Featured Fellow: Laura Clerx (2023-2024 Barra Foundation Short-Term Fellow)

The Library & Museum at the American Philosophical Society supports a diverse community of scholars working on a wide-range of projects in fields including early American history, history of science and technology, and Native American and Indigenous Studies, among others. Read on to learn more about some of our fellows and their research at the APS. Additional information about our fellowship programming and other funding opportunities can be found here.

Briefly describe your research project. 

My dissertation, “Nature’s Properties: Science and Commerce in Early America, 1780-1850,” focuses on the relationship between science and the economy in the early American republic. I follow individual members of scientific societies up and down the Atlantic seaboard, making sense of their intellectual and practical involvement in economic projects to expand markets and facilitate commerce in the new nation (e.g. canals, turnpikes, banks).

What collections did you use while working at the APS?

As the oldest and most established scientific institution in the early national period, the APS holds a wealth of source material relevant to my project. Among the many collections I viewed, the Society’s Institutional Records, especially manuscript communications and correspondence from the early national period (APS.Archives), provided me with a sense of which types of scientific knowledge were considered “useful” in the early republic. The first chapters of my dissertation focus on land surveying in the early U.S., and I found the Violetta Delafield-Benjamin Smith Barton Collection (Mss.B.B284d) and the Manasseh Cutler Papers (Mss.B.C974m) particularly helpful in tracing the flow of knowledge that was gathered as a result of settler practices. 

In addition, I read the James Brindley diaries (Mss.Sms.Coll.18), engineer on the Susquehanna and Conewago (1794) and the Delaware and Chesapeake (1803) Canals. These amazingly detailed journals provided a unique “on-the-ground” view of the practical dimensions of early American engineering projects, and allowed me to unpack how sites of commercial opportunity also operated as sites for the creation of new scientific knowledge.

What’s the most interesting or most exciting thing you found in the collections?

One of the most interesting finds was Benjamin Vaughan’s (brother to John Vaughan, APS Librarian and Philadelphian merchant) copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It was amazing to see the detail in which Vaughan tried to absorb Smith’s thought, summarizing each and every paragraph in the book’s margins. David Gary, the APS’s Associate Director of Collections, brought this special book to my attention, and I’m very grateful!

Do you have any tips or suggestions for future fellows or researchers?

Don’t be afraid to ask the archivists on duty in the reading room questions. They have a wealth of knowledge about the collections and are very generous in sharing it with researchers. Also, get to know the building’s staff! They are very knowledgeable and welcoming. Finally, try to attend any APS-sponsored events taking place during your research stay. These are wonderful opportunities to hear about fascinating avenues of research and alternative approaches (e.g. films, exhibits, book talks) to communicating historical research.

Any suggestions for must-see places or things to do in Philadelphia? 

I enjoyed visiting Old St. Joseph’s Church, founded by the Jesuits in 1733. Just a few minutes' walk from the APS, this church was one of the first places where Catholics were allowed to worship publicly in the United States. I also had fun viewing the very well curated exhibits at the nearby Science History Institute on my lunch break.

 

Laura Clerx is a History Ph.D. candidate at Boston College. In 2016, she received her BA in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard College. Undergraduate and postgraduate scientific research led to her interest in the history of science and her current work on the intersection of economic and scientific activity in the early national United States. Her dissertation, “Nature’s Properties: Science and Commerce in Early America, 1780-1850,” traces the establishment of scientific societies along the Atlantic seaboard in the early years of the new nation. It follows their memberships’ involvement in novel financing and production schemes undertaken in the name of strengthening and expanding the new nation’s economy, including the survey and sale of western land, the timing of agricultural commodities’ arrival in eastern markets, and the building of canals and roads to transport these goods. As the oldest learned society in the nation, the institutional records of the American Philosophical Society form a critical component of her project, and she is thrilled to be able to spend this time in the APS archives. 
 

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