Stevenson, David, 1815-1886

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1815
Death 1886
English

Biographical notes:

Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was an important scientific reformer during the early nineteenth century. From his position as superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, and through leadership roles in the scientific institutions of the time, Bache helped bring American science into alignment with the professional nature of its European counterpart. In addition, Bache fostered the reform of public education in America.

On July 19, 1806 Alexander Dallas Bache was born into one of Philadelphia's elite families. The son of Richard Bache and Sophia Dallas, he was Benjamin Franklin's great-grandson, nephew to George Dallas (vice president under James K. Polk), and grandson to Alexander James Dallas (secretary of the treasury under James Madison). In 1821, Bache was admitted to the United States Military Academy at the age of 15, graduating first in his class four years later. He remained at the Academy for an additional two years to teach mathematics and natural history. While serving as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, working on the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., he met Nancy Clarke Fowler whom he would later marry.

Bache left the Army in 1828 to begin an academic career, accepting an appointment as professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Although his scientific interests were broad, he had a particular interest in geophyscial research. While in Philadelphia, he constructed a magnetic observatory, and made extensive research into terrestrial magnetism, and during the 1830s he began to be recognized as a leading figure in the city's scientific community. Bache was an active member of the American Philosphical Society and the Franklin Institute, seeking to raise the professional standards of both institutions and urging them to place a stronger emphasis on original research. While at the Franklin Institute from 1830-1835, Bache led a Federally-funded investigation into steam-boiler explosions, the government's first use of technical experts to examine a matter involving public policy.

In 1836 Bache became interested in educational reform when he was asked to help organize the curriculum at Girard College, of which he later served as president. Bache spent two years in Europe visiting over 250 educational institutions. The result of his visit was a 600 page study, Report on Education in Europe, to the Trustees of the Girard College for Orphans published in 1839. Although Bache was unable to apply the report at Girard College because of its delayed opening, it proved useful in overhauling the curriculum of Philadelphia's Central High School, where he was superintendent from 1839-1842, and was widely influential among American educational reformers, helping to introduce the Prussian educational model to the United States.

After meeting many of the leading savants during a European tour, including Alexander von Humboldt, Francois Arago, and Karl Friedrich Gauss, Bache became convinced of the need to professionalize American science. His opportunity to make an impact came in 1843 with the death of Ferdinand Hassler, superindendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. In the years before the Civil War, the Coast Survey supported more scientists then any other institution in the country, and Bache and his colleagues saw the Survey as a means of gaining federal patronage for science. After a campaign by his friends and colleagues, Bache was named as Hassler's replacement. Over the next two decades Bache transformed the Coast Survey into one of the nation's leading scientific institutions, becoming an important patron of science himself in the process . Bache was not just an administrator, but remained personally involved in field work.

Bache also led the reform of American science through his leadership of an elite group known as the "Lazzaroni" or scientific beggars. The goal of the Lazzaroni was to ensure that the nation's leading scientists kept control of the nation's scientific institutions, and they were instrumental in reforming the American Association for the Advancement of Science (of which Bache was president of in 1850). In his remarkably busy schedule, Bache was a member of the Lighthouse Board (1844-1845), superintendent of the Office of Weights and Measures (1844), and a prominent regent for the Smithsonian Institution, where he convinced fellow Lazzaroni Joseph Henry to become its first secretary. Bache also played a leading role in the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, serving as its first president. When the Americn Civil War broke out, Bache focused the Coast Survey to support the war effort, was vice president of the Sanitary Commision, a consultant to the army and navy on battle plans, a superintended for Philadelphia's defence plans, and a member of the Permanent Commission of the navy in charge of evaluating new weapons. Bache died in Newport, R.I. on February 17, 1867.

From the guide to the A. D. Bache Collection, 1833-1873, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Geological Survey of the State of New Jersey
  • Education
  • Geology
  • Early National Politics
  • Antebellum Politics
  • Lighthouse
  • Science and technology
  • Cooper Union
  • Natural history
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • United States Coast Survey
  • Girard College

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