Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/Sketch of Henry Bradford Nason
HENRY BRADFORD NASON, Professor of Chemistry and Natural Science in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, was born in Foxborough, Massachusetts, June 22, 1831, but removed to North Bridgewater when ten years of age. His father, Elias Nason, was a descendant from Willoughby Nason, of Ipswich, Mass. (1712), and was born at Walpole, Mass., in 1768, and died at Easthampton, Mass., in 1853. He was a gentleman noted for his honesty and integrity, and was long engaged in the manufacture of straw and cotton goods; carried on mercantile business; and served his town, Foxborough, as justice of the peace and as Representative in the General Court. The Nasons were living at Stratford-on-Avon in the days of Shakespeare, and a branch of the family still reside there. Professor Nason's mother, Susannah (Keith) Nason, was a lineal descendant from the Rev. James Keith, who was educated at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and was the first minister of North Bridgewater (now Brockton), Mass. Having attended school for a short time at Newburyport, young Nason entered the Adelphian Academy at North Bridgewater, in 1843, where his attention was drawn to the study of natural science, and he began to make collections of the local minerals. While attending the Williston Seminary, which he had entered in December, 1847, his taste for natural science grew; he became interested also in chemistry, and enriched his collections with rare and valuable plants and minerals. He cultivated these studies still more assiduously at Amherst College, where he visited the interesting geological points in the Connecticut River Valley; and, under the guidance of Professor Shepard, spent most of his vacations in the mineralogically rich regions of western Massachusetts and Connecticut, making many of his expeditions on foot or on horseback. He studied analytical chemistry under Professor Clark, and assisted him in the preparations for his lectures. Having been graduated from Amherst in 1855, he went to Europe, and was matriculated in the Georgia Augusta University at Göttingen, as a student of philosophy. Here he gave special attention, “with a right good-will,” to chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the German language. He afterward spent some time, greatly to his profit, with Bunsen at Heidelberg, and Plattner at Freiberg. Having returned home, enriched with many specimens of rare minerals and of art, he was appointed, in March, 1858, Professor of Natural History in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In the following September he was elected Professor of Chemistry and Natural Science in Beloit College, Wisconsin. He divided his time between these two institutions till 1866, when he resigned the position at Beloit, in order to accept the professorship of Chemistry and Natural Science at Troy. After a second visit to Europe, he made a tour of geological study in the Southern States in the spring of 1860. In the next year he traveled through Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Belgium, and a part of Germany, and spent a semester in Göttingen in the study of geology and mineralogy, under Walterhausen. He then visited and studied the volcanic regions of Italy, ascended Mount Vesuvius, explored the regions of the solfatara, climbed Mount Etna, examined the glaciers of Switzerland and the configuration of the Alpine regions; and, in France, inspected the natural curiosities of the Puy-de-Dôme. In 1872 and 1875 he made three visits to California, in the course of which he traveled in Nevada and Idaho, and the mining regions of Colorado and Utah, and included in his third trip the Yosemite Valley. He spent the summer of 1877 in northern Europe — Finland and Russia — when he enjoyed as a privilege the traversing of the fields which Linnaeus had explored for material for his great botanical work. In the next year he was appointed by President Hayes juror for the United States at the Paris Exposition, and was assigned to the department of mineralogy. Having engaged, in 1880, in the service of an oil company as chemical adviser and expert, he has since devoted much time and attention to the refining of petroleum, methods of testing, and the composition and analysis of crude oils. In the course of these investigations he has been able to throw considerable light on the important subject of the prevention of the nuisances arising from the processes of treating petroleum. In 1881 the New York State Board of Health selected him to be inspector of petroleum-oils, and appointed him a commissioner to London to consider methods of dealing with petroleum nuisances. Another visit to northern Europe, in the summer of 1884, embraced the fiords and glaciers of Norway, and was extended to the North Cape.
Professor Nason's published works include an “Inaugural Dissertation on the Formation of Ether” (1857); “Table of Reactions for Qualitative Analysis” (1865); a translation and revision of Wohler's “Hand-Book of Mineral Analysis” (1868); “Table for Qualitative Analysis in Colors” (1870); an edition of Elderhorst's “Manual of Blowpipe Analysis” (1873, followed by fourth and fifth editions in 1875 and 1876); an edition of the “Manual of Blowpipe Analysis and Determinative Mineralogy” (1880); and a semi-centennial catalogue, the “Proceedings of the Semi-Centennial Celebration,” and a “Biographical Record” of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institution. Besides receiving numerous college and university honors, Professor Nason has been elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Fellow of the London Chemical Society, and of the Society of Chemical Industry; member of the American Chemical Society, of the New York Academy of Sciences, of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, of the Troy Scientific Association; an honorary member of the Albany Institute; and a member of the “Norske Turistforenings,” of Christiania, Norway.
Professor Nason, although, as we have seen, he has made a quota of contributions in the way of special studies and publications to the spread of scientific knowledge, is best known as a teacher; and many hundred men, now earnestly at work in fields of engineering and scientific activity, can trace the beginnings of their usefulness and professional devotion to the enthusiasm which they drew from his instructions and example. His assiduous industry and constant labor to improve and develop the educational facilities and appliances of the seminary have contributed no little to the growth of the solid and world-wide reputation which the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute enjoys. The marks of his work are especially seen in the laboratory, with its three departments — metallurgical and chemical rooms and lecture and study rooms — affording experimenting accommodations for forty students, which was planned and built under his direction. After the mineralogical cabinet of Professor Eaton, which had been rearranged and labeled by Professors Hall and Nason in the previous year, was destroyed by fire in 18G2, Professor Nason, who was then in Europe, immediately began collecting the nucleus of a new cabinet, and this is now known as the Henry B. Nason collection of minerals, containing five thousand specimens, which are arranged in several divisions to illustrate their structural, physical, and chemical properties. His name is also closely associated with the botanical rooms, in which one of the special features is a collection of more than three thousand specimens of American and European plants presented by him. As a teacher, he possesses in a high degree the power of inspiring the minds of his students with a love of science for the sake of science. In consequence of his faithful attention to the drilling of the lecture-room, this work absorbing his time and being honored by him as his duty of paramount importance, he has not been as fruitful in the publication of original investigations and the announcement of the new discoveries which he is so competent to search for, as he might have been had he divided his attention more equally between the two branches of his work. His methods of teaching are quiet, analytical, simple, and winning. An eminent writer has said of him: “He is, in my opinion, one of the most competent scientific instructors of our country; he brings to his classes in the laboratory enthusiasm for their inspiration, rich stores of scientific learning for their enlightenment, and is, in himself, in respect to good nature, gentleness of manner, and elegance of language, a model of what they should be.” If the workman may be known by his work, the hundreds of engineers and scientific experts who have enjoyed the tuition of Professor Nason are the best evidence of his ability as a teacher.