Philosophical Society of Washington

John Wesley Powell Didn't Throw in the Towel

Phil Cantelon
President, Cosmos Club

2125th Meeting Abstract
Friday, January 5, 2001 at 8:30 P.M.


Every two weeks in the fall and in the spring — since 1878 — The Philosophical Society of Washington meets in the John Wesley Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Who was this college professor who earned the Ute nickname Ka-Purats, "Arm Off" during his many travels to the west during the 19th century?

John Wesley Powell was a consummate organizer, who became one of the leaders of the scientific world, helping to establish social and technical societies such as the National Geographic Society, the Washington Academy of Sciences and, in 1878, founded the Cosmos Club, first real home of the Philosophical Society of Washington, established earlier, in 1871.

The community of scientists and intellectuals in Washington grew rapidly in the 1870's serving in various government agencies — some to explore, survey and understand the geography and resources of the United States — others to expand its intellectual and cultural foundations — to build its economic, social, medical, and industrial prowess — or to set forth on expeditions to learn the world's secrets. Powell and his colleagues were at the heart of these efforts, and they had an agenda for changes that needed to be made: in land management, environmental management, Government policies and practices with the Indians, water use, etc.

Powell's recommendations, reports, surveys, etc. were often ignored…at first. But his persistence ultimately paid off. He didn't throw in the towel — which set up the basis for the 122 year relationship of the Cosmos Club and the PSW.

This talk will focus on the changing intent Powell had in establishing these various learned organizations, how successful this may have been, and if the Powell tradition of learned societies is still viable in our society. We will look at the Cosmos Club and its relationship to the learned societies of the 19th century, where we are today, and where the changing demographics in Washington may take us in the next decade or so.

About the Author:

Philip J. Cantelon is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds advanced degrees in history from the University of Michigan and Indiana University. He taught contemporary American history and oral history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from 1968 to 1977, where he established and directed the College's oral history project. He served as Fullbright Professor of American Civilization in Japan at Kyushu National University and Seinan Gakuin University on 1978-79.

Since 1979, he has been a historical consultant and president and chief executive officer of History Associates Incorporated, a professional historical archival, and records management services company based in Rockville, Maryland. He is the co-author of a history of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Crisis Contained, a text book on U.S. nuclear policy, The American Atom, and the histories of three major American corporations, MCI Communications Corporation, CNF Transportation, Inc. and Roadway Services, Inc. With Arnita A. Jones, he co-edited Corporate Archives and History: Making the Past Work. He was a founder and first executive secretary of the Society for History in the Federal Government and later served as that organization's president. He was also a founder and first executive director of the National Council on Public History and served on the Board of Editors of its journal, The Public Historian.

He is the past chair of the Organization of American Historians' Committee on Research and Access to Historical Documentation. He retired this year after seventeen years as a board member and president of Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation, LTD, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the built environment and cultural resources of Rockville, Maryland. He also served eight years as a member of the Board and president of the Montgomery County Historical Society and for seven years a commissioner and chair of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. He is currently president and a member of the Board of Management of the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C.

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