Discover the ACLS

October 22, 2020

The American National Biography was first published in 1999, but its story begins much earlier in the twentieth century. In 1927 the American Council of Learned Societies, with funding from the New York Times, published the Dictionary of American Biography, which would consist of twenty volumes by 1936. The DAB project did not end there, however, as ACLS continued to publish supplemental volumes into the 1980s.

That decade of historical scholarship experienced seismic shifts both in the quantity of published research and in diversity of interpretation, as historians more fully integrated the lives of women and non-white people. To reflect this avalanche of pathbreaking work, ACLS teamed with Oxford University Press to begin anew. A decade of work came to fruition at century’s end with the publication of the American National Biography. The twenty-four volumes of the ANB aimed to “reach into every corner of the past to reclaim the lives of thousands of often little-known men and women who have forged America’s distinctive character.” That mission has continued, especially since the ANB moved online. This collaboration between ACLS and OUP now boasts over 22,000 essays that affirm the ANB’s central belief that the history of a nation is best told by the lives of its people.

With this month’s update we’d like to call attention to the American Council of Learned Societies. We’re featuring two new essays on ACLS leaders and opening for free a dozen essays on major figures in ACLS history. For more on ACLS history and the history of the ANB, please check out The First Century, written by Steven Wheatley and Theodora Lurie and published to celebrate the organization’s centennial in 2019. Former ACLS vice president Wheatley served as an invaluable institutional conservator and booster of the ANB and its mission.

The First Century:
ACLS History:

Hiram Bingham, anthropologist, explorer of Machu Picchu; governor of Connecticut; U.S. Senator; ACLS executive committee, 1920–1924
Frederick Burkhardt, president of Bennington College; ACLS president 1957–1974
Joseph Perkins Chamberlain, attorney and later law professor, advocate on behalf of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in Europe; ACLS chair of board and council 1926-1928
John Hope Franklin, legendary African American historian; member of the ACLS board of directors, 1959–1963 Haskins Prize Lecturer, 1988
John A. Garraty, Columbia University historian and general editor of the American National Biography
Charles Homer Haskins, medievalist and founding chairman of ACLS
J. Franklin Jameson, early leader of the American Historical Association and early advocate for the creation of ACLS
Howard Mumford Jones, Harvard English professor; ACLS board member and chair credited with helping save the organization from bankruptcy, 1955–1959
Waldo Gifford Leland, researcher for the Carnegie Institution of Washington who organized the first ACLS meetings and served as the first ACLS secretary and director, 1924–1946
Margaret Mead, Anthropologist; vice chair, ACLS board of directors, 1952 committee member, 1957–1961
Whitney Oates, Princeton University classicist; longtime ACLS member and treasurer who was a founding member of the National Council of the Humanities in 1964
J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb”; ACLS member-at-large, 1957–1961
Terry Sanford, legal scholar, governor of North Carolina, U.S. Senator, president of Duke University; member of the ACLS board of directors, 1970–1972
Frederick Jackson Turner, influential historian and delegate of the American Antiquarian Society to the first ACLS meeting in 1920, where he proposed that ACLS undertake the “preparation of an encyclopedia of American biography”
John William Ward, Princeton professor of English, history, and American Studies; president of Amherst College; ACLS president, 1982–1985

The American National Biography (ANB) is updated regularly throughout the year, giving you access to the most up-to-date and accurate information available. Full access to all biographies is available by subscription.

Discover a full list of entries added this year.