Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/June 1899/Sketch of Thomas Egleston




AS a general rule, the work of the scientist is not of a kind to attract conspicuous notice from the public, especially in great cities, filled and thrilled with commercial and political activity; and so it comes to pass that men of rare attainments and untiring energy, in the highest walks of life and thought, may spend their whole lifetime in such an environment, and be scarcely known outside of a limited circle of kindred minds. They may confer lasting benefits on the community, render important services to the whole country, and be widely known and honored in other lands, and yet receive but little general recognition in the place of their abode.

Such a man, in such a community, is Prof. Thomas Egleston, of the city of New York. He has been too busy and too modest to seek prominence in the public eye, and his scientific work has been of a kind that does not lend itself readily to popular lectures or startling announcements; but as a mineralogist, a metallurgist, and a mining engineer, and as the planner and founder of the great School of Mines of Columbia University, he has made a deep and permanent impress on the history of science in the United States.

Professor Egleston is of New England stock, his ancestors having been among the first settlers of Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1635. Thence they came by a toilsome and perilous journey to Connecticut, and founded Windsor, which was thenceforward their home, and whence his father came to New York. The removal to Connecticut arose from a desire for greater freedom of life and worship than they found in Massachusetts; and Professor Egleston has been deeply interested in studying the little-known records of this movement, and the influence which it exerted, as an almost written chapter in American history. He proposes to publish these researches, together with much other material relating to our colonial history, in which he is an enthusiastic student.

He was born in New York, on December 9, 1832. As a boy he took considerable interest in certain aspects of science, and at the age of thirteen had gathered a collection of minerals and rocks. He attended Yale College, and in the later years of his course took special elective work in chemistry. After graduating there in 1854, he was for a time an assistant to Prof. Benjamin Silliman, Jr. Subsequently he went abroad, partly for his health, and was advised to spend some time in Paris. With no special professional purpose, but from a general desire to improve his time, he began attending lectures on geology and chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes, under D'Orbigny (a brother of the eminent writer) and Hilgard, and he worked with much energy in the laboratories of those departments at the Jardin. He thus attracted the attention of some of the faculty of the École des Mines, who offered him larger facilities in that institution, which he at once accepted. After much very interesting study in the paleontological laboratory there, he decided to go regularly through the entire course, and accomplished that purpose with notable success and honor, graduating in 1860. He had worked as an assistant in every laboratory of the school, and in the summers had traveled through much of France, becoming familiar with its geology, mineral resources, mining works and processes, and gaining a mastery at first hand of all branches of those subjects. Those years were to him full of interest and enjoyment; friendships were formed that have enriched his whole life; and in it all the man was being remarkably prepared for the work of developing those forms of science and of industrial progress in our own country. Professor Egleston has always retained a strong feeling of attachment toward the École des Mines, which has likewise been warmly reciprocated. He has shown his interest by two gifts to the institution, of five thousand dollars each.

Returning hither in 1861, just as the war cloud was darkening over the land, he received almost immediately an appointment at Washington, to take charge of the mineralogical collections and laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. After two years there he conceived the purpose that determined his whole career, and has so greatly influenced both American science and American mineral development—that of a school of mines at New York.

At that time there were, indeed, in this country schools of science, well organized and well equipped—the Sheffield School at Yale, the Lawrence Foundation at Harvard, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, and others. But their scope was rather general in character, and there was no institution planned and arranged with distinct reference to mining and metallurgy as its main subjects. Mr. Egleston, as he was then known, saw and felt this lack, and planned to supply it.

There is not space here to detail the circumstances under which he was led to prepare, in 1863, the Plan for a School of Mines in New York; but the modest little outline then drawn up and printed has been exceedingly rich in results. It was taken up with interest by certain leading trustees of Columbia College, as it was then called, especially by the late George T. Strong. The president, the late Dr. Charles King, and a majority of the board, favored the experiment, for so it was regarded, and arrangements were finally made to begin it in the autumn of the next year, in limited quarters in the old college building on Forty-ninth Street, and with provision for but a small number of students—not over twenty. Part of the instruction was to be given by members of the existing college faculty; and three new professors were appointed to special chairs for the school, to be compensated wholly by fees therefrom. These were, Professor Egleston, mineralogy and metallurgy; Prof. Francis Vinton, mining engineering; and Dr. C. F. Chandler, chemistry.

Meanwhile, in June, 1864, President King was succeeded by the late Dr. Barnard, whose strong interest in science made him a warm supporter of the school. Already some prominent people were impressed with the value of such a movement, and disposed to aid it. A fine collection of minerals was purchased and presented by Mr. Strong, and another was given by Mr. Gouverneur Kemble.

On the opening day, November 15, 1864, the number of applicants was far beyond expectation and provision; the school was found to respond to a need and a demand that had not been suspected; it was a success from the first. In a year or two it had become an institution of recognized importance; ample quarters were provided for it in a large building, formerly a manufactory, on the Fourth Avenue side of the college block, and important additions were made to its corps of instructors—particularly the eminent geologist, Dr. J. S. Newberry, of Cleveland, Ohio, whose noble geological collection was deposited and used in the School of Mines, and whose breadth and power and personal magnetism so profoundly influenced scientific interest and progress in the city of New York for more than twenty years.

Such was the beginning of the school; its career has been one of unbroken growth and increasing influence. After some ten years it was found needful to take down the plain old transformed factory and erect a new building on its site, with larger space and improved facilities. Fifteen years later Columbia College was removed to its new site on the Morningside Heights, where now the School of Mines is installed in stately fireproof structures, wherein its great accumulated treasures of collections, apparatus, models, and varied appliances of instruction are safely and permanently housed.

The influence of this school upon science in New York city has been incalculable. Only those who have lived in touch with the scientific life of the metropolis during the period since the close of the civil war can appreciate the change that has taken place in public feeling regarding science, or can recognize how largely that change is due to the existence of such an institution, and to the presence of such a body of strong and able professors, in constant and active co-operation in the interest of science. The school attracted notice from the first, abroad as well as throughout this country. In 1871, seven years from its opening, a writer in the North American Review characterized it as "already more scientific than Freiberg, more practical than Paris," and emphasized its influence both upon science and upon mining interests in the United States, pointing out that the literature pertaining to mines and their working had been very limited in the English language, and that the instruction in the school had to be chiefly given by lectures; but that these courses would gradually develop into a literature.

These suggestions have been fully justified by the results of the last quarter century. The vast development of our mineral resources has been largely under the direction of graduates of this school. Hundreds of them are to-day in important positions of scientific trust, not only throughout our own country but in South and Central America, Australia, China, Japan, and even Europe itself. The lectures of the professors, and the articles constantly published in the School of Mines Quarterly, have indeed given us a literature of the subject in English. The local influence in the city has been great, upon scientific education in secondary schools, and upon general public sentiment; while in Columbia University the experiment has become one of its finest departments and an element of its greatest strength. Rarely is it given to a man to see in his life-time so great a result from the plans and the labors of his earlier years.

Of the many forms of scientific activity which have engaged Professor Egleston during his busy life, only the briefest mention can be made. He was one of the founders of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, was thrice its vice-president, and was chosen president in 1886; and he has published over one hundred articles in its Transactions. He was one of the founders of the American Metrological Society, and of the societies of Mechanical Engineers and of Electrical Engineers, and a member of the society of Civil Engineers and of the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain. In the New York Academy of Sciences he was active for many years, and held the vice-presidency from 1869 to 1881. In 1866 Professor Egleston was associated with the Agricultural and Geological Survey of the Union Pacific Railroad; in 1868 was appointed a United States Commissioner to examine the fortifications of the coast; and in 1873 was one of the jurors for the International Exposition at Vienna. From Princeton and Trinity Colleges he received, in 1874, the degrees of Ph. D. and LL. D., respectively, and from the Govermnent of France the rank of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1890, and the exceptional rank of "Officier" in 1895.

His papers, publislied either separately or in the proceedings of the several engineering societies above mentioned, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the School of Mines Quarterly, etc., cover a wide range of subjects connected with mineralogy, metallurgy, and mining operations. In mineralogy he was especially devoted to crystallography, and his noble private collection was gathered and arranged with relation to that department. Besides his strictly metallurgical articles and treatises, he has dealt with such topics as rails, in relation to accidents; furnaces and their construction; fire-brick and refractory substances; slags and their utilization, etc.; the decay of building stones, in connection with the Obelisk; technical education, manual training, and improvement in the conditions of workingmen in mining and metallurgical occupations.

His chief published works are The Metallurgy of Gold, Silver, and Mercury in the United States, two large volumes, 1887 and 1890, and his Lectures on Mineralogy, to which may be added his Tables for the Determination of Minerals, Metallurgical Tables on Fuels, Iron, and Steel, diagrams and comparisons of crystals and crystal notation, tables of production of many of the metals, report on the Union Pacific Railroad survey of 1868, and many others.

Within the past two years Professor Egleston has withdrawn from active work in the School of Mines, and bears now the title of Professor Emeritus; his health has been a good deal impaired, and his work has passed largely into the charge of younger men who have grown up under his direction as students and assistants. During the last winter he has presented to the school his entire scientific library and his private collection of minerals above referred to, some six thousand specimens. These, in addition to the great mineralogical treasures already possessed by the institution, all gathered and arranged under his supervision, will make the School of Mines collection certainly one of the finest in the country.

Although devoted to his own special branches, Professor Egleston had given a striking example of broad interest in other departments of science in his labor of love in connection with the monument to the memory of the great ornithologist Audubon. The present writer was closely associated with him in this work, and can testify to his energy, enthusiasm, and perseverance therein. The later years of Audubon's life had been spent on Manhattan Island, in a modest but beautiful suburban home on the Hudson, above Harlem, known as Audubon Park. He died in 1851, and was buried in a family vault in Trinity Cemetery, then far out of town, now lying between One hundred and Fifty-third and One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Streets, Amsterdam Avenue, and the Hudson. The spot was remote and almost unknown, and with the death and removal of most of the family, it had fallen into neglect. When One Hundred and Fifty-third Street was to be opened through to the river, the vault, which was close to the street line, was in danger of injury; and then Professor Egleston took up the matter and proposed to the trustees of the cemetery that if they would grant another plot in a better location, he would endeavor to have a handsome monument erected by national subscription. The trustees responded warmly, and Professor Egleston undertook the work. Before going abroad in 1887 he broached the subject to the writer, and suggested that he present it during the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which was to be held during that summer in New York. The writer gladly responded to the plan, and in August of that year laid the facts before a general meeting of the association. Much interest was expressed, but no action was taken, as had been hoped. At the first regular meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences, in October, the writer again presented the subject, with better result; and a committee was appointed by the academy, consisting of Professor Egleston as chairman. Dr. N. L. Britton, and the writer. On the return of the former from Europe the work was taken up in earnest; and under the indefatigable efforts of the chairman and of the secretary. Dr. Britton, although with many delays and discouragements, it was carried to a triumphant success.

Before the end of the year (1887) the committee had held numerous meetings, prepared and issued a circular, and engaged the co-operation of several other organizations with the Academy of Sciences, including the American Ornithologists' Union, the Agassiz Association, and the Audubon Society (for the protection of our native birds). A design was proposed by the academy's committee, and adopted by the joint committee of the several societies; this design originated with Professor Egleston, and was a striking combination of the religious, scientific, and artistic elements appropriate to the purpose. The scheme was that of a Runic cross, the only form of that Christian symbol which can properly bear ornamental devices, according to the canons of artists and architects, and this was to be covered with reliefs of the birds, quadruipeds, and flowers that Audubon so loved and studied, and that have given him his fame as the artist-naturalist of America. The general design being approved, the selection and arrangement of the animals and birds was given to a subcommittee of specialists, consisting of Dr. J. A. Allen, Mr. G. B. Sennett, and Dr. N. L. Britton, whose duty was to secure accurate representation and artistic grouping of the forms.

In all these combined aspects this monument is doubtless unique. As it stands to-day over the grave of him whom it commemorates—graceful, dignified, and altogether peculiar—it is an honor to our city, as well as a fitting tribute to the memory of Audubon, the Nature-lover, the artist, and the Christian believer. For this beautiful thought, so nobly carried out, both American science and the city of New York are indebted to Thomas Egleston.

The progress of the effort was slow; it was not until 1891 that sufficient subscriptions were secured, and not until the spring of 1893 that all was ready for the formal ceremonies. During all this time Professor Egleston and Dr. Britton were untiring in their endeavors and unfaltering in their purpose to succeed. On April 26, 1893, the monument was dedicated with suitable exercises, of great interest, at Trinity Cemetery, and a memorial address upon the life and work of Audubon was delivered by Mr. Daniel G. Elliott, F. R. S. E., of the Ornithologists' Union, at a public meeting at the American Museum of Natural History.

Professor Egleston has also laid the citizens of New York under enduring obligation to him in another and even more important matter, the preservation of one of the most valuable of our smaller parks from the clutches of the speculator and spoiler. It is known to but few of the residents of the city that a series of determined attempts was made, some years ago, to destroy and obliterate Washington Square, in the same way in which the St. John's Park outrage was perpetrated ten years before. The method pursued in that case was by interested parties buying up property around the park and "colonizing" the houses with tenants who would either favor or consent to the vandal obliteration of that beautiful spot of rest and shade for the erection thereon of the Hudson River Railroad freight depot. St. John's Park, however, was the property partly of a corporation, partly of individuals, and the job was comparatively easy. Washington Square belonged to the city; but the same process was begun by a great real-estate magnate, and was going on toward a similar result, when the death of the arch-conspirator checked the scheme for a time. A little later, however, it was revived, under the notorious Tweed régime, and would have succeeded but for the keen insight and vigorous action of a few public-spirited citizens, led by Professor Egleston. Washington Square had been dug over and torn up, under the pretext of remodeling and "improvement," and the unsightly mounds and piles of earth were left for many months, not only to offend the eye, but to generate malaria. The ground had been originally a Potter's Field, and the opening and upturning of the soil, frequently unhealthy in its effect, was markedly so in that case. The south side of the square had been "worked" already, in the first attempt, and had largely lost its population of old residents; but the north side was still occupied by a select class of old New Yorkers. Now, however, between the desolate aspect of the park and the malaria that began to be felt, an exodus of the owners on the north side was imminent. Then began to be hinted some schemes for which all this was preparatory. A great militia armory was to be erected on the western end, and other projects vaguely loomed up, involving the ruin of the park as such. A bill to legalize these schemes was quietly introduced at Albany, and had been brought nearly to its passage, by "influences" no less potent for their careful concealment. Professor Egleston and a few other gentlemen of the vicinity were anxious about these rumors, but could get no information. Inquiries from city officials were met with positive denial of any such intentions, and it was only within a few days of the time set for the passage of the bill that they succeeded in discovering its real meaning.

At this late juncture the "Public Parks Protective Association" was quietly and quickly organized by a small body of public-spirited men, of whom the late John Jay was president and Professor Egleston secretary. This association set itself to work most earnestly to reveal the danger, to arouse public sentiment and public protest, and to make these felt in the Capitol at Albany. Circulars and petitions were prepared and widely disseminated, at the cost of great labor, within the brief time left ere the bill should come up for passage. The New York Academy of Sciences, speaking in the interest of public health, passed strong resolutions of remonstrance; and various other bodies took similar action, including the Academy of Medicine.

The result was that legislators were aroused, some to the real character of measures that they had not fully understood, and others to the existence of a public sentiment upon which they had not counted, and the bill failed to pass. Nor was this all: a resolution was adopted, prepared by the association, guaranteeing the ground occupied by the square to be kept "forever" as a park for purposes of public health and recreation.

That Washington Square remains to-day, an oasis of beauty in the desert of brick and stone, and a breathing place in that densely built portion of the great city, is due principally to the watchfulness and energy of Professor Egleston. He it was who saved that park to the people of New York, and a debt of lasting gratitude therefor is owing him from them. This is an unwritten episode in the history of our city, and the present writer, who knew something of the facts at the time, is gratified to be able to put them on record now. But let us not fail to note the lesson that they convey. "Eternal vigilance is the price" of all that is valuable in a community like ours, where the demands of business greed and the devices of political schemers and "bosses" may at any time unite again, as in the past, for acts of profitable vandalism, and dismiss as "sentimental" all considerations of beauty, health, or historical association. The sanitary importance of our smaller parks is now better understood; and the city is buying property for such purposes at heavy cost, in localities where fifty years ago parks could have been laid out at little expense, and maintained at a vast saving of human health and life. Such articles, also, as that of Dr. Stephen Smith, in the February number of this monthly, are educating the intelligent community as to the sanitary value of vegetation in cities. But nothing is safe or sacred where the evil trinity of the boss, the speculator, and the "soulless" corporation may combine their forces; and the call is for ceaseless watchfulness.

Professor Egleston has been all his life in active association with the religious and benevolent work of the Episcopal Church. He became president of the Bible and Common Prayer-Book Society in 1871; was vice-president of the Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society from 1870 to 1897; a trustee of the General Theological Seminary, and a member of the corporation of Trinity Church from 1878. In connection with the last-named body some of his relations have an interest wider than his own denomination, and may fittingly be mentioned in a sketch relating chiefly to his scientific career. Two points may here be noted: the schools among the poorer classes maintained by the Trinity corporation; and the unique jeweled chalice in memory of his wife, presented by him to Trinity Church.

Aided and controlled more or less by Trinity corporation, though in different parts of the city and in connection with different Episcopal churches, are now eight schools, with about one thousand pupils. In these are taught careful and scientific methods of training along modern lines, of eye and hand development, hygiene, economy, and thrift, to children and youth of the neediest classes. Already for years much interested in these schools, Professor Egleston has, since his withdrawal from professional activity, given much of his time to their advancement, and has found intense gratification in observing the results of this training among a class of children that, from their general environment, would grow up to be a burden or a menace to the city. The intelligent culture of hand and eye, the mental quickening and moral uplifting, the capacity and purpose of honorable self-support, and the protection from moral and social perils, that are imparted and secured through the agency of these schools, are to him a constant source of enthusiasm.

The jeweled chalice above referred to is of scientific interest from the great variety and rarity of the gems with which it is set. During years of travel to and from many parts of Europe, Professor Egleston had remarkable opportunities, in his visits to mining regions and his intercourse with mineralogists, to obtain fine and choice specimens of gems; these he had mounted in elegant forms as presents to his wife, Mrs. Augusta McVickar Egleston. Her death, in 1895, was a very great blow to her husband, as their married life had been extremely happy; and the only satisfactory use to which this beautiful treasure of jewelry could be put seemed to him to be in the services of divine worship in the church. It is not possible in brief compass, without a figure, to describe the arrangement of these jewels on the base, stem, and cup of the golden chalice; but it must suffice to say that there are one hundred and eighty stones set in, with embossed work, on a cup and pedestal nine inches high and half that width. The species and varieties number fifteen, many of them in rare shades of color; among them are the ruby-colored Siriam garnets, green "demantoid" garnets of the Ural ("Uralian emerald"), Ceylonese moonstones, colored diamonds, sapphires, both yellow and green (Oriental topaz and emerald), rubellites, red zircon, moldavite (the rare green obsidian of Moravia), green tourmaline, chrysoberyl, the rich purple amethysts of the Urals, etc. Considered either mineralogically or as a work of art, this chalice is almost unique; while the conception and designing, which are wholly of Professor Egleston's own, reveal the same union of artistic and scientific qualities that was shown in the Audubon monument above mentioned, joined with a religious and a personal sentiment almost too sacred to dwell upon in a sketch like the present.

In all these aspects of his life and work, as we said at the beginning. Professor Egleston has been little known to the general public; but among scientific and engineering circles he has been highly honored. In these pages he may become more mdely known, and the people of the metropolis and of the country at large may learn something of the manner of man that has lived and labored so honorably among them, and has done so much for science and his fellow-men.