Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Sketch of James Blythe Rogers

1232736Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 June 1896 — Sketch of James Blythe Rogers1896



SCIENCE has need of all manner of men among its votaries. He whose career will be traced in this memoir devoted to its service a warm sympathy, an inspiring utterance, a high degree of constructive faculty, and a conscientiousness which caused him ever to give his best efforts to the duty before him.

James Blythe Rogers was born in Philadelphia, February 11, 1802, being the first child of Hannah (Blythe) and Patrick Kerr Rogers. His grandfather, Robert Rogers, was one of the gentry of County Tyrone, Ireland. At the age of twenty-one he married Sarah Kerr, daughter of a gentleman living near, whose family, like his own, were adherents of the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Rogers was owner of the Edergole or Knockbrack estate, lying between Omagh and Fintano, forty miles from Londonderry, and held on lease a piece of land adjoining it. Dr. W. S. W. Ruschenberger, whose excellent memoir on The Brothers Rogers[1] is the chief available source of information concerning this family, mentions as additional evidence of his social standing that he inherited the large central pew in the neighboring Presbyterian church, which he rebuilt and furnished anew when the church was reconstructed. Robert Rogers was twice married; his first wife bore him twelve children, and the second five. Patrick Kerr Rogers was his eldest child. "The rudiments of Patrick's education," says Dr. Ruschenberger, "were received in a schoolhouse built upon the estate. It is described as having clay walls, a thatched roof, clay seats covered with bits of carpet, and being warmed by a turf fire. The teacher was a lame rustic boy, whom Patrick's aunt, Margaret Rogers, a lady of notable intelligence, had trained for the office. It is conjectured that he acquired his classical learning from a private tutor at the house of a kinsman." The father of Sarah Kerr evidently did not believe in the law of primogeniture, for he had exacted, as a condition of his daughter's marriage to Robert Rogers, a settlement of all the latter's lands upon the children of this union, share and share alike. Accordingly, Patrick, although the eldest child, could expect only one twelfth of his father's landed estate, and must prepare himself for some other occupation than that of a landlord. "Entertaining opinions not rigidly orthodox, he was unwilling to enter the clerical profession, though he had the example of two uncles who were clergymen." All things considered, a commercial career seemed best, and he therefore entered a counting house in Dublin. When the Irish rebellion broke out, in the spring of 1798, he contributed to Dublin newspapers certain articles inimical to the Government, on account of which he was obliged to leave the country. At that period ships plied directly between Ireland and Philadelphia, and on one of these he embarked, landing at his destination in August, after a passage of eighty-four days.

In the following May Mr. Rogers obtained an appointment as a tutor in the University of Pennsylvania, and soon afterward began to study medicine under the famous Dr. Benjamin S. Barton. Mr. Rogers was married January 2, 1801, his wife being the youngest of the three orphan daughters of a Scotch father and an English mother. Their father, James Blythe, had been a stationer and newspaper publisher in Londonderry, whither he had gone from Glasgow. After the death of both parents the three sisters had come to America, where they were received by a cousin, Mrs. Thomas Moore. At the time of his marriage Mr. Rogers was described as "a tall, erect man, of grave deportment, having dark hair well sprinkled with gray, and soft, sleepy eyes. He played the violin and sang well, but never in company or in the presence of strangers, because such performance or display seemed to him inconsistent with the dignity of a gentleman."

After receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, in June, 1802, Dr. Rogers began the practice of his profession in Philadelphia, He also took private pupils and lectured to classes in botany, chemistry, and other sciences. He was called to Ireland in 1803 to settle the estate of his father, who died in that year. This business disposed of, he returned to Philadelphia, bringing with him two brothers and a sister.

The next five years of effort did not bring him a satisfactory income and he removed to Baltimore, where he was more prosperous until he became involved in a controversy on methods of vaccination, which injured his practice. When Dr. Robert Hare resigned the professorship of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in the ancient College of William and Mary, at Williamsburg, Va., Dr. Rogers was elected to succeed him. In this congenial position he remained, a competent and forceful instructor, until he died of malarial fever in 1828. His wife had succumbed to the same disease eight years before.

James B. Rogers received his elementary education in Baltimore during the residence of his parents in that city, and, after attending the College of William and Mary, took up the study of medicine in the office of Dr. Thomas E. Bond. In 1822 he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Maryland. It is said that while a student he assisted his brothers William and Henry in teaching their school at Baltimore. After graduating he taught for a time a class of girls in conjunction with a Dr. McClellan, of Baltimore. This enterprise, proving unsatisfactory, was given up. Being now in need of employment, he thought of seeking the post of surgeon to a colony of free negroes which it was proposed to establish at Cape Mesurado. He consulted his father on this matter, and must have written a rather querulous letter, for he got this chunk of paternal hard sense in reply: "What is the use of your complaining of mankind? The world as yet owes you nothing. Up to this time you have been simply a recipient of its benefits. Make yourself worthy of a place here and you will find one." The project of going to Africa was abandoned.

Dr. Rogers now joined an intimate friend and fellow-student, Dr. Henry Webster, in a partnership to practice medicine at Little Britain, Pa., about two miles north of the Maryland line. But after a few years' experience he abandoned the profession, having found it repugnant to his mental habits and sensitive nature. He returned to Baltimore, and was soon appointed superintendent of the extensive chemical manufactory of Messrs. Tyson and Ellicott.

From this time on Dr. Rogers made pure and applied chemistry his chief concern. The professorship of Chemistry in the Washington Medical College being offered to him, lie hesitated to accept it, thinking he was not sufficiently ready of speech for a lecturer. He finally undertook the work, and, although it was not remunerative, it served to discover the fact that he shared the gift of eloquence which distinguished his brothers. The ice being thus broken, he found it easy to give chemical lectures before the Mechanics' Institute, in Baltimore, and later he lectured also on physics.

Dr. Joseph Carson states in his memoir of Dr. Rogers that it was William B. Rogers who induced his brother to venture upon the career of a college lecturer, and thus relates how it was accomplished: "To convince him that he had nothing to apprehend on that score [lack of fluency], his brother William prevailed upon him to accompany him to the lecture room, and there, placing the future professor behind the desk, constituted himself the audience. The theme was named, which being instantly taken up and amplified upon, the ease and fullness with which he spoke relieved him of his diffidence and apprehension. This was his first effort to lecture, and, like this, all his future performances were without notes or facilities of recollection, except those incident to the arrangement of the topic."

In September, 1830, being then twenty-eight years of age, he married Rachel Smith, of Baltimore, a birthright member of the Society of Friends.

Cincinnati was the residence of Dr. J. B. Rogers from 1835 to 1839, this period being the whole term of existence of the Medical Department of Cincinnati College, in which he had accepted the professorship of Chemistry. . The summer vacations of these four years he spent as an assistant to his brother William in fieldwork and chemical investigations on the Geological Survey of Virginia. While in Cincinnati he declined the office of melter and refiner in the branch mint at New Orleans, offered to him by the President of the United States.

Dr. Rogers now, 1840, removed to Philadelphia and became an assistant to his brother Henry, who was the State Geologist of Pennsylvania. He also turned his knowledge of chemistry to account in various other occupations. He was appointed in 1841 lecturer on chemistry in the Philadelphia Medical Institute, then a flourishing summer school, which had been founded by Dr. Nathaniel Chapman. From 1844 to 1847 he was Professor of General Chemistry in the Franklin Institute, of which institution he had become a member when he went to live in Philadelphia. In this period he and his brother Robert compiled a text-book on Chemistry from the Inorganic Chemistry of Dr. Edward Turner and the Organic Chemistry of Dr. William Gregory. It was published in 1846. He also conducted quiz classes of medical students. He was for a time Professor of Chemistry in the Franklin Medical College, and represented this institution in the National Medical Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1847, which organized the American Medical Association.

In 1847 he succeeded the celebrated Dr. Robert Hare as Professor of Chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania—a curious coincidence in connection with his father's succeeding Dr. Hare at Williamsburg. In this position he remained until his death, five years later. He was also one of the representatives of the university in the National Convention of 1850 for revising the Pharmacopœia of the United States.

In 1846 he was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society, and the following year joined the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Dr. Rogers was of slight frame and never enjoyed robust health. In his latter years he suffered at times from nervous exhaustion and defective nutrition, probably induced by unremitting labor. He died June 15, 1852, leaving a widow, two sons, William B. and Henry A., also a daughter, Mary V. Rogers.

Never favored by prosperity. Dr. Rogers was particularly straitened in circumstances during the first part of his residence in Philadelphia. It was not until he entered upon his last professorship that he received a comfortable salary. The institutions with which he had been connected before were small and weak or came to grief in some way that could not be anticipated. While lack of shrewdness and assertiveness on his own part may have contributed to hinder his advancement, his worth as a teacher is beyond question. He was everywhere esteemed by his colleagues and popular among his students. Dr. Carson said of him, "Disinterested and generous in his relations with the world, mild and conciliating in deportment, open and affable when approached, urbane to every one, his virtues shone conspicuously within the circle of his friends. With his pupils he was sympathizing; he entered cheerfully into their discouragements and difficulties; and those who confided to him received that encouragement and counsel so grateful to the student's feelings. He was emphatically the student's friend."

At the School of Horticulture, Geneva, Switzerland, fourteen professors are engaged in teaching the various branches of the science, which include floriculture, arboriculture, kitchen gardening, landscape architecture, forest culture, vine dressing, zoölogy, bee raising, botany, chemistry, and metallurgy. A considerable part of the school day is devoted to practical work under the direction of five superintendents.
  1. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. xxiii, pp. 104-146.