Jefferson, Science, and Exploration

April 10 – December 30, 2015

Thomas Jefferson had a passion for knowledge that encompassed theoretical and applied sciences. As president of the APS for 17 years—before, during, and after he was president of the nation—he fostered American participation in a broad range of fields from paleontology to botany to meteorology, all of which were featured in this exhibition. President Jefferson advocated for westward exploration, providing explorers with detailed instructions on how to prepare for their expeditions. He sent Meriwether Lewis to study with five Philadelphians, all APS members with specific expertise that Lewis would need to be successful. This exhibition demonstrated the inseparable connections between science and national pride in Jefferson’s time and took visitors up to the eve of Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Jefferson, Science, and Exploration shared with visitors five important facets of Jefferson’s intellect and personality.
• Jefferson was a scientist—he participated in and encouraged his fellow countrymen to participate in useful sciences like botany, meteorology, astronomy, and surveying.
• Big data counted for Jefferson—he rebutted European stereotypes of American nature as degenerate and weak by gathering scientific data on the size and variety of American plants, animals, and humans—even calculating the number of geniuses America had produced per capita. Jefferson also promoted collecting weather data to counter the belief that America’s “swampy” climate contributed to degenerate flora and fauna.
• Jefferson promoted scientific exploration—he encouraged explorers to prepare for their journeys by training in relevant scientific fields, such as botany, land surveying, and astronomy. For Jefferson, exploration was an opportunity to expand both political and natural knowledge of North America.
• Physical evidence added to Jefferson’s argument for America’s greatness—he fostered the collection of a wide variety of American antiquities for himself and for the APS, everything from mammoth bones to Native American artifacts.
• A life-long learner himself, Jefferson was an advocate of education—he founded the University of Virginia, whose wide-ranging curriculum allowed students to major in the broad range of sciences that reflected its founder’s interests.