While science is without organization, it is without power. ---Alexander Dallas Bache, 18511
Bache was born July 19, 1806 in Philadelphia, PA, to Richard Bache, Jr. and Sophia Burrell Dallas Bache. Although not well-remembered today, he came from an illustrious family and was one of the most respected scientists of his time. He was a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin; his uncle, George Mifflin Dallas, was Vice President of the United States under President James K. Polk; and several other relatives held prestigious government positions during his lifetime. At the age of fifteen, Bache entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1825, first in his class, despite also being the youngest.
Bache was appointed Lieutenant of Engineers and then was chosen for the position of Assistant Professor of Engineering at West Point. Soon afterwards, he was put in charge of the construction of Fort Adams at Newport and there he met Nancy Clarke Fowler (they married in 1828).
Bache spent much of his career in education. In 1828, Bache took a job as Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, which he held until 1836. While in Philadelphia, he was also associated with the Franklin Institute and was a editor of and contributor to its Journal. He conducted research in many fields, including physics and astronomy. In 1836, he was sent to Europe for nearly two years to study different school systems there for the organizers of Girard College, a private school for orphans. Upon his return, he was selected as the College's first President. Next he became President of Central High School in Philadelphia, and was Superintendent of the city's Public Schools from 1841 to 1842. He proposed building playgrounds at the schools "to assure good physical education and amusement" of the students.2 Meanwhile, as a member of the American Philosophical Society, he directed the Society's magnetic and meteorological observatory. He returned to teach Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania the following year, but gave that up when he was appointed the second Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey by President John Tyler on December 11, 1843.
It was said that Bache orchestrated his appointment to the USCS by pulling some well-connected strings.3 He was a good friend of eminent scientist Joseph Henry, who wrote a recommendation on his behalf, and related to some high-placed government people. In any case, he was an outstanding Superintendent, and the USCS produced mountains of useful data while under his charge.
In 1863 Bache was the Chief Engineer overseeing the defense of Philadelphia. He served as Vice President of the United Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. He was one of the incorporators of the Smithsonian Institution and, as one of its Regents, supported basic scientific research. His home became headquarters for a group of intellectuals who called themselves "Lazzaroni" after the beggars of Naples, whose meetings consisted of fine dinners and much wine. When some of this group organized the National Academy of Sciences, Bache became a charter member and the first President.
Other posts held by Bache include the Presidencies of the American Philosophical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was an honorary member of the Royal Society of London, the Royal Academy of Turin, the Imperial Geographical Society of Vienna, and the Institute of France. He was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Laws by the University of New York, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard. Bache published scientific papers on many subjects, including an important work on boiler expansion. He was an advocate of the metric system and of hydroelectric power.
Alexander Dallas Bache died February 17, 1867, in Providence, Rhode Island. His obituary was published six days later in The National Intelligencer. Bache's funeral was well attended by members of the various organizations with which he had been involved.
Works by or about Alexander Dallas Bache:
"Report on Education in Europe to the Trustees of the Girard College for Orphans" by Alexander Dallas Bache (Philadelphia: Lydia R. Baily), 1839.
"Observations of the Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory at Girard College" 3 volumes, by Alexander Dallas Bache, 1840-1847.
Alexander Dallas Bache, Scientist and Educator by Merle M. Odgers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania), 1947.
Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science: Alexander Dallas Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey by Hugh Richard Slotten (New York: Cambridge University), 1994.
2. http://www.lib.noaa.gov/edocs/CONTENTS.htm; page 118.
3. http://www.lib.noaa.gov/edocs/CONTENTS.htm; page 122.