Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/709

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
691
SKETCH OF SAMUEL LATHAM MITCHILL.

SKETCH OF SAMUEL LATHAM MITCHILL.

THE name and fame of Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill have, in the absence of a complete biography, become to a considerable extent a tradition, known to few except students; yet, during the first quarter of this century, he was one of the most conspicuous figures in the literary and scientific life of the United States. He is called by Dr. J. W. Francis "the Nestor of American science," and "the pioneer philosopher in the promotion of natural science and medicine in America." He was a man of various attainments, and proved himself at home in many fields—in medicine, science, letters, politics, and social life.

Samuel Latham Mitchill was born in Hempstead, Long Island, August 20, 1769, and died in the city of New York, September 7, 1831. He was the third son of Robert Mitchill, an industrious farmer and member of the Society of Friends, and was remarkable for his habits of observation and reflection. His father seems to have taken less interest in his early instruction than his maternal uncle, Dr. Samuel Latham, of North Hempstead, who assisted him to obtain a good classical education. He afterward studied medicine with Dr. Latham; then with Dr. Samuel Bard, of New York; and in 1783 went to complete his studies in the University of Edinburgh, whence he was graduated in 1786. He enjoyed here rare advantages of intellectual society, and had among his contemporaries at the university such illustrious men as Sir James Mackintosh and Thomas Addis Emmet, Dr. Caspar Wistar, Richard S. Kissam, the surgeon; and William Hammersley, afterward a professor in Columbia College. After graduation, and before returning home, he made a pedestrian tour through a part of England. In 1787, after his return to America, he visited Saratoga Springs while it was surrounded by the forest, and ascertained experimentally that the gas extricated from the water was "fixed air, with the power to extinguish flame, destroy the life of breathing animals, etc." He is found in 1788 recording his walking with congenial companions "in the very grand procession for celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States." He began the study of law with the Hon. Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and was shortly afterward appointed one of the commissioners to treat with the Five Nations for the cession of the "Great Western District" to the State of New York. He attended the council at Fort Stanwix, witnessed the deed, and received names from the Oneidas and Onondagas.

In 1790 Dr. Mitchill was chosen a representative from Queens County in the New York Legislature. In the next year he exerted