Lost in Transcription – A long-delayed recognition of election to the APS

The American Philosophical Society (APS) has recently made a posthumous addition to its Membership rolls for the first time in its 280 year history. Thanks to the work of Dr. Amedeo Arena, Full Professor of European Union Law at the University of Naples Federico II and Fellow at the Historical Archives of the European Union, a 255 year old clerical error has officially been corrected in the records of Membership of the APS. The 1768 election of Italian physician, entomologist, and botanist Domenico Maria Leone Cirillo was mistakenly recorded under the false name of “Dr. Famitz” and went uncorrected for centuries. Cirillo now receives this long-overdue and rightful honor as a Member of the APS.

We all have that friend or coworker with awfully illegible handwriting. When trying to decipher the unclear words on the page, have you ever made a mistake? Replaced “less patience” for “lost patients” or some other simple error that nonetheless completely changed the meaning of the message? Sometimes these mistakes are caught and corrected, but more often than not, the mistake is missed and, if of enough consequence, can change the course of history. Such a sequence of events, it seems, was the trouble with Cirillo’s election to the APS.

manuscript letter
An unsent 1768 letter by APS Secretary Charles Thompson acknowledging the election of “Mr. Famitz of Naples” to the Membership of the American Philosophical Society. APS Archives.

Since the 18th-century founding of the American Philosophical Society, Members have been elected for their distinguished contributions to the arts, sciences, and public life. Early Members included founders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and since 1900, more than 260 Members have received the Nobel Prize. To be considered for election, a candidate must be nominated by a current Member and such nominations and elections fill pages and pages of the minute books and official proceedings of the APS. 

In Cirillo’s case, the error apparently originated by misreading the opening of a letter from the British Consul in Naples, Isaac Jamineau, written to Philadelphia physician John Morgan. Jamineau commended Cirillo’s scientific contributions and Morgan recommended Cirillo for election to the APS. However, when Morgan forwarded Jamineau’s letter, the phrase “My family physician” (referring to Cirillo) was evidently misread as “Dr. Famitz Physician.” And thus, instead of electing the notable Domenico Maria Leone Cirillo, a non-existent Dr. Famitz was honored by election to the APS. Among other subsequent events Thomas Jefferson was tasked—unsuccessfully, of course— to find Dr. Famitz in Europe and to convey a congratulatory missive to him from the Society. Though Cirillo eventually learned of his election via a letter from Dr. Morgan (as noted in the 1769 APS Minutes), the official rolls were left uncorrected, until now. 

manuscript minutes of the APS
A little over halfway down the page of this January 16, 1769 entry is the record of a letter “from D. Cirillo of Naples to Doct. J. Morgan thanking him for having proposed him a Member of the Society and promising to do any thing in his power that may be of use to promote the Ends for which the Society was instituted,” which also detailed the variety of trees and plants in Italy of potential interest to the botanically-inclined Members of the APS. American Philosophical Society. Minutes, 1769-1784. APS Archives.

In some ways, the APS did recognize Cirillo’s election. In a 1943 article “The American Philosophical Society and the World of Science (1768-1800),” Professor Gilbert Chinard (APS 1932) of Princeton University had referred to Cirillo as a Member of the APS. And Librarian of the APS, Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. (APS 1964), had pretty well figured out the error and followed his entry on Dr. Famitz with a biography of Cirillo in Volume Two of his three-volume series of biographies of early APS Members, Patriot-Improvers. However, the web-based database of current and historic Members of the APS preserved the mistake.

“The centuries’ long tale of misread longhand that led to Thomas Jefferson’s search for the non-existent ‘Dr. Famitz’ and the neglect of the very real Dr. Cirillo is an object lesson about the importance of care in the scholarly enterprise,” said APS Executive Officer Robert Hauser. “While Dr. Cirillo did in fact acknowledge his election to the American Philosophical Society, and Whit Bell mostly solved the mystery a quarter century back, it is a tribute to Benjamin Franklin’s interest in ‘promoting useful knowledge’—as well as the endeavors of Amedeo Arena—that the Society has finally set the record straight.”

Thanks to Dr. Arena’s research and advocacy, the APS has at last corrected its rolls by eliminating the entry for Dr. Famitz and adding an excellent biographical entry for Dr. Cirillo. As drafted by Dr. Arena, the entry, which can be viewed here, now reads:

“Born in Grumo Nevano, Italy. Cirillo graduated in Medicine from the University of Naples in 1759 and became Professor of Botany there the following year. He was the first to introduce the Linnaean system in the Kingdom of Naples. He conducted several botanical expeditions and authored numerous publications in the fields of botany and entomology. He was also a masterful illustrator and provided descriptions and illustrations for over thirty new plant species, many of which are still recognized today. An excellent microscopist, he discovered the contribution of pollen to the fertilization of plants. In 1777 he became professor of Medicine at the University of Naples. He also became physician at the Naples Hospital of the Incurables, where he taught Physiology and Obstetrics, and Court Physician of the Kingdom of Naples. His patients included members of the local establishment and foreign dignitaries, but also the poor and unfortunate, whom he treated free of charge. He authored several medical publications and devised a new treatment for syphilis. He was one of the first physicians in Italy to keep a medical journal of his patients. In 1799, the Kingdom of Naples was overthrown and the Neapolitan Republic was established. He submitted a National Charity Plan to the Provisional Government and joined the Neapolitan Republic’s Legislative Commission, eventually becoming its President. Following the restoration of the Kingdom of Naples, he was sentenced to death and executed in Piazza Mercato on 29 October 1799. He was elected to the American Society on April 15, 1768 and recorded as “Famitz”. The correct name for this member was entered on January 3, 2023.”

“It is wonderful to officially add Domenico Cirillo’s name to the pantheon of early APS Members,” said APS Librarian Patrick Spero. “He was a leading botanist in Italy who was an important proponent of the Linnaean system, an international effort that helped transform science by allowing scientists from different countries and languages to speak to one another through a universal taxonomy. APS Members in 1768 recognized his importance, and it is exciting to see how our records and those of other archives have elucidated the past. This story is a testament to the importance of preserving records and shows that research into the past can make a difference.”

“We are indebted to Whitfield J. Bell Jr. for uncovering many of the pieces of this intriguing historical puzzle” said Dr. Arena. “What was missing was, as Bell put it, an explanation as to ‘How Jamineau could have confused Cirillo…with Famitz’. I am delighted that the APS concurs with my insights into how the mix-up might have taken place and I look forward to publishing an article with further details on this enticing story. Above all, I am overjoyed that the APS agreed to correct this mistake and to recognize Cirillo, by his rightful name, as its member since 1768. Cirillo’s election to America’s oldest learned society is a testament to the international relevance of Neapolitan Science and University in the 18th century as well as to the deep ties between Naples and the United States, epitomized by the letters Gaetano Filangieri and Benjamin Franklin exchanged in the years leading up to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. These ties remain strong, as shown by the enthusiastic support of numerous Italians and Italian Americans to the petition seeking Cirillo's recognition as an APS member. As we honor the legacy of one of Italy's most brilliant minds, let us continue to strengthen the bond between our peoples, for the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries.”

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