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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Biographical Notice of George F. Barker

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | September 1879

PSM V15 D594 George Frederic Barker.jpg


PROFESSOR BARKER, who is this year President of the American Scientific Association, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, July 14, 1835. His parents were in comfortable circumstances, his father being in command of a packet-ship sailing between Boston and Liverpool. His early education was received in the public schools of his native place, though before graduating at the high school the family removed in 1849 to South Berwick, Maine, and he continued his studies, first at the Classical Academy in that village, and subsequently at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, and at Yarmouth Academy, Maine. In 1851 he accepted an invitation from his father to visit the Crystal Palace International Exhibition in London. On his return he entered, as an apprentice, the shop of the Hon. J. M. Wightman, of Boston, the well-known maker of philosophical instruments, where he remained until he attained his majority in 1856. Faraday was not so fortunate; he was an apprentice to a bookbinder, whereas young Barker was indentured to a trade that laid the foundation of his scientific education.

In September of that year, by the advice of friends, he entered the Yale Scientific School (now the Sheffield School) in New Haven as a student in chemistry, and was graduated therefrom with the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy in 1858. During the last year of this course of study he held the position of Professor Silliman's chemical assistant; and during the winter of 1858–’59, and again in 1860–’61, he was assistant to Dr. John Bacon, Professor of Chemistry in the Harvard Medical School, Boston. In 1859, at the Springfield meeting, he was made a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the winter of the same year he gave, on invitation, a course of public lectures in the city of Pittsburg, under the auspices of the Western University of Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1860 he again visited Europe, spending his time while abroad mainly in studying the scientific collections, institutions, and resources of London and Paris.

During the month of August, 1861, on the recommendation of his friend President Hitchcock, of Amherst College, he was tendered the professorship of Natural Science in Wheaton College, Illinois. This he accepted, and discharged the duties of the chair for the subsequent college year. In September, 1862, he went to Albany, at the solicitation of his friend Professor C. H. Porter, to act as his substitute in the chair of Chemistry in the Albany Medical College, Professor Porter having entered the army as Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers. While thus acting, he pursued regularly his medical studies, and was graduated therefrom as a Doctor of Medicine in 1863. After a third course of chemical lectures in Albany, given in the fall of 1864, Professor Barker went to Pittsburg as Professor of Natural Science in the Western University, remaining there during one year.

In the winter of 1865-'66, while preparing to enter the service of the United States as an Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers, having been offered a commission by Dr. Quackenbush, then Surgeon-General of the State of New York, he was offered by Professor Silliman the position of Demonstrator of Chemistry in the Yale Medical College. This offer was accepted, and he entered immediately upon his duties. Early in the spring of 1866 Professor Barker wrote the first part of a text-book, intended as a new edition of Silliman's "Chemistry." In this book, the modern nomenclature and notation appeared in a textbook for the first time in this country. The theory of types was made use of as a basis of classification, and the book was used with the senior class in Yale College.

During the absence of Professor Silliman in California in 1866-'67, the entire instruction in chemistry, in the Academical Department of Yale, was given by Dr. Barker. At the commencement in 1867, he was appointed Professor of Physiological Chemistry and Toxicology in the Medical Institution of Yale College. The chemical lectures in Williams College, in the absence of an instructor in that science, were given by him in the spring of the years 1868 and 1869. In the summer of 1870 he wrote a chemical manual entitled "A Text-book of Elementary Chemistry," which was published in September. In this book it was assumed that one philosophy was broad enough for the whole of chemical science; and hence the subject was divided into four sections—Theoretical, Inorganic, Organic, and Physiological—only the first two of which were presented in the volume mentioned. It achieved a very considerable success, about ten thousand copies having been sold within the five years after its publication, and translations of it into French and into Japanese having been made. It was adopted as the text-book in the University of Tokio, Japan. In December, 1871, Professor Barker delivered a lecture before the American Institute in New York, upon the "Correlation of Vital and Physical Forces," which attracted very general attention. The lecture was an attempt to show that, besides the ordinary psychological definition of mind, another and a purely physiological one might be found, which represented mind as solely the product of brain-action, and, as such, entirely capable of being correlated with physical forces. In 1872 he was Vice-President of the American Association at its Indianapolis meeting.

Having made the branch of toxicology the subject of special study, Professor Barker was engaged quite generally in the investigation of cases of criminal poisoning. Perhaps the most important of these cases was the celebrated one in which Lydia Sherman was tried in New Haven, in April, 1872, for poisoning her husband with arsenic. Because the Wharton case, tried just before, had apparently left upon the public mind the impression that chemical analysis in such cases was unreliable, and hence had given the criminally disposed some reason to believe that their might commit murder by poison with impunity, especial care was taken by Dr. Barker to present the chemical and physiological evidence in the Sherman case in a fully conclusive form. To the thoroughness of this preparation, and the completeness of the chemical evidence, the conviction of the prisoner was largely due. The chemical evidence in this trial, after correction by him, was inserted in full, as a typical case, in the subsequent edition of Wharton and Stillé's "Medical Jurisprudence."

In February, 1873, he was strongly urged to accept the chair of Physics in the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. After due consideration and consultation the offer was accepted, and he removed from New Haven to Philadelphia in April. The trustees having placed a generous sum of money at his disposal, for the purpose of providing the apparatus necessary for illustrating the science in a proper manner, Professor Barker left in July for Europe, in order to personally inspect the instruments he was about to purchase. The result has justified this step. The collection of physical apparatus in the university cabinet is certainly unsurpassed in this country, and in some directions it is absolutely unique in the world.

In the fall of 1876 Professor Barker had the distinguished honor of being elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In the summer of 1878, on invitation of Professor Henry Draper, he accompanied the Draper Eclipse Expedition to Rawlins, Wyoming, where he studied the total solar eclipse of July 29th, as spectroscopic observer. The most important fact obtained by him was the confirmation of Janssen's observation of 1871, that the coronal spectrum contained the dark solar lines of Fraunhofer. After the eclipse he accompanied his friend Thomas A. Edison on a trip to California and the Yosemite. He stopped on his return to attend the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held at St. Louis. He was there elected President of the Association for the next meeting, to be held at Saratoga, August 27, 1879.

Professor Barker has well earned his distinctions, but he is to be congratulated on having also obtained them. He has been the recipient of many deserved honors, and now, in middle life, after a twenty years' membership, he is called upon to preside over the deliberations of the largest scientific body in the country, and to fill the chair that has been occupied by all of our ablest scientific men.

Professor Barker manifested at a very early age a taste for the sciences which he has subsequently cultivated so successfully. While yet a boy he was intrusted with the apparatus belonging to the academies where he was at school, and converted his sleeping-room into a chemical laboratory. As an apprentice he extended his acquaintance with instrumental appliances, and constructed for himself in his leisure hours a very complete set of electrical and pneumatic apparatus. The familiarity with the use of tools, and the knowledge of the construction of instruments thus acquired, have no doubt been of the greatest practical benefit to him in subsequent life. Indeed, it is said that, when he went to Pittsburg as professor, much of the apparatus placed in his hands for purposes of instruction was the identical apparatus which he had made in Boston as an apprentice ten or twelve years before. Though upon his graduation from Yale he made chemistry his profession, turning his attention more particularly to its physiological relations after taking his doctor's degree, he yet kept up his interest in physics, especially in the departments of electricity and spectroscopy, until upon his removal to Philadelphia he made physics the subject of his instructions, though still keeping up his knowledge of chemistry.

Professor Barker's reputation as a chemist rests chiefly upon his work in chemical theory, he having been among the first in this country to appreciate the advantages of the new views, to use them in his own work, and to teach them to his students. In physics his spectroscopic work upon the metals, upon auroras, and upon the phenomena of solar eclipses has been of high scientific value. But it is as an instructor in science that the chief part of his time has been spent. Not only in the class-room and the laboratory with his students, but also in the public lecture-room, and before the largest audiences, has his power of elucidation and illustration gained for him preeminence. He has served as scientific expert in a number of noted patent cases. He has acted as one of the chemical editors of the "American Journal of Science and Arts" since July, 1877, having prepared the abstracts of chemical papers which were published in that Journal since 1868. He was editor of the "Journal of the Franklin Institute" during 1874-'75; and he prepared, at the request of Professor Baird, the chemical and physical notes for the "Scientific Record" of "Harper's Magazine," and for the "Annual" for many years. We subjoin a list of the most important of the scientific papers which he has published:

1. "The Forces of Nature"; a Lecture before the Chemical Society of Union College. (Albany, 1863.)

2. "Account of the Casting of a Gigantic Rodman Gun at Pittsburg" (American Journal of Science, II., xxxvii., 296, April, 1864).

3. "Report of a Trial for Poisoning by Strychnia" (American Journal of Medical Sciences, October, 1864).

4. "Formic versus Carbonous Acid" (American Journal of Science, II., xliv., 263, October, 1867).

5. "On Normal and Derived Acids" (American Journal of Science, II., xliv., 384, November, 1867).

6. "A Text-book of Elementary Chemistry, Theoretical and Inorganic" (New Haven, 1870).

7. "Notices of Papers in Physiological Chemistry" (American Journal of Science, II., xlvi., 233, 379; xlvii., 20, 258, 393; xlviii., 49).

8. "Abstract of the Second Series of Meissner's Researches on Electrized Oxygen" (American Journal of Science, II., 1., 213, September, 1870).

9. "On Molecular Classification" (American Chemist, i., 359, April, 1871).

10. "On the Rational Formulas of the Oxides of Chlorine and of Oxides analogously constituted" (American Chemist, ii., 1, July, 1871).

11. "Note on the Spectrum of the Aurora" (American Journal of Science, III., ii., 465, December, 1871).

12. "Correlation of Vital and Physical Forces"; a Lecture before the American Institute. (New York, 1871.)

13. "The Chemical Testimony in the Sherman Poisoning Case" (American Chemist, ii., 441, June, 1872).

14. "On the Spectrum of the Aurora of October 14, 1872" (American Journal of Science, III., v., 81, February, 1873).

15. "A New Vertical Lantern Galvanometer" (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, xiv., 440, May, 1875).

16. "The Molecule and the Atom"; an Address to the Chemical Subsection of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Buffalo meeting (Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, xxv., 85, August, 1876).

17. "Results of the Spectroscopic Observation of the Solar Eclipse of July 29, 1878"; a Report to the Director, Dr. Henry Draper (American Journal of Science, III., xvii., 121, February, 1879).

18. "On a New Method of measuring the Pitch of a Tuning-Fork" (Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, xxvii., 118, August, 1878).

19. "On the Total Solar Eclipse of July 29, 1878" (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, xviii., 103, November, 1878).