Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Sketch of Professor Benjamin Silliman, LL.D.

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BENJAMIN SILLIMAN, LL. D.

SKETCH OF PROFESSOR BENJAMIN SILLIMAN, LL.D.

THE name of Professor Benjamin Silliman is intimately connected with the progress of science in the United States during the former half of this century, and is identified with the beginning of the study of American geology.

Benjamin Silliman was born in North Stratford (now Trumbull), Connecticut, on the 8th of August, 1779. His oldest American ancestor on the father's side was believed to have been an emigrant from Holland, but there are reasons for presuming that he belonged to an Italian Protestant family that took refuge in Switzerland, and one of whose members afterward came to America, possibly sojourning for a short time in Holland. His grandfather was a graduate from Yale College, a Judge of the Superior Court of the colony, a member of the Governor's Council, and influential in public affairs. His father served with credit during the Revolutionary War as a brigadier-general, and enjoyed the confidence of Washington. On his mother's side he was descended from John Alden and Priscilla Muggins, of the Mayflower. After attending for a time the public school of his neighborhood, he prepared for college under the tuition of his pastor, the Rev. Andrew Eliot, and entered Yale College in 1792, the youngest but one in his class. He spent the year after his graduation at home, caring for his mother's farm; the next year he took charge of a select school in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and entered the law-office of the Hon. Simeon Baldwin, in New Haven, whence, after completing his three years' course in law, he was admitted to the bar in 1802. While still a law-student—in September, 1799—and when he had just reached the age of twenty, he was appointed a tutor in Yale College.

Up to this time classical instruction had received the predominant share of attention at Yale College, "theological, ethical, and metaphysical subjects were much cultivated, and logic was also a prominent topic; mathematics was appreciated; much interest had been aroused in astronomy; physics was less cared for, and chemistry had been "scarcely mentioned." Mr. Silliman was considering a proposition to settle down at the practice of the law in Georgia, when in July, 1801, President Dwight informed him that the corporation of the college had several years before resolved to establish a professorship of chemistry and natural history as soon as the funds would admit of it. The time had come when the resolution could be carried into effect, but it was impossible to find in this country a man properly qualified to discharge the duties of the office, while there were reasons that made the appointment of a foreigner inexpedient. The president saw no way but to select a suitable young man at home, and give him time to qualify himself for the professorship; and he had fixed upon Mr. Silliman as the person whom he would propose to the corporation. Mr. Silliman was inclined from the first to consider the offer favorably, because, as he has recorded in his "Reminiscences," "the study of Nature appeared very attractive. In her works there is no falsehood, although there are mysteries to unveil, which is a very interesting achievement. Everything in Nature is straightforward and consistent. There are no polluting influences; all the associations with these pursuits are elevated and virtuous, and point toward the infinite Creator." The professorship was instituted in 1802, with a provision that such time as might be agreed upon should be given the professor-elect to decide whether he would accept the appointment, and Mr. Silliman was chosen professor. Philadelphia then "presented more advantages in science than any other place in the country," and he went there first. Here he enjoyed the instruction, with experiments, of Dr. James Woodhouse, of the Medical College, and had as a fellow-boarder Robert Hare, who had just perfected his oxyhydrogen blow-pipe, and was much occupied with the subject, and enlisted his new friend in his service. He also attended the lectures of Dr. Barton on botany and of Dr. Caspar Wistar on anatomy and surgery, and met Dr. Priestley at the house of the latter. He received valuable suggestions from Dr. Maclean, of Princeton, whom he visited in his transits to and from Philadelphia; and thus he learned to regard the eminent professor as his earliest master in chemistry, and Princeton as his first starting-point in that pursuit, although he had not an opportunity to attend any lectures there. Having attended two winters in Philadelphia, he returned to New Haven and began to write his lectures. His first lecture was delivered April 4, 1804, when he was twenty-four and a half years old, to a class which included, among other men who afterward became distinguished, John C. Calhoun, Bishop Gadsden, and John Pierpont; the subject was the history and progress, nature and objects, of chemistry. Four lectures were given in a week—sixty in the course—and some notices of mineralogy were included.

In the mean time, the corporation of the college had voted to spend ten thousand dollars in Europe during the ensuing year, in the purchase of books and philosophical and chemical apparatus. Professor Silliman applied for the privilege of going as purchasing agent, suggesting that his salary, which would be continued, and the agent's commission would pay his expenses, and he would, at the same time, have an opportunity of improving in his profession. His proposition was accepted; armed with a multitude of letters of introduction, the general effect of which he found to be equivalent to an order—"Sir: Please to give the bearer a dinner, and charge the same to yours," etc.—he spent a year in Europe. He performed experiments with Frederick Accum, the German chemist, and attended the lectures of Dr. George Pearson on chemistry, materia medica, and therapeutics, in London; heard Drs. Hope, Gregory, and Murray, in chemistry and geology; subscribed to Dr. Munroe's and attended Dr. Barclay's courses in anatomy, at Edinburgh; visited the Continent, and made the acquaintance of the most eminent scientific men of the day. Geological science at that time, he says, in his "Reminiscences," "did not exist among us, except in the minds of a very few individuals, and instruction was not attainable in any public institutions." In Edinburgh there were learned and eloquent geologists and lecturers, and ardent and successful explorers, and the contest between the Wernerians and the Huttonians was at its height. Professor Silliman was interested in the discussions, and, giving his attention to the subject, reached a standard of attainment in geology which he believed he could not have gained at home. He read the arguments on both sides, and came to the conclusion on which geologists are generally now tacitly agreed, that "both theories were founded in truth, and that the crust of the earth had been formed and greatly modified by the combined, or sometimes antagonistic and conflicting, powers of fire and water."

Professor Silliman had already attended to the care of the modest collections of minerals belonging to the college. There were a few metallic ores which had been named by Dr. Adam Seybert, of Philadelphia; a small collection which Dr. Semper had brought from England, containing some beautiful specimens, particularly in the lime family; and his own collections made in the mines of Derbyshire and Cornwall, in England, and local specimens obtained in his rambles among the trap-rocks of the Scottish capital, with a purchased suite of Italian polished marbles, all of which "when arranged, labeled, and described in illustration of the mineral portion of the chemical lectures, served to awaken an interest in the subject of mineralogy, and to produce both aspirations and hopes looking toward a collection which should by-and-by deserve the name of a cabinet." One of the first things to be done after returning home was to study the geology of the vicinity of New Haven, in the light of the knowledge that had been gained in Edinburgh. The result of this survey was a report, printed in the first volume of the "Transactions" of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, in which an attentive reperusal by the author fifty-two years afterward suggested very few alterations and disclosed no important errors. The cabinet of Mr. Benjamin D. Perkins was shortly afterward purchased for a thousand dollars, and in 1810 the splendid cabinet of Colonel George Gibbs was deposited in the college. The latter cabinet, which attracted visitors from all parts of the country, was bought fifteen years afterward. While Professor Silliman was engaged in arranging it, the Rev. Dr. Ely accosted him: "Why, dominie, is there not danger that with these physical attractions you will overtop the Latin and the Greek?" Professor Silliman replied: "Sir, let the literary gentlemen push and sustain their departments. It is my duty to give full effect to the sciences committed to my care."

An "American Journal of Mineralogy" had been started by Dr. Archibald Bruce, of New York, in 1810, but had been suspended after the publication of four numbers. Professor Silliman, at the suggestion of Colonel Gibbs, and with the approbation of Dr. Bruce, started, in 1818, a journal intended to include the entire circle of the physical sciences and their applications. This was "Silliman's" (now the "American") "Journal of Science," which is still continued under the direction of the son and son-in-law of its founder.

The courses of popular lectures on scientific subjects which were conducted by Professor Silliman in the different cities of the United States, originated in 1808, when a course in chemistry for ladies and gentlemen was proposed to him, and gladly assented to, as a scheme in the interest of scientific progress. A class of about forty-five persons was formed, and listened to the instruction given them apparently with complete satisfaction, for it appeared afterward, the lecturer remarks, in speaking of the matter, that the course "turned on female hinges," and "sentiment lubricated the joints. . . . It was my province to explain the affinities of matter, and I had not advanced far in my pleasing duties before I discovered that moral affinities, also moving without my intervention, were playing an important part." One of the affinities involved the professor, and his marriage to Miss Harriet Trumbull, daughter of the second Governor Trumbull, and one of his hearers, followed in the course of the next year. Many years afterward he was invited to deliver a course in Hartford—the first out of New Haven; then followed courses in Lowell, Boston (where "the Orthodox and Unitarian influence was united in his favor," and where he returned to lecture in several successive years afterward), other New England towns, and New York. In 1843 he lectured in Pittsburg, where he received most "vivid demonstrations of kind and gratified feelings"; the next year in Baltimore, where he found that "people who came for once, staid"; and afterward in Baltimore again, Mobile, New Orleans, Natchez, at Washington before the Smithsonian Institution, and in St. Louis. The calls to lecture continued actively through twenty-three years, from 1834 to 1857. In summing up the results of these courses, Professor Silliman expressed a feeling of satisfactory assurance that he had popularized science; that at no period of his life had his efforts been more useful, both to his country and his family; and that there was no part of his professional career which he reflected upon with more satisfaction.

lie was accustomed to explain the success of his lectures, and the uninterrupted interest they attracted, by stating that he always prepared them "with all possible care, and arranged every experiment and illustration so as to insure success. Then I could stand before the largest audience without anxiety or embarrassment; could, without manuscript, clearly state and explain my subject, and, when the proof became necessary, I could perform the experiments successfully and even beautifully, and exhibit the specimens which some other truth demanded, to insure conviction."

In 1830 Professor Silliman made a visit of exploration to the valley of Wyoming and its coal formations, where he examined some hundred mines and localities of coal, extending through forty miles in length; in 1832-'33 he was engaged, under a commission from the General Government, in a scientific examination on the subject of the culture and manufacture of sugar; and in 1836 he made a tour of investigation among the gold-mines of Virginia.

In 1840 an association of geologists was formed in Philadelphia for the purpose of promoting the progress of their science and its applications in this country, and Professor Silliman was chosen its first president. This society was in time succeeded by the "American Association of Geologists and Naturalists," and the latter eventually became the "American Association for the Advancement of Science."

In 1849 Professor Silliman, having reached the age of seventy years, tendered a resignation of his professorship, to take effect at the end of the ensuing academic year. The corporation, only half accepting his resignation, requested him to continue his lectures in the department of mineralogy and geology, should his life and health be spared. Later, at the request of the corporation, he reconsidered his resignation, and continued in the full occupation of his professorship till 1853, when, "wishing to go out before he should be compelled by infirmity, and to march out of the camp with colors flying," he retired finally. "Thus," he remarks in his journal, after referring to the public notices that were taken of his retirement during commencement-week, "I have finished my regular connection with Yale College, after having been almost fifty-four years an officer of the institution—three years a tutor, fifty-one a professor, and almost fifty a lecturer. . . . I seem to have attended my own academic funeral, and many to be the mourners on the occasion." The corporation requested him to continue as a professor emeritus, with the right to vote in the academical and medical faculties. His professorship was divided, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his son placed in the chair of Chemistry, and his son-in-law, Professor Dana, in that of Geology and Mineralogy. The name of Silliman was given to both chairs.

Professor Silliman was still to continue a prominent figure before the public, kept so by other events than those connected with science and the affairs of the college. A few months after his resignation the Kansas-Nebraska controversy rose to its height, and the Republican party was born amid the convulsions it excited. Professor Silliman had always abhorred slavery, and he saw in these disputes great moral issues, and the question of the equal rights of citizens of all the States to settle in the Territories and defend themselves there. His active interest in these matters, and the works by which he showed it, called out bitter partisan reprobation, and this in turn invoked eloquent and deserved eulogies of his pure character and his attainments in science from Senators Foster and Dixon in the United States Senate.

Professor Silliman kept even pace with the progress of science and scientific ideas as they were developed through all his career, and let his religious faith shine at the same time with a light of even brilliancy. The possibility that there was a conflict or could be a conflict does not seem even to have occurred to him. From his earliest college-days, piety and a firm devotion in religious faith seem to have formed a prominent side of his character; yet he never hesitated to accept the most startling discovery, when it proved deserving acceptance. "Now, at eighty-two and a half years of age," he says, March 1, 1862, "I can truly declare that, in the study and exhibition of science to my pupils and my fellow-men, I have never forgotten to give all the honor and glory to the infinite Creator, happy if I might be the honored interpreter of a portion of Lis works, and of the beautiful structure and beneficent laws discovered therein by the labors of many illustrious predecessors. For this I claim no merit. It is the result to which right reason and sound philosophy, as well as religion, would naturally lead. While I have never concealed my convictions on these subjects, nor hesitated to declare them on all proper occasions, I have also declared my belief that while natural religion stands as the basis of revelation, consisting as it does of the facts and laws which form the domain of science, science has never revealed a system of mercy commensurate with the moral wants of man. In Nature, in God's creation, we discover only laws—laws of undeviating strictness, and sure penalties annexed for their violation. There is associated with natural laws no system of mercy; that dispensation is not revealed in Nature, and is contained in the Scriptures alone. With the double view just presented, I feel that Science and Religion may walk hand in hand." "For his own part," says Professor Fisher, from whose rich biography we have drawn freely in the composition of this sketch, "he felt that the Bible was a revelation from God. . . . Not being in the habit of resorting to the Scriptures for information in physical science, he had valued its early pages for the pure and sublime theism which they inculcated. . . . Nor did be deem it necessary to suppose that the author of Genesis, however instructed by a higher light, was himself cognizant of the truths of geology, especially the truth of the great antiquity of the globe, and the length of time consumed in the geological changes." The idea of the length of geological time, as presented in his lectures, was novel to the majority of his auditors, and evidently shocked the prejudices of many of them, but he maintained it with vigor, and generally left a good impression regarding it in the end. Concerning the opponents of these ideas among the clergy, he wrote to Dr. Hitchcock in 1837: "I believe, with you, if they were masters of our subject, they would think as we do. Some of them are candid and forbearing; others find no insuperable difficulties; others are silent because they feel that they do not understand the matter; but a few are loud, confident, and uncharitable, while it is obvious they know not whereof they affirm, . . . but I see a strong purpose on the part of some to hold no terms with geology, and to insist upon the literal and limited understanding of the history; but they will find themselves deserted, for the matter will in time come right." Of a particular attack on the geological theory he wrote to Professor Hitchcock: "You and I know that any attempt to impair geological evidence, or to reconcile it with the popular view of time, must be abortive. No matter how violent or bitter our assailant may be, doubtless he will be more so in proportion to his ignorance of geology and to the strength of his prejudices."

Mrs. Silliman died in January, 1850, and Professor Silliman was married a second time, in the following year, to Mrs: Sarah I. Webb, of Woodstock, Connecticut. His death was apparently induced by a neuralgic attack which he incurred from attending a meeting on behalf of the Sanitary Commission, on the 13th of November, 1864. He was confined to the house for several days, but seemed afterward to recover, and made several calls in the neighborhood; but on the 24th—Thanksgiving-day—he died, instantly and without a struggle, just as he had remarked that he might perhaps go out to church. The disease from which he died was supposed to be an affection of the heart.

Professor Silliman, says his biographer, Professor Fisher, would have been the last to claim that he had that rare insight of genius which divines the secrets of Nature. His whole turn was more practical than speculative. "His perceptions were quick, his judgment sound, and all his mental operations were marked by good sense." His qualities "well fitted him for his peculiar work, and that was to collect and diffuse scientific truth. . . . Nor is he without merit as an investigator, although his distinction does not lie here. He was never very careful to claim for himself the credit of scientific discovery. At the same time, he took delight in bringing honor to the discoveries of others." He prepared an edition of Henry's "Chemistry," which appeared in 1808, with the modest announcement, "To which are added notes by a professor in this country." While this work was going through the press, a remarkable meteor passed over New England (December, 1807), and exploded over Weston, Connecticut, where several stones fell to the ground. He visited the scene, and, besides publishing a popular account of the facts in the "Connecticut Herald," made them the subject of a scientific examination and report before the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, which was afterward republished in the "Memoirs" of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, and read aloud in the Philosophical Society of London, and in the Academy of Sciences in Paris. His two visits to Europe (the second one was in 1851) were followed by books of travels, both of which were received with great satisfaction, while the earlier one (1810) was highly commended, abroad as well as at home, as one of the best works of its class. Pie was the first to obtain potassium in this country, and the first to notice and record the effect of a powerful battery in volatilizing carbon and transferring it from the positive to the negative pole in a state of vapor. An account of his experiments with the oxyhydrogen blow-pipe was published in the "Memoirs" of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1813. He published an account of a journey between Hartford and Quebec in 1820, an edition of Bakewell's "Geology" in 1829, and a text-book on chemistry, in two volumes, in 1880. It was largely through his influence that the Scientific School, started by the younger Professor Silliman in 1842, which was afterward endowed by the gentleman whose name it bears as the Sheffield Scientific School, was adopted by the college as one of its departments, in 1846 and 1847. Professor Silliman was for many years in regular correspondence with the most eminent scientific men of Europe, among whom may be named Berzelius, Robert Bakewell, Humboldt, Carl Flitter, Lyell, Sir R. I. Murchison, Richard Owen, Daubeny, Herschel, and Dr. Mantell. Some of these he never knew personally, but was brought into communication with them through a common interest in science.