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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/Sketch of Zadoc Thompson

PSM V46 D156 Zadoc Thompson.jpg


THE slopes and intervales of the Green Mountains have ever been a home of sterling worth. Much of it has lain modestly hidden unless some compelling occasion called it forth, as the Revolution brought out Ethan Allen and Stark of Bennington. This region has had its workers in science, who, with more generous facilities or a more assertive spirit, could have equaled in prominence many whom the world calls famous. The subject of the present sketch is an example, for he became known in his lifetime only so far as the patient performance of valuable labors of necessity brought him into notice.

Zadoc Thompson was born in Bridgewater, Windsor County, Vt., May 23, 1796. He was the second son of Barnabas Thompson, whose father was one of the early settlers in that part of the country.

His early life was a continual struggle with poverty. Having from childhood a passion for writing and publishing books, he earned part of the expenses of his education in this way. His first publications were almanacs, which he sold traveling about the State on foot. Thompson's Almanack became as famous in Vermont as Robert B. Thomas's in Massachusetts, and shared the honors with the latter publication in adjoining States. Its success was to a large extent due, it is said by those who should know, to a chance remark—it can hardly be called a prediction—which came one day when a clerk, who was at work upon the almanac, found that no weather forecast had been given for July. Prof. Thompson was at the time much absorbed in some investigations, and, when interrupted by the printer's inquiry as to the July weather, hastily replied, "Say, Snow about this time." The printer took him at his word and printed snow as a part of the probable weather for July. Contrary to all expectations or precedent, in July of that year there was in Vermont a fall of snow! This apparently remarkable knowledge of the probabilities of the weather made Prof. Thompson famous as a weather prophet, and greatly increased the sale of his almanacs. It should be added that Prof. Thompson made constant use of such meteorological instruments as he could obtain, and that he was one of the first in his State to study the weather in a careful and scientific manner. Mr. Thompson was graduated from the University of Vermont in 1823, at the advanced age of twenty-seven years, and immediately turned his attention to making known the natural and civil features and history of his native State to its own inhabitants and to the world beyond its borders, which was the chief occupation of his life. Within a year his first publication in this field, a Gazetteer of Vermont, appeared at Montpelier. His first bound volume was an arithmetic, published in 1826, which had a general sale through the State. While serving as principal of an academy in Canada, he issued a geography and map of Canada for schools, which passed through several editions.

In 1832 Mr. Thompson edited and was the chief contributor to the Green Mountain Repository, a monthly magazine published for about a year at Burlington. In the following year appeared his History of Vermont from its earliest settlement to the close of the year 1832.

Taking up the study of theology and supporting himself in part by teaching in the Vermont Episcopal Institute and elsewhere, he was prepared for orders, and became a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1836. He preached from time to time in various parishes of northern Vermont and New York, and usually supplied the pulpit of St. Paul's Church, Burlington, during the illness or absence of the rector. His health not being good enough to allow of his undertaking the labors of a parish, and being a man of "deep and unconquerable modesty of spirit," he never advanced to the priesthood.

His earlier works aroused in him a desire to issue something larger and fuller in the same line, and for many years he industriously collected from various "oldest inhabitants" and scattered records facts relating to the history, geography, and natural resources of Vermont. From 1838 to 1842 he devoted most of his time to putting together these materials and publishing the resulting Natural, Civil, and Statistical History of Vermont. His attainments in natural history were at that time limited, and he obtained considerable assistance in preparing the accounts of the plants and several classes of animals for this book from other New England naturalists. Having made the mammalia quite a specialty, he described these himself.

The undertaking was most thoroughly and conscientiously carried out, and by the time the book was ready for the press all his savings had been expended. At this juncture the Burlington publisher, Mr. Chauncey Goodrich, who was a neighbor and friend of Mr. Thompson, offered to get out the book for him at the usual prices for the labor and materials without any contingent share in the profits, and to wait for payment from the sales of the work. This generous offer was promptly accepted, and the volume, consisting of six hundred and fifty-six closely printed octavo pages, was duly issued. There were three parts to the work, each of which, if printed less compactly, would have made a fair-sized volume. The first was devoted to the natural features and productions of the State; the second was the civil history; and the third was Mr. Thompson's Gazetteer, revised and enlarged. When Mr. Goodrich several times urged him to issue it in three volumes at six dollars instead of one volume at two dollars and fifty cents, and thereby get twice as much profit from each copy, he steadily declined. Having felt the inconvenience of limited means himself, his sympathies were with those in the same position, and he did not deem it right that those who could not afford the higher price should be deprived of a benefit that their richer neighbors enjoyed, even though the lower price would give him but scant return for the labor, time, and money he had expended. On its appearance the General Assembly of Vermont, regarding the work as a benefit to the State, subscribed for a hundred copies and "voted five hundred dollars to the author. By this means and the proceeds of other sales he was enabled to cancel his debt to his publisher in little more than a year.

At about this time Mr. Thompson issued a text-book ol the Geology and Geography of Vermont, in which his power of clear and concise statement is well exemplified. He found time also to prepare annual astronomical calculations for the Messrs. Walions, of Montpelier. In 1845 he issued a pamphlet Guide to Lake George and Lake Champlain, with a map and other illustrations.

A State Geological Survey having been authorized by the General Assembly, the Governor in 1845 appointed Prof. Charles B. Adams State Geologist. Prof. Adams chose Mr. Thompson and the Rev. S. R. Hall as his assistants. Li one season these two men explored together one hundred and ten townships. The analyses required by the survey were made at New Haven by Denison Olmsted, Jr., until his death in 1846, afterward by Thomas Sterry Hunt. The survey came to an untimely end by the refusal of the General Assembly of 1847-'48 to make an appropriation for preparing its final report. The notes, specimens, and other materials gathered were allowed to lie in boxes at Burlington and Montpelier for about a year. Then, having had a partial sense of the value of these materials impressed upon it, the General Assembly authorized the Governor to appoint some suitable person to get them together and deposit them in the State House. Governor Coolidge appointed Prof. Thompson, and the latter reported the execution of his commission in October, 1849. Many of the field notes were in a peculiarly abbreviated shorthand used by Prof. Adams, and, on his death in 1853, became almost wholly useless.

In 1847 Governor Eaton had appointed Prof. Thompson to carry out a resolution of the General Assembly in regard to international literary and scientific exchanges. He wrote a report of proceedings and instructions, presenting the advantages of the exchange system so clearly as to reflect great credit upon himself and upon his State.

From an address which he delivered in Boston, in 1850, on the invitation of the Boston Society of Natural History, we learn something of the difficulties under which his knowledge of natural science was obtained. "What I have accomplished in the business of natural history," he said, "I have done without any associates engaged in like pursuits, without having any access to collections of specimens, and almost without books." In this address, while showing the difficulties, he at the same time insisted upon the importance of the cultivation of natural history in country places. A habit of observation and comparison of objects, he said, could be acquired quite as readily in the country as in the city. He urged that the study of natural history should be introduced more generally into our colleges and common schools, for the reason that such a study "would refine and improve the moral sensibilities of our people, and sharpen and invigorate their intellectual powers." Prof. Thompson's love for natural history was inborn, and throughout his life amounted to absolute devotion. It was the supreme force in his life. From early childhood until the end, his diligent study of Nature and zeal in collecting facts, and objects to illustrate them, never faltered. He was not only a student of Nature but her ardent and most constant lover. He also enjoyed mathematical studies and was fond of statistics, and these qualities rendered his work in all departments of science more accurate and orderly than it might otherwise have been.

Certain of his friends (his modest worth had made him many of these), knowing his great desire to see the Exhibition of 1851 at London, furnished him the means of making the trip. After an absence of three months, during which he had spent some time in Paris, he returned to his home in Burlington much benefited in spirit and in health. Yielding to repeated solicitation, he published soon after his Journal of a Trip to London, Paris, and the Great Exhibition in 1851, which gave a most realizing impression of what he had seen to those who had not made the trip.

In the ten years following the publication of his History of Vermont, railroads and telegraphs were introduced into the State, and various discoveries in its natural history were made, all of which furnished him material for a valuable supplement of sixty-four pages, issued early in 1853. The General Assembly of this year discovered what a blunder had been made in strangling the geological survey, and passed a bill appointing Prof. Thompson State Naturalist, "to enter upon a thorough prosecution and completion of the geological survey of the State, embracing therein a full and scientific examination and description of its rocks, soils, metals, and minerals; make careful and complete assays and analyses of the same, and prepare the results of his labors for publication under the three following titles, to wit: first, Physical Geography, Scientific Geology and Mineralogy; second, Economical Geology, embracing Botany and Agriculture; third. General Zoölogy of the State." At first he planned to do no more than collate and arrange such material as had been accumulated by his predecessors; but he soon found this very unsatisfactory, and, abandoning this plan, he undertook to go over the whole ground anew. He had for years been unknowingly preparing for just this task, and he threw himself into it with his accustomed energy and devotion, and suspended all other work; but ere long his overtaxed strength gave way, and his last illness was upon him. At first he could not be willing to lay aside a task so congenial, and which he so greatly desired to finish; but soon his naturally quiet and trustful disposition overcame all discontent, and in full acquiescence in the will of the God in whom he had always trusted and whom he had tried to serve, he came to the end in peace, on January 19, 1856. At this time he also held the professorship of Natural History in the University of Vermont, to which he had been appointed in 1853.

His friend for over a score of years, Dr. Thomas M. Brewer, editor of the Boston Atlas, and himself a naturalist of no small ability, thus referred to Prof. Thompson's death: "His loss, both as a citizen and a public man—he has not left his superior in science behind him in his own State—is one of no ordinary character. We have known him long and well; and in speaking of such a loss we know not which most to sympathize with, the family from whom has been taken the upright, devoted, and kind-hearted head, or that larger family of science who have lost an honored and most valuable member. Modest and unassuming, diligent and indefatigable in his scientific pursuits, attentive to all, whether about him or at a distance, and whether friends or strangers, no man will be more missed, not merely in his immediate circle of family and friends, but in that larger sphere of the lovers of natural science, than Zadoc Thompson."

When his death was announced to the Boston Society of Natural History, of which he was a member. Prof. William B. Rogers took occasion to express the high respect in which he had held him as a thorough and persevering worker in geology, saying that he possessed a larger amount of accurate practical knowledge than would have been supposed from his modest and retiring manners, and exhibited a great natural sagacity in those departments of science which he loved. No account of the life and labors of Prof. Thompson is at all complete without some mention of his wife, for without her aid and sympathy he never could have accomplished what he did. In childhood they roamed the fields together in search of interesting objects, and later, as husband and wife, they pursued with increased enthusiasm the same study of Nature; and long after Mr. Thompson's death his wife continued her observations of animals and plants. Moreover, being a very shrewd and efficient manager in all household matters, she was able to carry the family through financial difficulties which otherwise would have frustrated many of her husband's scientific undertakings. Their home was not only a home, but it was also a museum and a laboratory. It was a very modest little white cottage, surrounded by a profusion of flowers when the season permitted, and inside, every available shelf or stand was crowded with specimens which either had been or were to be carefully studied, while not seldom there were in or about the house pens, cages, or tubs in which were kept many living animals, whose daily life was under closest scrutiny. Mrs. Thompson not only tolerated these inroads upon her housekeeping, but delighted to assist her husband in his work, and really deserves to be considered a colleague in many of his labors.

Personally, Prof. Thompson was tall, angular, of a very quiet and sedate yet very pleasant manner, a man of most amiable and sweet temper, loved by all who knew him, and respected for his sound sense and accurate judgment. Though retiring by nature, he was fond of long chats around the winter hearth with such neighbors as were congenial. Prof. Joseph Torrey was his most intimate friend, being an excellent botanist, and with him Mr. Thompson's intercourse was most delightful. He was simple, almost childlike in his tastes. Naturally somewhat conservative, his training in science had given him an open mind to all new truth. It is not improbable that the sober manner which he usually maintained came from the shadow of death which had long rested upon him. He was affected by organic disease of the heart, which finally ended his life, and for many years, knowing the possibility of sudden death, he did not trust himself far from home alone. Most often his companion was a Mr. Hills, who was draughtsman and engraver of nearly if not quite all the cuts used in his publications.

The museum in the Vermont State House contains about three thousand specimens collected by Prof. Thompson. He was one of the most reliable correspondents of the Smithsonian Institution, and corresponded also with many of the leading naturalists both at home and abroad. His achievements won him a medal from the French Exposition of 1855.