The American Philosophical Society posthumously recognizes Italian Intellectual Domenico Cirillo as one of its earliest members

Feb 21, 2023 714

BY: Andrea Faa

The American Philosophical Society (APS) has recently made a posthumous addition to its Membership rolls for the first time in its 280-year history. The APS has recognized the 1768 election of the Italian physician, entomologist, and botanist Domenico Maria Leone Cirillo, who was mistakenly recorded under the false name of "Dr. Famitz".

The APS is America's oldest learned society, established to promote the arts, sciences, and public life. Its members include the US founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as over 260 Nobel Prize winners. As it is well known, to be considered for election, a candidate must be nominated by a current member. Nominations and elections are recorded in minute books of the APS.

In Cirillo's case, the error apparently originated from misreading of a postscript in a 1767 letter from the British Consul in Naples, Isaac Jamineau, to Philadelphia physician John Morgan. Jamineau commended Cirillo's scientific contributions and Morgan recommended him for election to the APS. However, when Morgan forwarded Jamineau's letter to the APS, the phrase "My family physician" (referring to Cirillo) was misread as "Dr. Famitz Physician." As a result, a non-existent Dr. Famitz was elected instead of Cirillo. Although Cirillo learned of his nomination for membership via a letter from Dr. Morgan, the official rolls were left uncorrected for centuries.

In a blog post, the APS clarified that the correction was prompted by the research and advocacy of Dr. Amedeo Arena, Full Professor at the University of Naples Federico II. Dr. Arena validated the misreading theory put forward by APS Librarian Whitfield J. Bell, Jr. and provided an explanation as to how the mix-up between Cirillo and Famitz might have occurred, which the APS endorsed in its blog post.

On the other hand, Dr Arena launched a petition to APS President Linda Greenhouse seeking the posthumous recognition of Cirillo’s election. This petition gathered the support of many Italians and Italian Americans: from Professor Gaetano Manfredi, Mayor of Naples, to Professor Matteo Lorito, Rector of the University of Naples Federico II; from Board Member of the National Italian American Foundation and Director of the Philadelphia-based Sbarro Health Research Organization, Professor Antonio Giordano, to the Palm Beach County Commissioner and Vice-Mayor, Attorney Maria Sachs.

Cirillo’s posthumous addition to the APS membership rolls triggered enthusiastic reactions in several parts of the United States.

Cristiana Mele, Italy’s Consul General in Philadelphia, commented: “Historical research shows us how, since the earliest times, ideas had no boundaries: after 255 years and thanks to the perseverance of Dr Arena, Domenico Cirillo found his rightful place in the list of members of the APS, bringing to light an ancient bond between Italy and Philadelphia, a city where the Italian presence continues to be significant and conspicuous even today”.

Antonio Giordano, Board member of the National Italian American Foundation and President of the Sbarro Health Research Organization at Temple University Philadelphia, said "This posthumous recognition means a lot to the Italian American community, which through its hard work and ingenuity has reached the highest levels of US government, university, professions, and industry. As a physician and researcher originally from Campania, I am honored that the oldest American academy has recognized the Neapolitan intellectual Domenico Cirillo as one of its earliest members. I am grateful to Dr Arena for his commitment to this and other initiatives aimed at rediscovering and strengthening the bond that unites Italy and the United States".

Antonella Brancaccio-Balzano, Italy’s Honorary Consul in Orlando, Florida, gave the following statement: “The recognition of Domenico Cirillo among the members of the APS is a big step forward in history. Not only it proves the fame of Neapolitan intellectuals in the 18th Century, but it also establishes the enduring relationship between Naples and America. I would like to congratulate Prof. Arena for his outstanding research and his resolve in pursuing historical justice. As an American Attorney and a member of the Neapolitan community, I am very proud of Cirillo’s recognition as an APS member”.

Akash Kumar, Assistant Professor at the Department of Italian Studies of University of California Berkeley, said: “Recognizing Domenico Cirillo as a member of the APS represents a vital step in considering the relationship between Italian and American intellectuals beyond the usual histories of the Enlightenment. Thanks to Prof. Arena's research, it also serves as a wonderful way to reconsider Neapolitan culture within America and a broader history of Italy-US relations beyond 20th century postwar immigration.”

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