initial perspective from his participation in Academy activities. Turner formally described the nature of westward expansion in his lecture "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" presented at a meeting of the American Historical Association held in Chicago during the summer of 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. Turner put forward the idea,

that to frontier the American intellect owes in striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom,—these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier (State Historical Society of Wisconsin edition, 1986, page 47).

Increase Lapham is one of those individuals who personifies the qualities Turner found compelling in the formulation of his thesis. It is important to highlight Lapham's unique contributions. He was the first Wisconsin resident to draw a map of the state, and he helped found and later served as president of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Throughout his life, Lapham proved to be an indefatigable collector and cataloger of plants and geological specimens. His interest and work in climatology led to the establishment of the U.S. Weather Service. A charter member of the Wisconsin Academy, he served as the first editor of Transactions and as an elected secretary of the organization until he died.

Another guiding force in the initial development of the Academy was Philo Romayne Hoy, a Racine physician who Chamberlin described in Science (July 20, 1920) as " … a veteran student of birds, insects, and fishes, and … an enthusiastic collector of plants and fossils … also an eager student of the relics of aboriginal life." Hoy served as a complement to the unassuming and taciturn Lapham because he "so bubbled over with enthusiasm that he easily set the pace in demonstrative interest." Both men possessed that insatiable curiosity and breadth of interest and expertise that reflected the range of inquiry which flourished as the state and nation came of age. Their respect for learning and the extensiveness of their knowledge served to advance the society.

Similar qualities are found in William Francis Allen who died in office as president of the Academy in 1889. As a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin, Allen established the Department of History, served as mentor for Frederick Jackson Turner, and became one of the university's most widely-known and respected scholars. Allen's published work ranged in subject matter from the antiquities of Rome to the society of the Middle Ages and to American slave songs. He had a broad knowledge of language, literature, music, economics, and civics. Prodigious in his writings, he contributed regularly to The Nation magazine and was eulogized by his colleague, David B. Frankenburger, as a pervasive influence: "We were not quite certain what we ought to think of the last new book until Professor Allen had been heard from. If a revolution occurred in any quarter of the globe, we turned to him for the causes and condition that led to it" (The Aegis, December 1, 1889, page 250).

Stanley G. Hall, cited in The University of Wisconsin: A History, 1848-1925 by Merle Curti and Vernon Carstensen, observed that Allen's "work was a 'almost epoch-making modification' of traditional historical instruction and scholarship. It realized to an amazing degree his precept that no historical fact is of any value unless it helps understand human nature and historical forces" (Volume 1, page 347).

Throughout its history, the Academy has been closely linked to higher education in the state. During the early years, three University of Wisconsin presidents served as presidents of the Academy: Chamberlin, Charles R. Van Hise, and Edward A. Birge. Two presidents from Beloit College have been similarly represented: A. L. Chapin and Melvin A. Brannon. More recently, J. Martin Klotsche, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; Robert Swanson, chancellor of University of Wisconsin–Stout; and University of Wisconsin's System President Katharine Lyall also have held the post.

Hoyt's original plan that the Academy serve as the primary focus for research was overtaken by events. Other institutions with broader bases of support and involvement rose to assume that responsibility. Nevertheless, the Academy made significant contributions to the continuing development of the state's cultural and intellectual activities.

Past President A. W. Schorger, in a 1962 Transactions article, observed that, "The founding of the Academy was due largely to the efforts of scientists and they have constituted the majority of its members" (page 258). In 1945, the Academy and University of Wisconsin Extension began an academic joint venture that touched thousands of high school students throughout the state. The Junior Academy of Science, composed of science clubs organized in state high schools, encouraged the study of science through regional and state competitions at science fairs. It also published research findings resulting from student experiments and offered scholarships and research and travel grants to promising students.

LeRoy Lee, the Academy's executive director since 1981, was director of the Junior Academy during the 1970s and into the 1980s. The activity continues today as part of the Academy's general youth program rather than officially as the Junior Academy. This focus on education has expanded to working with teachers throughout the state. A recent example of this educational commitment is the Wisconsin Academy's Staff Development Initiative (WASDI), a five-year, $25 million project which initially is being funded through a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The program is designed to reach nearly 3,000 kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers at ten different sites across the state. It will offer workshops to assist teachers in developing methods for teaching science, math, and technology.

While science may have been the primary focus during the Academy's first hundred years, the first quarter of its second century has been witness to a considerable widening of the horizon. Much of this has been due to the expansion of the Wisconsin Academy Review, which regularly features articles on the arts as well as poetry and fiction. In 1993 four Wisconsin poets were profiled; in 1994, the work of four Wisconsin artists was featured in color. In addition, the Wisconsin Academy Gallery serves as a valuable showcase for displaying the work of Wisconsin artists. And the Academy has published volumes of poetry and other publications which feature non-scientific material. With regard to the property of the Academy, the University of Wisconsin has benefitted most directly. When the university's original Science Hall building burned to the ground in 1884, the fire destroyed Lapham's collection of rocks, ores, minerals, and fossils which had been purchased by the state and entrusted to the university. Following the construction of a new Science Hall of 1887, the Academy voted in 1892 to turn over its collection of fossils to be used for educational purposes, a contribution which proved to be a welcome addition to the university's developing program in geology. A short time later, representatives of the Academy joined others in lobbying for an eventually successful effort to establish the Geological and Natural History Survey.

The publication of Transactions has had a significant impact through a journal exchange. This exchange, which began almost immediately after the Academy was founded, has continued to grow in intervening years. The original collection was turned over to the university of 1909, thus enhancing the university's library. Just last year, Kenneth Fraizer, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison General Library System, reported that copies of Transactions are now sent to 121 U.S. and 515 foreign institutions while more than 859 titles are received in return. Fraizer points out that,

One of the major benefits of this program is that some of the titles provided in exchange for Transactions are not readily available from our serial vendors. Many of those from the European community and Japan which are available through vendors would prove quite costly if we were not able to obtain them through the exchange program (Letter dated August 22, 1994).

The Academy publications have been incorporated into the general library collection and are identified by an Academy bookplate. A 1992 accounting indicated that the collection consisted of more than 62,000 volumes, valued at nearly $13 million.

Much of the Academy's largesse in this regard is due to the fact that it had no permanent home for virtually all of its first hundred years. The Academy's quarters initially were rooms in the State Capitol building set aside to house its collections. The base of operations shifted to the university's lower campus area when the Academy library was moved to the newly constructed State Historical Society building in 1900. It took until 1971 for the Academy to obtain its present home, the Steenbock Center on University Avenue.

The building is named after one of Wisconsin's scientific giants, Harry Steenbock. His pioneering efforts in vitamin research led to the discovery of Vitamin D and to its subsequent applications in the irradiation of foods to prevent crippling bone disease. When Steenbock died in 1967, he left a generous portion of his estate to the Academy. The fit, which amounted to nearly $1 million, put the Academy on a firmer financial foundation and provided for the employment of a full-time staff and the purchase of its own building.

Through all of its history, the Academy has benefitted from the leadership and participation of some of the state's most extraordinary citizens. In conjunction with the observance of its semi-centennial in 1920, the Academy struck a special medal-lion to honor six of its distinguished members: Allen, Chamberlin, Hoy, Lapham, geologist Roland D. Irving and zoologist William Peckham. Although this form of collective recognition languished for several decades, it was revived in 1982 with the establishment of the Wisconsin Academy fellows program. This program honors "Wisconsin citizens who have made outstanding contributions through their professions to the nation's intellectual and cultural life." To date, more than fifty men and women have been singled out as exemplary representatives of distinguished achievement.


In our present seductive age of media celebrities, it is important to recognize that there is a profound difference between those who are famous for who they are and those who are valued for what they do. The Wisconsin Academy has consistently respected those whose achievements serve as eloquent testimony to the extent of human potential in making meaningful contributions to society and to the world. They have been people who both know and feel.

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Wisconsin Academy Administrative Offices and Steenbock Gallery
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Phone: 608-263-1692

James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters
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201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608-265-2500