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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/April 1895/Sketch of Prof. Lardner Vanuxem

PSM V46 D740 Lardner Vanuxem.jpg


LARDNER VANUXEM was born in Philadelphia, July 23, 1792, and died at his home near Bristol, Pa., January 25, 1848. His father was James Vanuxem, a shipping merchant of Philadelphia, formerly of Dunkirk, France—a man eminent in business and highly esteemed as a citizen and in social and domestic life. His name was originally written Van Uxem; the form was changed by him partly for convenience in writing, but largely because he had become a great admirer of his adopted country and wished to remove the foreign stamp from his cognomen. James Vanuxem's wife, Rebecca, was a daughter of Colonel Elijah Clark, of New Jersey. Of their fifteen children Lardner was the eighth. Seven of these lived to long past middle life, and two of them to ninety and over. His maternal grandmother's name was Lardner.

Of the early educational course of the subject of this sketch there is no record, and no one living has any knowledge. It is thought that he was for a time a student in the Pennsylvania University, but this can not be verified. He entered his father's counting-house as a young man, but business proved very distasteful to him, his mind having been drawn previously to the cultivation of chemistry and mineralogy. He soon determined to give up all connection with business and devote himself to science. Accordingly, his father gave him the advantage of a three years' residence in Paris, at the School of Mines, where he became the associate of Prof. Alexandre Brongniart, the Abbé Haüy, and other distinguished men then prominent as professors in the schools of that great scientific metropolis. There he formed an intimate acquaintance with the late Prof. Keating, of Philadelphia, who in the same walks was drinking from the same fountain of knowledge. Being graduated in 1819, after a short tour through some districts of France, investigating the rock formations, collecting specimens, etc., he returned to this country and his native city, "charged with all the improvements of recent chemical discoveries, and the advancement in all its kindred arts," But he preferred the more abstract pursuit of his studies to the application of his knowledge to the practical arts.

Almost immediately after his return home, he was invited by President Cooper, of Columbia College, in South Carolina, to take the chair of Chemistry and Mineralogy in that institution. Becoming a member of the president's family, a warm friendship was formed between him and each member thereof, which ended only with their lives.

In 1826 he retired from the college and devoted his attention exclusively to geology as a profession. During that year he published in the newspapers and in Robert Mill's Statistics of South Carolina reports on the geology of the State, of which he made a survey or assisted in making one, having previously made one of North Carolina. "He also made quite a collection of minerals and rocks of the State, which were deposited in the University of South Carolina."

He then visited Mexico to examine gold-mining property, of which he had been solicited to take charge. His inspection soon convinced him that no profitable results could accrue to the owners, and he advised that it be abandoned.

In 1827-'28 he studied the geological features of the States of New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, under the auspices of the State of New York, and made his report to its Legislature.

It was either at this time or immediately after his return from France that he spent much time in geological investigations in the vicinity of Philadelphia in company with Dr. Isaac Lea, who was his chosen and most intimate friend and associate from his early days to the end of his life. Subsequently Dr. Lea honored him by naming after him a class of fresh-water shells which he had been the first to discover and make known. It is from Dr. Isaac Lea's record of him that much of the information in connection with science, contained in the first part of this sketch, is derived. He also made at times extensive and careful investigations in the franklinite districts and marl beds of New Jersey.

In 1830, having returned to Philadelphia, he purchased a farm near Bristol, Pa., and soon after married a daughter of his neighbor, John Newbold, Esq., of Bloomsdale. His farm remained the home of himself and family for the remainder of his life, about seventeen years. "While he often assisted with his own hands," says Dr. Lea, "in the cultivation of the farm, he never at any moment ceased to cultivate his already extensive acquirements in geology, mineralogy, and chemistry, nor to add to a collection of specimens of great extent and rareness."

In 1836, at the solicitation of Governor Marcy, he entered upon what has been pronounced "one of the most magnificent investigations ever made in the geological developments of any country or by any government"—the geological survey of the State of New York. The results are given in Geology of New York, Third District, Albany, 1842. The Third District, of which Prof. Vanuxem had charge, comprised fourteen counties in the central part of the State. The scope of the work performed by Prof. Vanuxem and his colleagues is thus indicated by Prof. James Hall:[1] "During the few years of field work the New York geologists had harmonized the conflicting views before entertained regarding the relations of the geology of the eastern and western parts of the State; they had traced the boundaries of the successive geological formations, had shown the extent and limits of the iron-bearing strata, and had rectified the erroneous views which had been held till some time after the commencement of the survey regarding the boundaries and distribution of the salt-bearing formation of the State. They had also shown the limits of the granitic formations and their associated mineral products, the thickness and extent of all the limestone, sandstone, and shale formations of the State, and had definitely settled the relations of the rocks of New York to the coal measures of Pennsylvania and the geological formations of the Western States."

The important service rendered to geological science in the matter of nomenclature by the members of this survey is also described by Prof. Hall, as follows: "Since there was no possibility of identifying the individual rocks and groups of strata with those of Europe, as described, the New York geologists were compelled to give names to the different members of the series; and since the sandstones, limestones, slates, and shales are so similar in different and successive groups, it was impossible to give descriptive names which would discriminate the one from the other. Therefore local names were proposed and adopted—as, for example, Potsdam sandstone, Trenton limestone, Niagara limestone, and Niagara shale (the two latter, with subordinate beds, making the Niagara group), the Medina sandstone, the Onondaga salt group, the Hamilton, Portage, and Chemung groups, thus giving typical localities of the rock instead of descriptive names. This method or system of nomenclature leaves no possibility of mistake or confusion which might arise from a different appreciation of descriptive terms. The typical locality always remains for study, comparison, and reference, and there need be no difference of opinion or discussion as to what was intended by the use of any one of the terms. The progress of geological science in the country is greatly indebted to this system of nomenclature, and to the absolute working out of the succession of the groups, and the members of the same, to which this system of nomenclature has been applied."

At the close of the survey he spent some months in Albany (associated with Prof. James Hall) in arranging the State geological cabinet, the specimens of which he had assisted in collecting, and out of which has grown the New York State Museum. His name was given by his colleagues to several species of the fossils discovered in the course of the survey, and in 1858 Mr. Elkenah Billings named a genus (discovered in Canada) in his honor.

Prof. Vanuxem's private collection of minerals and geological specimens was considered at the time of his death as "the largest, best arranged, and most valuable private collection in this country." The shell and mineral specimens were fine and many of them very beautiful, but it was the geological department, with its numerous specimens of rock and fossil and the perfect arrangement of the whole, giving to the investigator, in the best manner possible, the information sought, and all arranged by his own hands and methods, that constituted its chief value. It was constantly visited by eminent scientists both of this country and from abroad. Prof. Agassiz, Sir Charles Lyell, and Dr. Nicolay were drawn to it on more than one occasion. Those who were in the habit of visiting it most frequently, both from interest in it and its possessor, seemed to be filled with enthusiasm, of whom were Dr. Emmons, Dr. Beck, Prof. Timothy Conrad, Dr. Locke, of Cincinnati, and many others. On one occasion, while engaged on the United States Coast Survey, Dr. Locke brought all his paraphernalia of work and his assistants, pitching his tents in a field on the Vanuxem farm near the house; there he remained for some weeks, continuing his work, at the same time availing himself of the opportunity of study in and examination of the cabinet, making numerous casts of the specimens, especially the rare fossils.

After his death. Prof. Vanuxem's collection was purchased by W. M. Stewart, President of Masonic College at Clarksville, Tenn. It was reported that during the civil war the collection was dissipated and destroyed, but this rumor could not have been wholly true, for part if not all of the specimens are still there. In May, 1892, one of Prof. Vanuxem's daughters was applied to for information as to the whereabouts of this collection, by a geologist, as it contained, he said, the only known specimen of a certain South Carolina fossil, which he very much desired to examine.

Prof. Vanuxem was a member of and assisted in the organization and establishment of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and other scientific associations.

"It was the habit of those connected with the New York survey to meet at Albany at the end of each field season, for the purpose of comparing observations and becoming acquainted with each other. In the autumn of 1838 Prof. Vanuxem suggested that an invitation be extended to the geologists of Pennsylvania and Virginia for the purpose of devising and adopting a geological nomenclature that might be acceptable to all those who were then engaged in the State surveys, and thus become the nomenclature of American geology. This meeting was finally held in 1840, and then the Association of American Geologists was organized, which is now succeeded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the largest scientific bodies in the world."

Some few years after the close, of the New York survey, Prof. Vanuxem was solicited by Prof. Henry, of the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington, to become his associate in charge of that institution. Although it would have been a work in many ways congenial, the offer was declined, for various reasons that he deemed good ones.

In addition to the report that has been mentioned, and numerous papers on scientific subjects published in the American Journal of Science, he published An Essay on the Ultimate Principles of Chemistry, Natural Philosophy, and Physiology (Philadelphia, 1827); but it is his Report of the New York Survey which it is said "will remain his monument, and on which the reputation of his scientific attainments is based."

It would seem as though a man as devoted to science as the subject of this sketch would have his time and thoughts completely absorbed thereby, but not so in this case. The investigating turn of his mind prompted the examination of abstruse subjects, and to him the Scriptures presented an unlimited field. His careful scrutiny of the sacred writings and close study of all the extant commentators upon them resulted in an immense pile of manuscript books which he left as a monument of his interest in the subject, untiring industry, perseverance, and love of research, if nothing more. Although trained in the Presbyterian faith by his mother. Prof. Vanuxem had adopted, and expressed in these writings, views which were too broad and too far in advance of the time to be considered "orthodox."

Every attempt to extend the bounds of human knowledge or to give the benefit of enlightened direction to the activities of mankind aroused his interest. His attention was thus drawn to the so-called new religions, Mormonism and Millerism, as they arose; to the religious teachings of Channing and Emerson; and to the study of Egyptian antiquities. He studied phrenology, and became a believer in its theories. At a time when the subject had hardly been thought of he was a strong advocate of the emancipation of woman from the narrow sphere of activity to which she had been confined. General literature did not have the absorbing interest for him that scientific subjects did. As for music, it appeared to have no charms in his eyes; he declared that far too much time was wasted over it. This fact seems rather unaccountable, as all his brothers and sisters were devoted to the art, and some of them proficient in it.

For Benjamin Franklin's character and achievements he had the highest admiration; honoring himself and his place by naming it after him "Franklin Farm," and the entrance hall of the house was adorned for many years by a bust of the great man; attention often being called to it as "the presiding genius of the place."

To complete the picture, even of a man of science, the social and domestic side of his character and life as well as daily occupations must not be omitted. He was kind and gentle in manner and speech, his somewhat quick temper being under complete control. Though his children stood rather in awe of him, as did many others (of his subordinates), he ruled them by affection and "treated them as intelligent beings," as he said, the result being the most implicit obedience.

His active mind was engaged frequently upon subjects requiring deep thought while his hands were executing works of minor importance. On being asked why he did not plow his own fields, he would reply that he never liked to engage in any manual labor that absorbed the whole attention, as he desired to keep his mind free for other matters. His knowledge of chemistry was brought into use in the cultivation of his farm—much to the amusement of his less enlightened neighbors, who did not believe in "book farming." He had learned the use of carpenter's tools when a boy, for his father, in order to keep his sons off the street, had wisely provided them interesting occupation at home by fitting up a shop for their use. Prof. Vanuxem turned his skill to account in making the cases and chests of drawers in his cabinet a room measuring about fifteen by twenty-five or thirty feet—and otherwise as occasion required.

"Always cheerful, intelligent, bright, and full of anecdote," it has been said of him, "he was gladly welcomed into every social circle." Both frugality and generosity were prominent traits of Ms character. More than once did he take into his household, for indefinite periods, young relatives who needed assistance. His table was abundantly supplied and his house was well furnished with comforts, but extravagance in anything he strongly deprecated, especially in dress. "Love of dress," he used to say, "had caused more sin than anything else in the world."

Careful and neat to an extreme himself in his habits and arrangements, he exacted the same from those around him as far as possible. Of the courtesies and conventionalities he was most scrupulously observant, and was greatly annoyed by any breach thereof, as when any of his Quaker neighbors, coming in, would sit with hat on in the house. Obedience to the "golden rule" appeared to be the guide of his life, as he was wont frequently to hold it up to his children, that they should make it theirs.

He had the reputation of being visionary and full of untenable theories. This may have been true to some extent, and it would certainly have appeared to be the case even if not so, for it was often said by his scientific contemporaries that "he lived too soon, being many years in advance of his times; people were not prepared for his discoveries and theories, and therefore not able to appreciate them, even the scientific world." He was considered also "a very peculiar man," which was not surprising, in view of his independence of general opinion, in following out what he considered the right or best course in any matter. As an illustration might be given a description of his equipment for the New York survey. It consisted of a four-wheeled wagon with buggy top, covered with white canvas for coolness, with a box at the back large enough to hold his requirements for the season, and working implements. This was drawn by a large, rustybrown mule, very far from handsome, but strong, trusty, faithful, with powers of endurance much beyond those of a horse. He was often not a little amused at the comments and ridicule that this equipage provoked, but it was the thing that best answered his purpose, so he went on his way and let them laugh.

Finding it necessary to turn his acquirements to some pecuniary advantage, was one of the inducements of Prof. Vanuxem to engage in the New York survey. The working for "pay" was one of the things for which he had a great aversion, "a feeling," as he writes, "he never could conquer." He wanted to be able to work for the public without charge and not feel that his time belonged to some one who had a right to its control; he was too conscientious to feel any freedom when under bonds of this sort.

Physically Prof. Vanuxem was below the average in height, rather slightly built, active, energetic, with great powers of endurance, and persevering in whatever he undertook. He was always in good health, being "temperate in all things," and, though often furnishing wine for his guests, declining the use of it himself, as he said he wished to keep his head always perfectly clear. To tobacco in all its forms he had a great aversion. One of his theories was that human life was much too short, either because of too much luxury and self-indulgence on the one hand, or lack of proper sustenance on the other. By striking the happy medium, he believed life might be indefinitely prolonged. His last illness was of about three weeks' duration, and caused by a carbuncle on the upper lip. After a time the brain became affected and unconsciousness ensued, which continued uninterruptedly until he passed away, having seen but fifty-five and a half years. This early ending of his life seems like the irony of Fate! The many letters received by the family after his death, from those with whom he had been associated in his scientific career, filled with such heartfelt expressions of sorrow and regret for the personal loss and the loss to science, attest to the estimation in which he was held by them all.

The original of the likeness accompanying this sketch was a daguerreotype—the only portrait of any kind ever made of Prof. Vanuxem. This was taken in a group in 18-40, in the early days of the art, when the arrangement of dress and pose was not understood so well as afterward. Hence the eyes, said to have been his best feature, are unfortunately cast down, as he was told to look at the child seated on his knee. The portrait is like him, but has not the pleasing aspect his countenance always wore.


It appears from a discussion by Prof. Holden, of the Lick Observatory, of the smallest object on the moon that can be registered on the photographic plate by the three-foot refractor, that a crater on that star less than one tenth of a mile in diameter will form an image that is about the same size as the grains of silver in the photographic film, and can not in general be distinguished. Craters not more than three tenths and fifteen hundredths of an English mile in diameter, however, have been detected already. Prof. Holden concludes that for further advances in lunar photography it will be necessary to employ plates of greater sensitiveness so as to shorten exposure, and also plates in which the grain is finer.

The "southerly bursters" of Australia are storms that occur very suddenly, and mostly between November and February. A fresh northeasterly wind may change in ten minutes to a gale from the south, doing much damage to vessels that may be unprepared. The storms are always accompanied or preceded with great electrical excitement, and cause a considerable drop in the temperature. The wind velocity used to reach from sixty to eighty miles an hour, and on one occasion attained the rate of more than a hundred and fifty miles an hour, in a gust. Latterly, however, the wind seldom exceeds fifty miles, and generally ranges between thirty and forty miles an hour. The average annual number of storms is thirty-two.

  1. In The Public Service of the State of New York.