In a previous post, I mentioned that Dudley had benefited from two institution builders, the first being Ormsby Macknight Mitchel. Mitchel was an energetic founder of observatories and lecturer on the topic of astronomy, and his enthusiasm is likely what started the idea of building the Dudley Observatory.
But the person who first gave voice to the idea, and who worked hard to see that the idea took root, was Doctor James H. Armby (1800-1875). Armsby was vital to Dudley Observatory, but he was also important for many other educational and medical institutions in Albany. It’s safe to say that Armsby, now largely forgotten, is partially responsible for the shape of intellectual life in Albany today.
For all that, he was not an Albany native. Born in Sutton, Massachusetts and trained at the Vermont Academy of Medicine, Armsby didn’t arrive in Albany until 1932. He followed his brother-in-law, Dr. Alden March, to the Capital Region to help combat the Cholera epidemic that swept New York during the summer.
Armsby became a resident the next year. Albany got a glimpse of what it could expect from the new citizen when he began campaigning to establish a new medical school, hospital and YMCA chapter in the city. Like Mitchel, Armsby turned to the lecture circuit to raise money and support. Those lectures, along with come public dissections, eventually founded the Albany Medical College.
Until his death by heart disease in 1875, Armby worked to build educational institutions. Through another series of lectures, he raised enough money to save Albany Law School during a financial crisis. He helped organize the Albany Army Relief Bazaar which supported the US Sanitary Commission (and our collection of his correspondence include many of the tedious but necessary letters where he sells raffle tickets.)
Armsby appears to have been the first person to suggest that an observatory be added to the plans for a university in Albany. Even after the idea of the university faded, he remained a booster of the Observatory. He served as the secretary of the board during the early years, but realistically was far more important to the budding institution. He seemed to be everywhere and doing everything. If you liked him, he was indefatigable and endlessly helpful. If you didn’t like him, he was a meddling busybody.
One of the few people who seemed to have disliked him was Benjamin Gould. It was Gould’s inability to get along with Armsby, and a few ham-fisted comments that were perceived as sleights at Armby, that turned the disagreement between Gould and the board into verbal warfare.