American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

History of the ASN

Posted on by Trish

See the talk posted on the ASN YouTube channel that Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Professor, History of Science at the University of Florida, presented on the history of the American Society of Naturalists at the January 2014 meeting at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California.

For a narrative of the early history of the journal, see The Early History of The American Naturalist, by Dr. Edwin G. Conklin, Princeton University.


1867 First issue of The American Naturalist published in March. It was organized by Alpheus S. Packard Jr., Frederick W. Putnam, Edward S. Morse, and Alpheus Hyatt, who had been students of Louis Agassiz and assistants at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Packard had been an assistant surgeon in the Civil War (1st Maine Volunteers) and Hyatt had been a captain with the 47th Massachusetts Regiment. After the museum tried to prevent the assistants from working on their own research after hours, they went to the Essex Institute and Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts, in February 1867. Putnam was a nephew of George Peabody, the donor. The masthead read, "A Popular Illustrated Magazine of Natural History."
1878 The original four organizers turn The American Naturalist over to A. S. Packard Jr. and Edward Drinker Cope. Cope takes over ownership until his death in 1897. He is most famous for being one side of the Bone Wars, also known as the Dinosaur Wars.. It was noted at the 100th anniversary of the journal, "Of Cope's 900 published papers 776 appeared in the Naturalist. Such descriptive material was absorbed into the fabric of systematic zoology, botany, and paleontology which was growing together with the collections in the
great museums in the period before 1907."
1881 S. F. Clarke calls for a meeting to organize a society of naturalists to share techniques and methods.
1883 The first meeting of the Society of Naturalists of the Eastern United States - including zoologists, botanists, geologists, physiologists, bacteriologists, psychologists, anatomists, and anthropologists - is held in Springfield, Massachusetts in April. The society has 109 original members, and Alpheus Hyatt is President.
1885 The American Naturalist is named the official medium of publication for the society.
1886 The name of the society is changed to the American Society of Naturalists.
1886 The Association of American Anatomists and the Association of American Physiologists form separate societies and split from the ASN, beginning a long process of societies professionalizing a field and forming a more narrow focus.
1889 Topic of the annual meeting is "The Object of Scientific Gatherings."
1890 The society produces the Report of the Committee on Introduction of Science Teaching in Schools.
1895 E. D. Cope becomes president of the ASN.
1896 The society produces the Report of the Committee on Antarctic Exploration.
1897 The American Naturalist is taken over by a group of men from the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, and from Tufts after Cope's death. The ASN writes an appeal to President McKinley to appoint a scientist to the Fish Commission.
1902 C. S. Minot, "The Relation of the American Society of Naturalists to Other Societies," Science 15(372):241-255, discusses the process of specialization in the sciences and the future of the ASN as other societies form and split off.
1907 The American Naturalist is sold to J. McKeen Cattell, who acts as editor and publisher until his death. A tribute to his long career appeared in 1967. "Cattell's character was reflected both in editorial policy (catholicity, tolerance, and as much freedom as compatible with good scientific expression) and, in fact, in the survival of the journal. In a letter to the trustees in his support signed by some of his colleagues in 1917 we learn their opinion (among others): 'Professor Cattell has kept afloat an old national journal, The American Naturalist, at financial loss to himself.'" 
1908 At the annual meeting, the ASN adopts evolution as its focus, declaring that it is the one most general and interesting topic common to all the natural sciences. The ASN defines itself as "the association of working naturalists or biologists for discussing and correlating the broader problems of organic evolution." The masthead of The American Naturalist changes to, "A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Advancement of the Biological Sciences with Special Reference to the Factors of Evolution."
1915 A resolution is passed favoring Reform in the Methods of Securing Expert Opinion in Judicial Procedure.
1916 A working plan for the annual meetings is established: a dinner with a Presidential Address, research papers on problems of organic evolution, and a symposium on a timely topic.
1931 Members meet in a special session and decide that the society should continue and be strengthened to encourage synthesis and cooperation across specialization. They decide the vice president should organize the symposium on a timely topic. They also set the qualifications for membership as a high order of research and wide philosophical interest and limit the membership to 600.
1934 Edwin G. Conklin writes a history of the first 50 years of the ASN and lists the projects promoted by the society: science teaching in secondary schools, better organization of science teaching in colleges and universities, and better correlation of laboratory instruction; the Journal of Morphology, the Naturalists' Table at Woods Hole, research table at the Naples Zoological Station; donations to the library of the Marine Biological Laboratory, donations in support of the Concilium Bibliographicum, promotion of Antarctic exploration, and support of proposals to create the Colorado Cliff-Dwellers National Park, the Superior National Forest, and the Everglades National Park. The ASN advocated the establishment of a National Health Service and worked with the National Research Council and Union of American Biological Societies to establish Biological Abstracts.
1939 Jacques Cattell joins his father as editor and publisher of The American Naturalist.and continues as a publisher after his father's death. "His publishing and editorial activities were dominated by a feeling of responsibility to the advancement of science rather than by desire for profit."  
1941 The ASN creates a board of consulting editors to work with Cattell.
1950 A poll of the membership provides overwhelming consensus that the chief function of the ASN is "to foster development of breadth and unity in biology, in contrast to the more specialized aims of other societies."
1951 The society assumes editorial control of The American Naturalist. The criteria for membership continue to be broad biological interests that earn the name of "naturalist" and continuous productivity in research. Members are chosen by the executive council.
1960 The Committee on Policy issued a report on the Future of the American Society of Naturalists. They reaffirm the need for a society with a broad focus. Membership is still through nomination and election.
1960 Jacques Cattell dies and his widow, Elizabeth Cattell, continues to publish the journal until her death.
1967 The Cattell heirs decide to leave publishing. The ASN did not have enough funds to purchase the journal. The editors, who were affiliated with the University of Chicago, turned to the University of Chicago Press to step in so that The American Naturalist could continue publishing past its 101st year. The Press continued the Cattell's policy of leaving complete editorial control with the ASN.
1979 A survey of the membership reveals a preference to meet separately with the Society for the Study of Evolution. Previously, the ASN (and often SSE) had met with the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the Genetics Society of America.
1981 Membership is now open to anyone interested in the purposes of the society. Student memberships are instituted to encourage younger scientists. Concern is expressed that the meetings and the journal are becoming too narrowly focused.
1984 The President's Award for the best paper appearing in The American Naturalist in the previous year is instituted, along with the Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Awards.
1991 Sewall Wright Award is established.
1997 E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award is established.
2009 The American Naturalist Student Paper award is established.
2013 Ruth Patrick Student Poster award for the best poster at the annual meeting is established.