American educator and scientist Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.
Alexander Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was born in Philadelphia on July 19, 1806. He entered West Point at the age of 15. The youngest in his class, he graduated with highest achievement on July 1, 1825, and stayed on for a year as an assistant in engineering. During the following 2 years he worked as an Army construction engineer, assigned to Newport, R.I. There he met Nancy Clarke Fowler, whom he married in 1828. That year he resigned from the Army and accepted a professorship in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. As a member of the Franklin Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts and of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, he conducted notable scientific studies in general mechanics, terrestrial magnetism, and weights and measures.
Bache's interest in the broader problems of education became a full-time occupation in 1836, when he accepted the presidency of a new college for the education of "poor male white orphan children." The college bore the name of its benefactor, Stephen Girard, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who had died in 1831. Bache's first duty was to travel to Europe to find out how such a school could be organized according to Girard's innovative desires. After 26 months of intense investigation into 278 schools, he published the lengthy, exacting Report on Education in Europe (1839). This study of comparative education, covering "the systems of general education" as well as the education of orphans, was very influential.
Ironically, the knowledge that Bache acquired in order to set up Girard College was used more for the advancement of public education in Philadelphia. When the opening of the college was delayed by financial and political problems, he offered to help organize the city's newly established Central High School and became its first principal in 1839. Adapting ideas derived from his observations of the Prussian educational system, he planned the curriculum with emphasis on science (Report to the Controllers of the Public Schools on the Reorganization of Central High School, 1839).
During his years of involvement with public education, Bache continued to engage in scientific study. In 1843 President Tyler appointed Bache superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, a position he held until his death. Bache directed the expansion of the office's scientific activity. He was influential in establishing the National Academy of Sciences and was its first president (1863-1867). He died after a long, debilitating illness at Newport on Feb. 17, 1867.
Merle M. Odgers, Alexander Dallas Bache: Scientist and Educator (1947), is a substantial biography. A useful work is Benjamin Apthorp Gould, An Address in Commemoration of Alexander Dallas Bache (1868), which contains a bibliography of Bache's writings. A good background study is Adolph E. Meyer, An Educational History of the American People (1957; 2d ed. 1967).