Our History

Beginning in 1895, Andrew Carnegie contributed his vast fortune toward the establishment of 22 organizations that today bear his name and carry on work in such fields as art, education, international affairs, peace, and scientific research.

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie retired from business to begin his career in philanthropy. Among his new enterprises, he considered establishing a national university in Washington, D.C., similar to the great centers of learning in Europe. Because he was concerned that a new university could weaken existing institutions, he opted for a more exciting, albeit riskier, endeavor—an independent research organization that would increase basic scientific knowledge.

Carnegie contacted President Theodore Roosevelt and declared his readiness to endow the new institution with $10 million. He added $2 million more to the endowment in 1907, and another $10 million in 1911.

As ex officio members of the first board of trustees, Carnegie chose the President of the United States, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. In all, he selected 27 men for the institution’s original board. Their first meeting was held in the office of the Secretary of State on January 29, 1902, and Daniel C. Gilman, who had been president of Johns Hopkins University, was elected president.The institution was incorporated by the U. S. Congress in 1903.

Initially, the president and trustees devoted much of the institution’s budget to individual grants in various fields, including astronomy, anthropology -- including Maya studies (courtesy the Auburn University Montgomery Carnegie Explorer) -- literature, economics, history and mathematics. Under the leadership of Robert Woodward, who became president in 1904, the board changed its course, deciding to provide major support to departments of research rather than to individuals. This approach allowed them to concentrate on fewer fields and support groups of researchers in related areas over many years. Since the beginning, the Carnegie Institution has been like an explorer—discovering new areas, but often leaving the development to others. This philosophy has fostered new areas of science and has led to unexpected benefits to society, including the development of hybrid corn, radar, the technology that led to Pyrex ® glass, and novel techniques to control genes called RNA interference.Some of Carnegie’s leading researchers from the early and middle years of the 20th century are well known:

  • Edwin Hubble, who revolutionized astronomy with his discovery that the universe is expanding and that there are galaxies other than our own Milky Way;
  • Charles Richter, who created the earthquake measurement scale;
  • Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her early work on patterns of genetic inheritance;
  • Alfred Hershey, who won the Nobel Prize for determining that DNA, not protein, harbors the genetic recipe for life;
  • Vera Rubin, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Science for her work confirming the existence of dark matter in the universe; and
  • Andrew Fire, who with colleagues elsewhere opened up the world of RNA interference, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 2006

Today, Carnegie scientists continue to be at the forefront of scientific discovery. Working in six scientific departments on the East and West Coasts, Carnegie investigators are leaders in the fields of plant biology, developmental biology, earth and planetary sciences, astronomy, and global ecology. They seek answers to questions about the structure of the universe, the formation of our solar system and other planetary systems, the behavior and transformation of matter when subjected to extreme conditions, the origin of life, the function of genes, and the development of organisms from single-celled egg to adult.

The Carnegie Institution is headquartered in Washington, D.C., Matthew P. Scott serves as president.