Across the Spectrum

Chemist John William Draper took the first photographs of the moon and brought science into history.

By Sky Kalfus | July 24, 2010

In March 1840 John William Draper (1811–1882) took the first photographs of the moon from the roof of New York University (NYU). Draper’s training was in medicine, yet his research extended far beyond that subject, into areas like light and photography. Though his name lacks the cachet given to famous contemporaries, such as his hero Charles Darwin, Draper’s ideas about the role science should play in the world have had a lasting effect.

After a stint at the University of London, Draper and his family sailed to Virginia in 1832. He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and accepted a professorship in chemistry at New York University in 1839, the same year that news of the daguerreotype reached America. Though D. W. Seager took the first American daguerreotype within a week of hearing the news, the real test was to take a portrait. Draper’s sister, Dorothy, was his model and had to stay absolutely still for almost a minute. Though Alexander S. Wolcott won the portrait race, Draper was the first American to master the form.

Across the Spectrum

John William Draper

John William Draper.

New York University Archives, New York University Libraries

In 1841 Draper helped found NYU’s medical school, while nurturing his interest in photography. Draper was one of the first to treat photography as a serious tool in research: his moon images ignited interest in its astronomical uses. He also pioneered the use of photography both in capturing light spectra and with microscopes. His interest in light pushed him beyond the visible spectrum and into questions about the absorption and emission of light.

In the second half of his career Draper’s scientific interests broadened to include history and society, and he applied scientific methods to their study. He became a follower of Darwin’s theory of evolution but, like many at the time, missed the implications of natural selection and remained fixed on the idea of progress. He traveled to England in 1860 to present a paper on evolution at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. After Draper’s speech, a dull talk that lasted over an hour, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce rose to denounce evolution and famously turned to ask T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s supporter, whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side.

Along with books on chemistry and physiology and a history of the Civil War, Draper wrote History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1863), which he cast as a failed attempt by the Catholic Church to stop the spread and power of the spirit of science. His popular and influential History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) helped create the myth of science and religion in perpetual battle.

In 1870 Draper traveled back to England and was received as an elder statesman of American science by the British prime minister and leading scientific figures. He taught almost until his death in 1882. Fifty years later one of his students gave NYU several million dollars in honor of “Draper’s teachings in science and history.” The great Russian writer Ivan Turgenev declared that everything Russia knew of the United States at that time was through Draper’s scientific and historical books. In the end Draper became best known for the science in his nonscientific works.

John William Draper grew up with a father who was interested in science, especially astronomy.

His sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper, helped pay for his medical education, allowing Draper to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Draper takes the first photograph of the surface of the moon.

Draper is elected professor of chemistry at NYU’s medical school.

Draper works with fellow professor Samuel Morse to show that current will still flow through very long telegraph wires.

Draper becomes the first president of the American Chemical Society.