North Carolina Academy of Science (NCAS)1

by Wm. David Webster

The inspiration behind the formation of the North Carolina Academy of Science came from two men—William W. Ashe (State Forester) and Franklin Sherman (State Entomologist)—who began discussing the formation of a State Academy of Science in 1901. They conferred with Herbert H. Brimley (Curator at the N.C. State Museum), F. L. Stevens (Plant Physiologist at State Agricultural and Mechanical College, now N.C. State University), and Tait Butler (State Veterinarian) in 1902. Nine people attended the first organizational meeting (21 March 1902), when they approved the Academy's name (North Carolina Academy of Science) and the first slate of officers, with William L. Poteat serving as the Academy's first President. The First Annual Meeting was held at Trinity College (now Duke University) on 28-29 November 1902. Annual dues were $3.00. The Academy's original Constitution was published in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society (JEMSS) in 1904 (vol. 20).

Most of the founding members of NCAS were not affiliated with the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society (EMSS)2. On the other hand, members of EMSS quickly became affiliated with NCAS, taking advantage of the interaction with scientists outside the UNC community and as a way to participate in scientific activities other than monthly seminars. As NCAS grew, it eventually became a three-tiered organization, including Senior (faculty and graduate students), Collegiate (undergraduates), and Student (middle and high school students) academies. The roles of the Senior Academy included governance of the Academy, providing awards to deserving students, implementing the Collegiate Lectureship Program and the Undergraduate Research Workshop, planning the Annual Meeting, supporting JEMSS, and being the scientific `voice' of the state.

The Academy voiced its opinion about many topics dealing with science or the protection of natural resources, but none more vigorously than the topic of evolution. It started in the early 1920's, when the Scopes `monkey trial' became popular. Two members of the Academy (B. W. Wells and Z. P. Metcalf, both on the faculty at N.C. State College) debated the topic of evolution with evangelist W. B. Riley at the 3rd Bible Conference in Raleigh. NCAS passed a resolution in 1924 declaring:

"Whereas, among the many attacks that have recently been made on evolution, there frequently appears the statement that `evolution is a discarded and discredited theory' and whereas this statement is totally incorrect, therefore, the North Carolina Academy of Science hereby declares that to the best of its information and belief, practically all scientists look upon evolution not as a theory, but as an established law of nature."

The Academy has revisited the issue of evolution and the teaching of evolution at various times, most recently in 1996.

The Academy has been active in securing support for the Collegiate and Student academies. Its most prestigious award during the early years was the North Carolina Academy of Science Medal, which was renamed in 1936 in honor of W. L. Poteat, President of Wake Forest College, first President of NCAS, and President of The N.C. Baptist Convention. Poteat was an indomitable backer of academic freedom and, despite his religious convictions and academic position, he spoke fervently against restrictions on free thought and expression during the 1920's. The Poteat Award was terminated in 1973.

NCAS began giving the John Bewley Derieux Memorial Award in 1949 for "the best essay submitted by a college student on a topic in the field of Modern (or Contemporary) Physics." The Academy, with the permission of Mrs. J. B. Derieux, began using the Derieux Award in 1956 for the best overall presentation in the Collegiate Academy rather than for the physics essay. As the Collegiate Academy grew, it became necessary to schedule two and eventually multiple sections of collegiate papers, and Derieux Awards were given in all sections. The Derieux Award continues today, and most previous winners published their research in CANCAS, the Collegiate Academy's official publication that began in 1956 and continued until vol. 42 (1996). Derieux Award winners have been encouraged since 1996 to publish their manuscripts in JEMSS, with the first three pages paid by NCAS as an incentive. The Robert R. Bryden Award for outstanding graduate research was instituted in 1991 and continues today, as does the John A. Yarbrough Award for outstanding undergraduate research.

The Student Academy got a big boost in 1959, when the Academy received a $19,962 NSF grant for seven short-term institutes for science teachers in high schools. The Academy also has been active in participating, when asked, in developing sound environmental policies. This effort resulted in "Managing Hazardous Wastes in North Carolina," a report to the Governor's Waste Management Board, in JEMSS in 1983 (vol. 99, n. 2). The Academy was asked in 1986 by N.C. Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, Division of Environmental Management, to convene a panel of experts to conduct a peer review of air quality standards proposed by the state. The Academy received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and convened the Air Toxic Review Panel in 1988, but by then the State changed its mind and asked the panel to write the standards rather than comment on those written by others. Another successful venture was the "Guide to North Carolina Science Centers," published in JEMSS in 1982 (vol. 98, n. 2).

The Annual Meeting is the focal point of the Academy's annual agenda, and the timing and venue of these meetings provide some interesting history about the Academy. The first two Annual Meetings (1902-1903) were held in November, but since then the meetings have occurred during the spring months. Meetings were in late April and May until 1975, when they were shifted to late March and early April. Annual Meetings were first rotated among Trinity College, University of North Carolina, Wake Forest College, State Agricultural and Mechanical College (now N.C. State University), and State Normal College (later known as the North Carolina College for Women, then Woman's College, and now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Each institution has hosted the Annual Meeting more than 10 times. Fourteen other colleges and universities have hosted the Annual Meetings, which attests to the Academy's widespread influence on all institutions of higher learning in the State.

The Academy has, on occasion, held joint meetings with the N.C. Archeology Society, the N.C. Entomological Society, the N.C. Physics Society, the N.C. Teachers Association, the Southern Association of History and Science Technology, the American Chemical Society (when the N.C. Section met in the Triangle region), and the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. Joint meetings have always been big events and the largest meeting, in terms of registrants, was the 72nd meeting (4-5 April 1975) at Duke University, when more than 1000 people attended. The Academy bestowed its first and only Honorary Membership to Martin Robell in 1997, the Nobel Laureate who discovered how communication regulates cellular activity in humans.

Much of the information cited herein came from archival material in the Southern Historical Collection and the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library at UNC-CH, the Proceedings of the Academy published each year in JEMSS, and the publications of Brimley (1922) and Troyer (1987).


1 Extracted with the author’s permission and with minor changes from “Elisha Mitchell and the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, North Carolina Academy of Science, and the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society,” J. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 118: 1-11. 2002.

2 The Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, founded in September 1883, fostered scientific research and communication. In 1884, the society began publishing its official organ, the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society. After the founding of NCAS, both the society and the academy considered the Journal their official publication. Following the society’s dissolution in 1983, the academy took over the production of the journal and renamed it the Journal of the North Carolina Academy of Science in spring of 2002.

References Cited
  1. Brimley, C. S. 1922. Twenty years of the North Carolina Academy of Science. J. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 38: 46-50.
  2. Troyer, J. R. 1987. B. W. Wells, Z. P. Metcalf, and the North Carolina Academy of Science in the evolution controversy, 1922-1927. J. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 102: 43-53. 

For a more complete history, DOWNLOAD [CHANGE LINK] the article by Dr. WM. David Webster (Dept. of Biological Sciences, University of North Carolina at Wilmington).