From CASE Reports, Volume 14,1 (February 1999)

200 Years of Scholarship and Fraternity:

Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences Plans A Bicentennial Celebration


“The object of this Academy is to cultivate every art and science which may tend to
advance the interest and happiness of a free and virtuous people.”

— Excerpt from the Constitution of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (1799)

That mission, penned over two centuries ago, still guides the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (CAAS) today, as it celebrates a long, proud history of intellectual pursuit.

Chartered in 1799, CAAS was the third such society to be formed in the New Republic. Its earliest architect was Ezra Stiles, a devoted scholar who first conceived the academy in 1779, while serving as president of Yale College. Stiles was also a member of the esteemed American Philosophical Society, a group of learned men, organized by Ben Franklin in 1744, who met in private parlors and public meeting halls to exchange ideas.

Stiles modeled his New Haven venture after its Philadelphian counterpart. Unfortunately, it never took root. His effort, however, did give rise to one important paper—a study on the language of the Muhlekanew (Mohegan) Indians—and laid the foundation for the Connecticut Academy as it exists today.

Stimulating Meetings A Long-Standing Tradition

While Stiles lent the inspiration, it was the executive talents of another Yale president, Timothy Dwight, that finally established CAAS. The founding constitution carried the signatures of 22 members, including Noah Webster and Eli Whitney.

Once instituted, the academy changed little over its two centuries, both in purpose and in practice. Scholarship and fraternity remained its hallmarks. And to promote these aims, CAAS embraced two areas of activity: meetings and publications.

Meeting topics—always rich in range—mirrored the times, as well as the individual interests of members. One of the first presentations, for example, discussed the US Census of 1800, and members petitioned the federal government to disseminate its results as widely as possible. Another early meeting featured a demonstration of the newly invented stethoscope; still another centered on a member’s work in linguistics, which enabled communication with the Amistad slaves and helped mount the defense in their trial.

Before the Civil War, abolitionism was a popular subject. Bridge construction was explored during the Industrial Revolution, and when Darwin’s theories came to light, paleontology captured the academy’s imagination; one member, in fact, is credited with assembling the first scientific collection of invertebrate fossils. Around this time, the CAAS minutes report another breakthrough by a member: “…Professor J.W. Gibbs {the younger}, presented a communication on the Principles of Thermo-dynamics as determining Chemical Equilibrium…” This paper, and the concepts it introduced, is viewed as one of the academy’s greatest achievements to date.

Today’s topics are no less broad. Recent meetings have addressed everything from the geologic history of the Connecticut River basin, to terrorism, Socrates’ influence on teaching, women’s rights and medieval song. On the 1998–99 calendar, programs explore the news media and Mayan art, American Judaism and ethics in the computer age. “The academy is unique in its eclecticism,” notes Franklin Robinson, a neurosurgeon at Yale and the current CAAS president. “Since the 1930s, societies like ours have grown more specialized,” he adds. “That, however, is not our objective—we’ll continue to represent a wide spectrum of interests.”

This is reflected in the academy’s present membership, which draws professionals from the fields of education, law, the fine arts, the natural sciences, and a host of other disciplines. In the past, enrollment was limited to 200. But today, there is no ceiling, and the current roster lists some 450 members.

Membership is essentially open to everyone, says Robinson. While you must be nominated by the academy, there are no professional requirements to satisfy: “You certainly don’t have to be Phi Beta Kappa or a Nobel Laureate to join,” he observes.

What members have in common, says Robinson, is a love of knowledge. “We all enjoy learning,” he says, and while the lectures provide a forum for that, so do the dinners that precede them, where members and their guests gather for enlightening conversation. “Historically, the academy has been a place to socialize,” he notes. “That’s been a magnet from the beginning.”

A History of Scholarly Publication

The academy’s programs have always been geared to the general public. They don’t use jargon; what’s more, they often lend a popular slant to an academic subject.

CAAS publications, on the other hand, tend to be more esoteric, according to Catherine Skinner, a mineralogist at Yale who is a past-president of CAAS and current chair of its publication committee. “Our works are usually scholarly and, therefore, targeted to specific audiences,” she explains.

In 1810, CAAS began publishing Memoirs, which originated as a collection of papers, but has since evolved into documents presented in book-size formats. For shorter articles, the academy launched its Transactions series in 1870. Then, in 1916, it started A Manual of Writings in Middle English, which is viewed today as a standard source for Shakespearean and Chaucerian scholars around the globe.

The span of subjects represented is “enormous,” remarks Skinner. For instance, the academy put out one of the earliest descriptions of enzymes. Another selection probes the making of resins on an international scale, from their chemistry to the roles they play in various cultures, while others examine topics in disciplines ranging from ancient archeology to modern psychology.

Some works do enjoy broader appeal, according to Skinner. Chronicles of 19th century travels throughout Asia and the Middle East, for instance, provide fascinating reading, she notes. So does one of the academy’s newest titles, “Gravestones of Eastern Connecticut and the Men Who Made Them.” “It’s wonderfully printed, complete with photographs,” Skinner says. “It’s definitely a coffee table book.”

In addition to its regular offerings, CAAS publishes some special works. Its first was a series entitled, “A Statistical Account of the Towns and Parishes in the State of Connecticut,” which reflected a 28-year effort (from 1799–1827) to collect data on every aspect of life in the state. The accounts recorded everything from flora and fauna and financial structures, to residents’ religious backgrounds, health problems and dealings with Native Americans. Other details were also recorded, such as extraordinary acts of virtue, and the first appearance of pleasure carriages.

This information culminated in published reports on a variety of towns—including New Haven, Guilford and Madison—and Litchfield and Middlesex counties. These reports will be part of yet another special publication: a two-volume work commemorating the academy’s bicentennial. Volume I, says Skinner, contains all of the original towns’ accounts. In Volume II, there are interpretive essays on the accounts, written by present-day scholars from across the state.

Through the Yale University Library, the academy circulates its publications—which now number in the thousands—to centers of learning worldwide. “We strive to make all our works available,” affirms Skinner. Additionally, many items can be purchased, including some original documents; to that end, the academy recently created a catalog of its titles.

Still, the academy is not concerned with commercial value, Skinner is quick to point out, adding “We’ll never be an” Nor does they aspire to be. “A publication’s intellectual worth will always be paramount,” she says.

Looking Ahead

In the coming years, the academy will continue to expand its publications, along with its schedule of meetings, says Robinson. “I would also like to offer educational conferences—day-long presentations where we could delve more deeply into topics.”

Traditionally, the academy has done much on a miniscule budget. There is a small endowment fund, explains Robinson, but it’s “held sacred—we don’t invade it.” Many services are provided in-kind, allowing the annual dues to stay at a nominal level and the programs to remain free of charge. That’s not likely to change,” Robinson asserts. “We feel very strongly about keeping our lectures accessible to all.”

One way to boost the budget is to build membership, which was a priority, says Skinner, during her ten years (1983– 1993) as CAAS president. “The academy is a great, un-discovered gem,” she says, and to make more people aware of it, CAAS is working to increase its visibility by holding programs around the state, from college campuses to historical societies and museums.

Robinson is carrying on that goal, in part by capitalizing on the academy’s time-honored assets. “We’ll foster our diversity,” he says. “We’ll also continue to be a forum for learning and lively conversation. After all, that’s what the founding fathers had in mind—bringing people together to share ideas.”—Louise Petraitis, Indelible Ink

A Bicentennial Celebration!

On April 16–18,1999, the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences will honor its 200th anniversary with a non-stop schedule of events. The festivities begin Friday evening, when the Academy will host a gala reception at the New Haven Colony Historical Society from 6:30–8 pm.

Dr. Franklin Robinson, CAAS president, will kick off Saturday’s activities with welcoming remarks at 8:30 am. The day features lectures on “The Towns Project: Connecticut in 1800,” which will be held at the Yale Art Gallery Auditorium.

8:45 am Introduction to the Morning Program Catherine Skinner, Yale University
9:00 am Lands Discovered, Lands Transformed Robert Gordon, Yale Department of Geology
9:40 am Connecticut Towns: Risings and Fallings Christopher Collier, Connecticut State Historian
10:40 am The Peoples of Connecticut Ruth Moynihan, Author, Storrs
11:20 am Farming, Good Times and Bad Paul Waggoner, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
12 pm Lunch
2:00 pm Silliman and 19th Century American Science Leonard G. Wilson, University of Minnesota
2:40 pm Present Societal Challenges David Gergen, Editor-at-Large, U.S. News and World Report
4:00 pm Close Exhibits at Sterling Memorial Library, the Yale Medical School Library, and the Peabody Museum
6:00 pm Reception at Yale Commons Post-Dinner Presentation: Role of Technology in the 21st Century as Seen from the Humanities William Ferris, Director, National Endowment for the Humanities

On Sunday, the celebration will conclude with two programs:

8:30 am Breakfast Reception
9:00 am Introduction: Howard Lamar, Yale Department of History
9:20 am "Images of the Future for Our Time" Wendell Bell, Yale Department of Sociology
10:20 am "Teaching and Learning in the Next Millennium" Joseph L. Dionne, Chairman of the Board, McGraw-Hill Companies

All lectures are free and open to the public. There is no registration, but seating is limited and will be granted on a “first come, first served” basis. Receptions and meals may be purchased by subscription. For more information on the events, please contact the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 310 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511. Phone: (203) 432-3113, ext 2.

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