Celebrating Jefferson: the man, the myth, the scientist.


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As we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday today, let us learn a bit about a side of him many weren’t aware of.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just an American Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, or the third president of the United States of America, he was also quite the influential scientist and naturalist. A polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics, Jefferson wore many hats during his presidency and throughout his lifetime. While in the public office, he fostered the public’s optimism about science, technology, and the future. He encouraged the pursuit of scientific endeavors as an American ideal, saying it was crucial to the country’s freedom and success.



Jefferson fancied himself a classical architect, designing his home, the Monticello (Italian for “Little Mountain”). It took him nearly half a decade to build his house of 33 rooms, many of which are octagonal (his favorite shape). To help bring the beauty of nature into his home, he had skylights in many of the rooms.


Based on Jefferson’s love of reading, he certainly would have been an avid supporter of today’s reading tablets, like the iPad. He kept an extensive journal with facts and drawings about the various plants and animals he found in Virginia, and owned enough books to start his own library—which he basically did by selling over 7,000 to the US Library of Congress. He loved reading so much that he had a device that could hold five books at once (sounds similar to having several books saved on the iPad, right?).



Jefferson thought that agriculture was the most important of the sciences, so (naturally) he re-engineered the plow inspired by the scientific principles of Sir Isaac Newton. You may be thinking: “big whoop, we’ve got plows that can do an entire field now”, but in Jefferson’s time, it was an accomplishment worthy of boasting about over cocktails at a dinner party. Cheers!


He also enjoyed carrying out research, and recognizing other’s scientific accomplishments. In the same week he should have been partying it up to celebrate his vice presidency in 1797, he presented a research paper on paleontology to his colleagues of the American Philosophical Society! When some worthy mathematical work from Benjamin Banneker—the first African American scientist in America—came across his desk, Jefferson promptly sent it out to Europe’s best and brightest scientists. Jefferson was also perhaps an early advocator of women in science, recommending Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry to people who wanted to learn more about science.



While Thomas was plowing the fields of science and politics, he also quite enjoyed plowing through a bowl of homemade ice cream. He likely first had it when abroad in France, and brought back a recipe, which now resides in the Library of Congress.


In the same week as Jefferson was elected vice president of the United States, the American Philosophical Society elected him as their president. Any politician would be peeing their pants to become VP, but Jefferson was no ordinary politician, calling his election as the society’s president “the most flattering incident” of his life. Jefferson held his presidency of the society for almost two decades, even during his two terms as the US president; he was not only the country’s political leader, but also its scientific leader. When he left the presidency in early 1809, he wrote, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” What if our president was also backyard chemist? Or if our governor was also a rocket scientist? Things would likely be a lot different, but despite the shifts in science since Jefferson’s time, we should never forget his passion for science and innovation.

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