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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/October 1892/Sketch of Alexander Winchell

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 41‎ | October 1892

PSM V41 D740 Alexander Winchell.jpg


WHILE he was industrious and versatile as an original investigator, Prof. Alexander Winchell was best known as a successful, instructive, and entertaining lecturer on subjects of science, especially of geology and evolution, and as the author of numerous books which have found their way into the households of our country, describing in a style interesting and comprehensible to all the latest results of research and of his own labors in those fields.

Alexander Winchell was born in Northeast, Dutchess County, N. Y., December 31, 1824, and died in Ann Arbor, Mich., February 19, 1891. His family were in moderately comfortable circumstances. His father and mother had been teachers in the public schools of the town. He showed a taste for mathematics at an early age, which was illustrated by his having completed the first part of Emerson's arithmetic and his reciting the entire multiplication table without mistake on the day he was seven years old. When a little more than ten years old he had completed Willett's arithmetic, and had transcribed all the definitions, rules, problems, and full solutions in a manuscript book. He attended the Stockbridge Academy and the village school. It had been intended that he should study medicine, but on his expressing, when sixteen years old, a desire to teach, his father engaged a district school in which he taught during the winter of 1840 and 1841. As by-pursuits he collected and solved arithmetical problems, and began the practices, which he never discontinued, of recording the results of his reading and study, and keeping a diary and a strict account of expenditures. He continued his mathematical studies, soon acquired an enlarged idea of the preparation needed to fit him to become a doctor, became more attached to the profession of teacher, and had "his imagination fired" by the study of astronomy. In 1843 he became assistant in Amenia Seminary, where he had attended for a year as a student. Having entered Wesleyan University in 1844 as a sophomore, "he encountered with indignation," says his editorial biographer in the American Geologist, "the first check in his educational ardor and success in a rigorous 'marking system,' which at that time laid special stress on the literal reproduction of the words of the text-books. Though ambitious for honors, he refused to compete for them under those conditions. Having been graduated in 1847, he was appointed teacher of natural science in Pennington Male Seminary, New Jersey, "when he entered with irrepressible zeal and delight upon the study of the flora of the vicinity. The Morse telegraph having just come into operation, he attempted with success, and with no special knowledge beyond the fundamental principles, the production of a working instrument, which he exhibited at a public lecture.

His ambition was now extending beyond mathematics. Declining offers of a tutorship in that science in Wesleyan University and of continued position in Pennington Seminary, he accepted the chair of Natural Science in Amenia Seminary. Here he gave his first public geological lectures; explored the flora of the vicinity, of which he contributed a catalogue to the regents of the university; observed solar spots; and began a series of meteorological observations.

He removed in 1850 to take charge of an academy at Newbern, Ala. Finding the prospects of the institution not equal to his expectations, he undertook to revive a suspended institution at Eutaw in the same county. Here he began a course of scientific investigations which he had been indefinitely projecting for some time. He communicated to the American Journal of Science notes on the cold of January at Eutaw, and on the aurora borealis of September 29, 1851; opened a correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution, to which he sent collections of plants, alcoholic specimens, and preserved skins, including the new species of fish, Hybopsis Winchelli; and communicated to the American Association in 1853 the first scientific description of the Cretaceous Choctaw Bluff, on the Black Warrior River. In 1853 Prof. Winchell became President of the Masonic University, Selma, Ala., and made a tour of the southern part of the State, to interest the people in the institution. The tour was also a geological one, and took him through a country rich in Cretaceous and Tertiary fossils, where Hippurites encumbered the ground and were burned into lime, and the "precious vertebræ" of Zeuglodon were used for andirons, stiles, and gate-weights. He sent a collection of fishes to the Smithsonian Institution, in acknowledging which Prof. Baird predicted that in not many years he would be called to a big professorship somewhere North or East. "Nine days after these words were penned," says his biographer in the American Geologist, "he was elected to a chair in the University of Michigan." This was in 1853; the professorship was that of Physics and Civil Engineering. He found on taking his chair, in January, 1854, that no good elementary text-books on civil engineering were in existence, and that he had to originate matter and methods. As a branch of physics he attended to the keeping of a complete series of meteorological observations, which, while he held the chair, he reported to the Smithsonian Institution. In the next year he was transferred, in accordance with an understanding that was had when he first went to the university, to the newly created chair of Geology, Zoölogy, and Botany. In a paper On the Importance of the Study of Natural History, read before the State Teachers' Association in 1856, he advocated the introduction of that subject into the Union schools and the lower classes of the colleges. In the fall of 1857 he opened a class in comparative osteology. A geological survey of the State of Michigan having been ordered, he was commissioned as its director, and began, in 1859, with one assistant, the examination of the southern part of the lower peninsula. He fixed the position of the salt waters of East Saginaw to within two feet of their actual level, and in his report, published in August, 1861, fully anticipated the vast development of the salt interest in the Saginaw Valley. The official survey was suspended by the breaking out of the civil war, but the paleontological investigations were carried on privately. Prof. Winchell pointed out the gypsum bed near Tawas, which had been pronounced barren, but has proved marvelously rich; studied the "Marshall group" and its relations with the Chemung; investigated the cherry slug and currant worm; published numerous geological papers and an address on the soils and subsoils of Michigan, in which he insisted on the agricultural value of the pine lands; studied the oil-producing regions of the United States and Canada; and published a report on the Grand Traverse region, and a paper on the fruit-bearing belt of Michigan, in which attention was first called to the influence of Lake Michigan in ameliorating the climate of the State and prolonging the growing period. The Geological Survey of Michigan was reorganized in 1869, and Prof. Winchell was again appointed its director. He had learned much during the interval since the survey was suspended, as our enumeration shows, in his private travels for economical surveys, of the rock structure and physical features of the State. In 1871 he had prepared a preliminary report; but hostile political and personal influences had been working against him, and the appropriation for printing the report failed to pass the Legislature. He resigned his position, and the report, embodying the results of two seasons of field work in the lower peninsula, largely remains unpublished. A part of the material intended for it was condensed for Walling's Atlas of Michigan, and these memoirs were afterward collected in a volume, accompanied by topographical, geological, and isothermal charts.

In 1873 Prof. Winchell was called to the position of Chancellor of Syracuse University. He held it only for about one year, when the anticipated financial resources of the institution having shrunken considerably in the actuality, and he having been asked to take part in public efforts to augment the endowment, he resigned it. He had been told that the authorities of the institution had been attracted to him by his scientific reputation, and that they wished him not to discontinue his pursuits in that line. He had, however, already found the presidency interfering with his scientific work, and the additional burden was too much. "For the duties of solicitor of money," says his biographer, "he had no qualification. Between paleontologist and financial agent was a gap so broad that he had never contemplated crossing it." He, however, in December, 1874, accepted the chair of Geology in the same university. For this department he prepared an extended syllabus of a proposed course of geological lectures, which should possess interest for the general public, but found it difficult in the financial condition of the institution to equip and maintain laboratories corresponding with his ideas of the professorship of Geology. While occupied with this problem, he was invited to become Professor of Geology, Zoölogy, and Botany, in Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. He accepted an engagement for three months, without severing his connection with Syracuse University, for he opened there a School of Geology, in January, 1876, which he wished to make a permanent feature of the institution; but the enterprise was not fully successful till 1878. He divided his time between Syracuse and Vanderbilt Universities. He found the authorities of the latter institution attached to the old ideas, and in no way disposed to give ear to the new theories of evolution. He nevertheless began his course under what might be considered favorable auspices. In 1877 he published a theory of a relation of meteorites to the disturbances of the satellites of Mars, and several papers in strictly orthodox books and newspapers, unfolding his theory of Preadamites, or of the existence of races of men before Adam; which, he held, was not contrary to divine revelation, but was authorized by a proper construction of the Scriptures. His views were kindly received, even when they were not believed, in the North, but were very unwelcome to his Southern friends. At the commencement season of Vanderbilt University of 1878, Prof. Winchell was warned that his "heterodox" position in reference to Preadamites and evolution was having an influence adverse to the interests of the university, and was asked to decline a reappointment to his professorship. He refused to do this on such grounds as were alleged. On the same evening he delivered one of the addresses of the commencement occasion; and on the next morning the Board of Trust of the university abolished his chair. It had been intended to have the thing quietly done, but Prof. Winchell published all the facts, and was not the one who suffered in reputation from the transaction. Of this incident, Dr. Andrew D. White says, in his New Chapters in the Warfare of Science: "That his lectures at the Vanderbilt University were learned, attractive, and stimulating, even his enemies were forced to admit; but he was soon found to believe that there had been men earlier than the period of Adam, and even that all the human race are not descended from Adam. His effort in this was to reconcile science and Scripture, and he was now treated by a Methodist Episcopal bishop in Tennessee just as, two centuries before, La Peyrère had been treated for a similar offense by a Roman Catholic vicar-general in Belgium. The publication of a series of articles on the subject, contributed by the professor to a Northern religious newspaper at its own request, brought matters to a climax, for, the articles having fallen under the notice of the leading Southwestern organ of the denomination controlling the Vanderbilt University, the result was a most bitter denunciation of Prof. Winchell and of his views. Shortly afterward the professor was told by Bishop McTyeire that 'our people believe that such views are contrary to the plan of redemption,' and was requested by the bishop to quietly resign his chair. To this the professor made the fitting reply: 'If the Board of Trustees have the manliness to dismiss me for cause, and declare the cause, I prefer that they should do it; no power on earth could persuade me to decline.' 'We do not propose,' said the bishop, with gratuitous suggestiveness, 'to treat you as the Inquisition treated Galileo.' 'But what you propose is the same thing,' rejoined Dr. Winchell. 'It is ecclesiastical proscription for an opinion which must be settled by scientific evidence.' Twenty-four hours later Dr. Winchell was informed that his chair had been abolished, and its duties, with its salary, added to those of a colleague; the public were given to understand that the reasons were purely economic; the banished scholar was heaped with official compliments, evidently in hope that he would keep silence. Such was not Dr. Winchell's view. In a frank letter to the leading journal of the university town, he stated the whole matter. The intolerance-hating press of the country, religious and secular, did not hold its peace. In vain the authorities of the university waited for the storm to blow over. It was evident, at last, that a defense must be made, and a local organ of the sect, which, under the editorship of a fellow-professor, had always treated Dr. Winchell's views with the luminous inaccuracy which usually characterizes a professor's ideas of a rival's teachings, assumed the task. In the articles which followed, the usual scientific hypotheses as to the creation were declared to be 'absurd,' 'vague and unintelligible,' 'preposterous and gratuitous.'" While in Nashville Prof. Winchell constructed some pieces of microscopic apparatus and a small working steam-engine of one fifth horse-power, and completed a survey of the sanitary geology of that city.

In June, 1879, Prof. Winchell was unanimously recalled by the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan—a body that was by no means united on most questions—to the professorship of Geology and Paleontology in that institution. He went back under much more favorable conditions for scientific advancement than had existed when he left the institution seven years before. "His duties at that time were spread over the whole field of geology, zoölogy, botany, museum and microscopical work. When he returned, the faculty embraced a Professor of Geology and Paleontology; a Professor of Mineralogy and Economic Geology; a Professor of Zoölogy; an Assistant Professor of Botany; an Instructor in the Microscopical Laboratory; and a Curator of the Museum—all of whose duties devolved upon one man in 1872." He began on his return to the university the preparation of an extended syllabus of a course of instruction in general geology, accompanied by copious references to sources of information. He presided over the Section of Anthropology at the Montreal meeting of the American Association. He spent the summer of 1886 in connection with the Geological Survey of Minnesota in field work in the extreme northern part of the State, north of Lake Superior. His work extended into twenty-four townships, where he noted and studied the outcrops at eight hundred and ninety localities, and he spent much time in the succeeding winter in the study for his first Minnesota report of the Archæan problems thus developed. The observations made in this survey were important, and were found to throw much light on some of the problems of Archæan geology. The plan of the next year's survey extended over the original Huronian area, and also over the iron regions of Michigan and Wisconsin and into the area of the Animikie in northern Minnesota. He entered into the study and discussion of practical questions touching the stratigraphic relations of the older terrenes and accumulated a large mass of data, the discussion of which he was never able to complete. He planned for a thorough discussion and examination of the data of the Archæan rocks, including their field relations and petrographic characters, and for the sake of it declined all but the most important invitations to lecture. In pursuance of this work he communicated to the eighteenth report of the Minnesota Survey (1889) a review of American opinion on the Presilurian rocks, and presented further results of his work in northern Minnesota at the Toronto meeting of the American Association. His last year (1890) was one of his busiest, and was occupied with lectures, attendance on scientific meetings, geological excursions, and the preparation of plans for enlarging the laboratory of the university. Prof. Winchell was a leading spirit in the formation of the Geological Society of America and in the establishment of the American Geologist.

His biographer in the American Geologist believes that Dr. Winchell was perhaps the very first man of science in America "who descended before popular audiences from that high-caste and stately but dry and unpopular style in which the older scientists had thought it fit to cloak the dignity of science. . . . He simplified zoölogical themes rather than popularized them, and lifted up his voice only . . . where the select appreciators of science were numerous enough to constitute an audience." Societies for scientific culture, summer institutes, and similar organizations, formed a large part of the audiences.

Prof. Winchell was a voluminous writer. The list of his books and papers in the American Geologist includes two hundred and fifty-five titles. A predominant idea running through his Christian Theology illustrated from Nature was that of the harmony between the indications and doctrines of science and the central doctrines of the Christian religion. A similar thought ran through several other of his works. His Geology of the Stars and his World Life were attempts to extend the history of the earth as recorded in the geological strata so as to include the whole lifetime of a world, or to present, as he said in the preface, "a thoughtful review of the processes of world formation, world growth, and world decadence." Many of the thoughts in these works were so novel that he was not able to get an expression of opinion upon them from his fellow-students. A large proportion of his books are scientific treatises for popular reading—vivacious, suggestive, embodying the accurate results of scientific investigation, sparkling with original thoughts, and well adapted to their purpose.

The burden of his educational labor, according to his biographer, lay in the direction of widening the avenues of natural science and of its introduction into secondary schools. "He insisted that the young student is more observing than reflective or analytic, that the education of the mind should be by an appeal to its most accessible and most powerful impulses, and that the influence of science on the human mind, especially in its formative stage, is more healthful to a normal growth, more conducive to moral rectitude, and more stimulating toward a right ambition, than any other field of knowledge. . . . He believed that there is as much mental and ethical culture to be derived from the study of natural science, when pursued with equal thoroughness and exactness, as from the study of Greek or Latin literature or of mathematics."