Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/Sketch of Manly Miles

PSM V54 D744 Manly Miles.png


TO Dr. Manly Miles belongs the distinction of having been the first professor of practical agriculture in the United States, as he was appointed to that then newly instituted position in the Michigan Agricultural College in 1865.

Professor Miles was born in Homer, Cortland County, New York, July 20, 1826, the son of Manly Miles, a soldier of the Revolution; while his mother, Mary Cushman, was a lineal descendant of Miles Standish and Thomas Cushman, whose father, Joshua Cushman, joining the Mayflower colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, left him there with Governor Bradford when he returned to England.

When Manly, the son, was eleven years old, the family removed to Flint, Michigan, where he employed his time in farm work and the acquisition of knowledge, and later in teaching. He had a common-school education, and improved all the time he could spare from his regular occupations in reading and study. It is recorded of him in those days that he was always successful in whatever he undertook. In illustration of the skill and thoroughness with which he performed his tasks, his sister relates an incident of his sowing plaster for the first time, when his father expressed pleasure at his having distributed the lime so evenly and so well. It appears that he did not spare himself in doing the work, for so completely was he covered that he is said to have looked like a plaster cast, "with only his bright eyes shining through." A thrashing machine was brought on to the farm, and Manly and his brother went round thrashing for the neighbors. Industrious in study as well as in work, the boy never neglected his more prosaic duties to gratify his thirst for knowledge. He studied geometry while following the plow, drawing the problems on a shingle, which he tacked to the plow-beam. Whenever he was missed and inquiry was made about him, the answer invariably was, "Somewhere with a book." He was most interested in the natural sciences, particularly in chemistry in its applications to agriculture, and in comparative physiology and anatomy, and was a diligent student and collector of mollusks.

Choosing the profession of medicine, Mr. Miles was graduated M. D. from Rush Medical College, Chicago, in 1850, and practiced till 1859. In the meantime he became greatly interested in the subject of a geographical survey of the State, for which an act was passed and approved in 1858. In the organization of the survey, in 1859, he was appointed Assistant State Geologist in the department of zoölogy; and in the next year was appointed professor of zoology and animal physiology in the State Agricultural College at Lansing.

In his work as zoologist to the State Geological Survey, in 1859, 1860, and 1861, he displayed rare qualities as a naturalist, so that Mr. Walter R. Barrows, in recording his death in the bulletin of the Michigan Ornithological Club, expresses regret that many of the years he afterward devoted to the development of experimental agriculture "were not spent in unraveling some of the important biological problems which the State afforded, which his skill and perseverance would surely have solved." He was a "born collector," Mr. Barrows adds, "as the phrase is, and his keen eyes, tireless industry, and mathematical precision led to the accumulation of thousands of valuable specimens and more valuable observations."

Mr. Bryant Walker, of Detroit, who knew Professor Miles well in later years, and had opportunity to review his zoölogical work, regards the part he took during this service in developing the knowledge of the fauna of the State as having been very prominent. "The catalogues he published in the report for 1860 have been the basis for all work since that time." He kept in correspondence with the most eminent American naturalists of the period, including Cope, Prime, Lea, W. G. Binney, Baird, and Agassiz, and supplied them with large quantities of valuable material. From the many letters written by these naturalists which are in the possession of his friends, we take, as illustrating the character of the service he rendered and of the trust they reposed in him, even previous to his going on the survey, one from Agassiz, of February 4, 1856:

"Dear Sir: As you have already furnished me with invaluable materials for the natural history of the fishes of your State, I am emboldened to ask another favor of you. I am preparing a map of the Geographical Distribution of the Turtles of North America, and would be greatly indebted to you for any information respecting the range of those found in your State, as far as you have noticed them, even if you should know them only by their common names, my object being simply to ascertain how far they extend over different parts of the country. If you could add specimens of them, to identify them with precision, it would be, of course, so much the better; but as I am almost ready for the press, I could not for this paper await the return of spring, but would thank you for what you could furnish me now. I am particularly interested in ascertaining how far north the different species inhabiting this continent extend." On the back of this letter was Dr. Miles's indorsement that a box had been sent.

A number of letters from Professor Baird, of 1860 and 1861, relate to the identification of specimens collected by Dr. Miles, and to the fishes of Michigan, and contain inquiries about gulls and eggs. Dr. Miles likewise supplied Cope with a considerable amount of material concerning Michigan reptiles and fishes.

While mollusks were the favorite object of Dr. Miles's investigations, he also made studies and valuable collections of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fishes; and he seems, Mr. Barrows asys, "to have possessed, in a high degree, that strong characteristic of a true naturalist, a full appreciation of the value of good specimens. Many of his specimens are now preserved at the Agricultural College, and among his shells are many which are of more than ordinary value from having served as types of new species, or as specimens from type localities, or as part or all of the material which has helped to clear up mistakes and misconceptions about species and their distribution." Mr. Walker speaks of his having done a great work in conchology. His catalogue, which contained a list of one hundred and sixty-one species, was by far the most complete published up to that time. "He described two new species—Planorbis truncatus and Unio leprosus. The former is one of the few species which are, so far as known, peculiar to Michigan, and is a very beautiful and distinct form; while the latter, although now considered as synonymous with another species, has peculiarities which in the then slight knowledge of the variability of the species was a justification of his position. He was also the discoverer of two other forms which were named after him by one of our most eminent conchologists—viz., Campeloma Milesii (Lea) and Guiobasis Milesii (Lea)." Mr. Walker believes that "in general, it can be truthfully stated that Dr. Miles did more to develop the general natural history of that State (Michigan) than any other man either before or since he completed his work as State Geologist."

As professor of zoölogy and animal physiology, Dr. Miles is described by one of his students, who afterward became a professor in the college and then its president, as having been thoroughly interested in the subjects he taught, and shown that interest in his work and in his treatment of his students. He labored as faithfully and industriously with the class of five to which President Clute belonged as if it "had numbered as many score." He supplemented the meager equipment of his department from his more extensive private apparatus and collections, which were freely used for class work; and, when there was need, he had the skill to prepare new pieces of apparatus. "He was on the alert for every chance for illustration which occasion offered: an animal slaughtered for the tables gave him an opportunity to lecture on its viscera; a walk over the drift-covered fields found many specimens of rock which he taught us to distinguish; the mud and the sand banks along the river showed how in the periods of the dim past were formed fossil footprints and ripples; the woods and swamps and lakes gave many useful living specimens, some of which became the material for the improvised dissecting room; the crayon in his hand produced on board or paper the chart of geologic ages, the table of classification, or the drawing of the part of an animal under discussion."

Prof. R. C. Kedzie came to the college a little later, in 1863, when Dr. Miles had been for two years a professor, and found him then the authority "for professors and students alike on beasts, birds, and reptiles, on the stones of the field, and insects of the air," thorough, scholarly, and enthusiastic, and therefore very popular with his classes.

The projection of agricultural colleges under the Agricultural College Land Grant Act of 1862 stimulated a demand for teachers of scientific agriculture, and it was found that they were rare. Of old school students of science there was no lack—able men, as President Clute well says, who were. familiar with their little laboratories and with the old theories and methods, but who did not possess the new vision of evolution and the conservation of energy, men of the study rather than the field, and least of all men of the orchard and stock farm; and they knew nothing of the practical application of chemistry to fertilization and the raising of crops and the composition of feed stuffs, of physiology to stock-breeding, and of geology and physics to the study of the soils.

With a thorough knowledge of science and familiarity with practical agriculture Professor Miles had an inclination to enter this field, and this inclination was encouraged by President Abbott and some of the members of the Board of Agriculture. He had filled the professorship of zoölogy and animal physiology with complete success, and had he consulted his most cherished tastes alone he would have remained there, but he gradually suffered himself to be called to another field. The duties of "acting superintendent of the farm" were attached to his chair in 1864. In 1865 he became professor of animal physiology and practical agriculture and superintendent of the farm; in 1869 he ceased to teach physiology, and gave his whole time to the agricultural branch of his work; and in 1875 the work of the superintendent of the farm was consigned to other hands, and he confined himself to the professorship proper of practical agriculture.

The farm and its appurtenances, with fields cumbered with stumps and undrained, with inadequate and poorly constructed buildings, with inferior live stock, and everything primitive, were in poor condition for the teaching or the successful practice of agriculture. Professor Miles's first business was to set these things in order. Year by year something was done to remove evils or improve existing features in some of the departments of the life and management of the premises, till the concern in a certain measure approached the superintendent's ideal—as being a laboratory for teaching agriculture, conducting experiments, and training men, rather than a money-making establishment.

In this new field, Professor Kedzie says, Professor Miles was even more popular than before with students, and created an enthusiasm for operations and labors of the farm which had been regarded before as a disagreeable drudgery. The students "were never happier than when detailed for a day's work with Dr. Miles in laying out some difficult ditch or surveying some field. One reason why he was so popular was that he was not afraid of soiling his hands. His favorite uniform for field work was a pair of brown overalls. The late Judge Tenney came to a gang of students at work on a troublesome ditch and inquired where he could find Dr. Miles. 'That man in overalls down in the quicksands of the ditch is Dr. Miles'; the professor of practical agriculture was in touch with the soil."

Prof. Byron D. Halsted, of the New Jersey Agricultural College Experiment Station, who was an agricultural pupil of Dr. Miles in Lansing, characterizes him as having been a full man who knew his subjects deeply and fondly. "In those days I am safe in writing that he represented the forefront of advanced agriculture in America. He was in close touch with such men as Lawes and Gilbert, Rothamstead, England, the famous field-crop experimenters of the world, and as for his knowledge of breeds of live stock and their origin, Miles's Stock-Breeding is a classic work. Dr. Miles, in short, was a close student, a born investigator, hating an error, but using it as a steppingstone toward truth. He did American farming a lasting service, and his deeds live after him."

While loved by his students, most of whom have been successful and many have gained eminence as agricultural professors or workers in experiment stations, and while receiving sympathy and support from President Abbott, Dr. Miles was not appreciated by the politicians, or by all of the Board of Agriculture, or even by the public at large. Unkind and captious criticisms were made of his work, and it was found fault with on economical grounds, as if its prime purpose had been to make money. He therefore resigned his position in 1875, and accepted the professorship of agriculture in the Illinois State University. Thence he removed to the Houghton Farm of Lawson Valentine, near Mountainville, N. Y., where he occupied himself with scientific experimental investigation. He was afterward professor of agriculture in the Massachusetts Agricultural College, at Amherst. In announcing this appointment to the students, Dr. Chadbourne, then president of the institution, and himself a most successful teacher, stated that he considered Dr. Miles as the ablest man in the United States for that position. In 1886, shortly after Dr. Chadbourne's death, Dr. Miles returned to his old home in Lansing, Michigan, where he spent the rest of his life in study, research, and the writing of books and articles for scientific publications.

During these later years of his life he took up again with what had been his favorite pursuit in earlier days, but with which he had not occupied himself for thirty years—the study of mollusks—with the enthusiasm of a young man, Mr. Walker says, who being interested in the same study, was in constant correspondence with him at this time; "and as far as his strength permitted labored with all the acumen and attention to details which were so characteristic of him. I was particularly struck with his familiarity with the present drift of scientific investigation and thought, and his thorough appreciation of modern methods of work. He was greatly interested in the work I was carrying on with reference to the geographical distribution of the mollusca, and, as would naturally be supposed from his own work in heredity in connection with our domestic animals, took great pleasure in discussing the relations of the species as they are now found and their possible lines of descent. He was a careful and accurate observer of Nature, and if he had not drifted into other lines of work would undoubtedly have made his mark as a great naturalist. As it is, his name will always have an honored place in the scientific history of Michigan."

When Professor Miles began to teach in the Michigan Agricultural College, the "new education" was new indeed, and the textbook method still held sway. But the improved methods were gradually taking the place of the old ones, and Professor Miles was one of the first to co-operate in them, and he did it with effect. He used text-books, "but his living word," President Clute says, "supplemented the book; and the animal from the farm under his knife and ours, the shells which he led us to find under the rotten logs and along the rivers and lakes, the insects he taught us to collect and classify, the minerals and fossils he had collected on the geological survey of Michigan, all were used to instruct and inspire his students, to cultivate in them the scientific spirit and method."

Among the more important books by Professor Miles are Stock-Breeding, which had a wide circulation and has been much used as a class-book; Experiments with Indian Corn, giving the results of some important work which he did at Houghton Farm; Silos and Ensilage, which helped much in diffusing knowledge of the silo in the times when it had to fight for recognition; and Land Drainage. Of his papers, he published in the Popular Science Monthly articles on Scientific Farming at Rothamstead; Ensilage and Fermentation; Lines of Progress in Agriculture; Progress in Agricultural Science; and How Plants and Animals Grow. To the American Association for the Advancement of Science he contributed papers on Energy as a Factor in Rural Economy; Heredity of Acquired Characters (also to the American Naturalist); Surface Tension of Water and Evaporation; Energy as a Factor in Nutrition; and Limits of Biological Experiments (also to the American Naturalist). Other articles in the American Naturalist were on Animal Mechanics and the Relative Efficiency of Animals as Machines. In the Proceedings of the American Educational Association is an address by him on Instruction in Manual Arts in Connection with Scientific Studies. The records of the U and I Club, of Lansing, of which he was a valued member for ten years, contain papers on a variety of scientific subjects which were read before it, and were highly appreciated. This list does not contain all of Professor Miles's contributions to the literature of science, for throughout his life he was a frequent contributor to the agricultural and scientific press, and a frequent speaker before associations and institutes, "where his lectures were able and practical."

No special record is made of the work of Professor Miles in the American Agriculturist, but the correspondence of Professor Thurber with him furnishes ample proof that he was one of the most trusted advisers in the editorial conduct of that journal. The familiar tone of Professor Thurber's letters, and the undoubting assurance with which he asked for information and aid on various subjects, well demonstrate how well the editor knew whom he could rely upon in an emergency.

In all his work the great desire of Professor Miles was to find and present the truth. His merits were recognized by many scientific societies. He was made a corresponding member of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences in 1862; a corresponding member of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia in January, 1863; a correspondent of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1864; a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1880, and a Fellow of the same body in 1890; and held memberships or other relations with other societies; and he received the degree of D. V. S. from Columbia Veterinary College, New York, in March, 1880.

His students and friends speak in terms of high admiration of the genial qualities of Professor Miles as a companion. The resolutions of the U and I Club of Lansing describe him as an easy and graceful talker, a cheerful dispenser of his learning to others. "To spend an hour in his 'den,' and watch his delicate experiments with 'films,'" says President Clute, "and see the light in his eyes as he talked of them, was a delight." "He was particularly fond of boys," says another, "and never seemed happier than when in the company of boys or young men who were trying to study and to inform themselves, and if he could in any way assist them he was only too glad to do so"; and he liked pets and children. Incidents are related showing that he had a wonderful accuracy in noting and recollecting the minutest details that came under his observation—a power that he was able to bring to bear instantly when its exercise was called for.

Dr. Miles kept up his habits of reading and study to the last days of his life; but all public work was made difficult to him in later years by an increasing deafness. He was tireless in investigation, patient, and always cheerful and looking for the bright side; and when one inquired of him concerning his health, his usual answer was that he was "all right," or, if he could not say that, that he would be "all right to-morrow."

No sketch of Dr. Miles is complete without a word of tribute to his high personal character, his life pure and noble in every relationship, his unswerving devotion to truth, and the unfaltering loyalty to his friends, which make his memory a benediction and an inspiration to all who knew him well.

He was married in 1851 to Miss Mary E. Dodge, who remained his devoted companion until his death, which occurred February 15, 1898.