THE DUDLEY OBSERVATORY CONTROVERSY (NEW YORK)
JAMES, MARY ANN
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation provides a narrative of the events in the conflict over the Dudley Observatory in Albany in the late 1850's. The controversy involved some of the most respected scientists, businessmen, and politicians of the nineteenth century and has been interpreted by scholars since that time as a symbolic struggle between an increasingly professional vision of science and an older, more popular view of science as a form of public entertainment. This dissertation contends that such an interpretation simplifies an incredibly complex situation. The observatory was never intended for public entertainment. From its inception, the Dudley Observatory was planned as a research institution and the trustees fully supported that purpose. The bitter quarrel which ensued was not based on conflicting visions of science. It was, instead, a struggle for power between two elites within an institution in which the boundaries of authority and responsibility were undefined. The scientists involved in the conflict--Alexander Dallas Bache, Benjamin Peirce, Joseph Henry, and Benjamin Gould--assumed an arrogantly authoritative version of their power which was far in advance of the nineteenth century American institutional context. The members of the board of trustees of the Dudley Observatory were not a provincial group of Philistines. The cultural elite of Albany had already set high standards of responsible patronage of science. The behavior of the scientists involved in this controversy denigrated that patronage and offended a now peculiar but strongly Victorian sense of the proper deference due to "gentlemen." The quarrel, once it began, expanded along lines of existing local rivalries and animosities within Albany. As it grew in bitterness, the conflict became a test of political influence on the national and on the state level. The scientists and the trustees used every available source of political power to which they had access during this battle of wills. As a result, the struggle moved to the highest levels of government. The scientists did not enter the conflict in order to ease the tensions and thereby preserved the institution for science, but to defend the Director, Benjamin Apthorp Gould, from any criticism, no matter how well merited. Gould's personality was undoubtedly a major factor in the development of the controversy. Early dissatisfaction with Gould arose out of his refusal to move to Albany from Cambridge to supervise renovations made to his specifications, his refusal to set up the telescopes to bring the observatory into a functioning condition, his refusal to accept responsibility for any expenditure which had been made under his direction, and his unnecessary secrecy. The final rupture, often discussed as the source of the conflict but in reality the "last straw," was a minor incident in which Gould's young assistants contemptuously dismissed the trustees seeking admission to the observatory. Far from being a simple conflict between increasingly professional scientists and a recalcitrant board of trustees, the controversy over the Dudley Observatory in Albany was a complex mixture of disparate motives and ambitions springing from a wide variety of individual sources.