Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/August 1896/Sketch of William Williams Mather

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 August 1896  (1896) 
Sketch of William Williams Mather
PSM V49 D452 William Williams Mather.jpg



AMERICA will never cease to benefit from the influence of its Puritan stock. Although the former preponderance in national affairs of New England as a section has disappeared with the widening of our territory, the vigor, the intellect, and the conscience of the settlers at Plymouth and at Boston have been diffused by their restless descendants through every State in the Union.

William Williams Mather came from one of the most celebrated of the Puritan families in America. He was descended from Rev. Richard Mather, who fled to Massachusetts in 1635 to escape persecution for nonconformity. Richard Mather brought four sons to America, from the second of whom, Timothy, was descended the subject of this article. Two other sons, Eleazer and Increase, were born to Richard in this country, and the latter of these was the President of Harvard College from 1688-1701. Cotton Mather, the eminent divine and author, whose misguided zeal was such a strong support to the “witchcraft delusion,” was a son of Increase. The paternal grandfather of William, Eleazer Mather, and his grand-uncle, Elisha, were officers of the Connecticut troops in the Revolutionary War. The eldest son of this Eleazer, who bore the same name, was the father of William. He learned the hatter's trade in Norwich and set up a business for himself at Brooklyn, in Windham County, Conn., which he carried on successfully for a number of years. He then traveled for a time in Canada, and returning to Brooklyn married Miss Fanny Williams, whose father, Nathan Williams, was also a soldier of the Revolution. After his marriage he ceased to follow his trade, and kept a temperance hotel, also giving considerable attention to the improvement of worn-out lands. His son William Williams was born in Brooklyn on May 24, 1801.

The Hon. Ivers J. Austin, who wrote the memorial sketch of him for the New England Historic Genealogical Society,[1] was unable to find any information concerning William's childhood, and very little in regard to his early youth. While still in his teens William formed the purpose of becoming a physician, and went to Providence, R. I., to take up medical studies. There he became much interested in chemistry, and on the occasion of a visit home he brought with him an elaborate piece of chemical apparatus, the cost of which rather astonished and displeased his father. But he so amused and instructed his family by his chemical experiments and explanations that his father became entirely reconciled to this outlay. In 1822 the young man applied for a warrant as a cadet at West Point, which he obtained in the following year. Recommending him for this appointment, the chief judge of Windham County wrote: "He is about eighteen years of age, possessed of much more than common talents and literature. He understands the Latin language, and some of the higher branches of mathematical science, which he acquires with much facility."

He entered the academy in the summer of 1823, and, in common with eight or nine other members of his class, spent one year more than the usual period there, being graduated in 1828. Young Mather was proficient in chemical analysis, especially of ores and minerals, before going to West Point, and in 1826, when Webster's Chemistry was passing through the press, the proof-sheets of a part if not the whole of the work were sent to him by the author for suggestions and corrections. These were furnished by him and were adopted, but Mather's name was not mentioned in the preface of the book among those who had contributed to it, and he expressed to his classmate and memoirist, Austin, his disappointment at the omission. In the fall of that year he entered the second class, thus coming to the studies of chemistry and mineralogy in the curriculum of the academy, Webster's book being used. Cadet Mather at once took the head of the class in these subjects, and easily kept his place to the end of the course. When off duty he explored the hills of the vicinity to collect minerals for his private cabinet and that of the lyceum. The chemical laboratory of the institution was also a place of resort for his leisure hours. During the last year of the course he was an assistant in the laboratory. He seemed to have a special aptitude for science and took great delight in experimenting. Mr. Austin illustrates this tendency by the following account:

"The winter of 1826-'27 was very cold. The ice, floating down to the narrow gorge between the precipitous shores of West Point and the opposite bank, became wedged there and was exceedingly thick. It occurred to Mather that a favorable opportunity was thus offered to ascertain the temperature of the water at the bottom of the river while the surface was covered with ice. After several attempts he succeeded in making a self-registering thermometer, and an apparatus for bringing up a specimen of the water of the lowest depth. A hole was cut through the ice about the middle of the river, and the apparatus, attached to a strong cord, was let down into the water, but the current was so strong that it failed to reach the bottom. With a heavier weight it sank far enough, but the pressure forced the cork into the bottle. The next attempt was successful; water was drawn from below, and its temperature ascertained from the self-registering, compared with that indicated by a detached, thermometer. The result of this experiment, in which the writer assisted him, is not remembered, but Mather declared that he was satisfied with it. Such was his occupation on one of the coldest days in winter, during the whole of the Saturday afternoon allowed to the corps for recreation."

On graduating he was assigned to the Seventh Infantry with the customary rank of second lieutenant. He remained at West Point as acting assistant instructor of artillery during the summer encampment of 1828, and was then ordered to the School of Practice at Jefferson Barracks, where he remained until April, 1829. From April to the end of June he was on frontier duty at Fort Jessup, La. He was then detailed to serve as acting assistant Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology in the Military Academy, which duty he performed until the summer of 1835. The assistant professors at the academy at that time were usually detailed from recent graduates, and their terms of service rarely exceeded two years. The fact that Lieutenant Mather was retained in that capacity for six years indicates that he was an unusually successful instructor. During the recess of his course of instruction in 1833 he acted as Professor of Geology, with the permission of the War Department, at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., and the following year received the honorary degree of A. M. from this university. In the summer of 1834 he made a geological survey of Windham County, Conn.

Within the first year after his graduation Lieutenant Mather published in the American Journal of Science a paper entitled On the Nonconducting Power of Water with Regard to Heat. While serving as assistant professor at the academy he contributed other papers to the same journal, and wrote a small textbook. Elements of Geology, which was afterward enlarged and passed through several editions. He wrote also an account of the diluvium for the use of the cadets in their study of geology.

On being relieved from duty at the academy he was assigned to topographical service as an assistant to G. W. Featherstonhaugh in a geological examination of the country from Green Bay to Coteau des Prairies. This work occupied him during the latter half of 1835. He made a topographical map of the St. Peter's (Minnesota) River Valley and a report, which his later associate Whittlesey says he refused to present to the "pretentious English geologist in charge of the expedition," but transmitted direct to the United States Government. When this survey was completed he was promoted to a first lieutenancy and sent to join his regiment on frontier duty at Fort Gibson, in Idaho Territory. The following summer he marched into the Choctaw country in command of his company. Feeling that he could now safely adopt the pursuit of science as a profession, he resigned his commission in the army at the end of August, 1836.

When he had been one year at West Point as assistant professor, Lieutenant Mather married his cousin, Miss Emily Maria Baker. By this marriage he had three sons and three daughters.

After leaving the army Mr. Mather was for a short time Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology in the University of Louisiana, but before the close of 1836 Governor Marcy, of New York, appointed him, together with Ebenezer Emmons, T. A. Conrad, and Lardner Vanuxem, to make a geological survey of that State. Each of these principal geologists was assigned to one of four districts, into which the State was divided for the purpose. Mather had the first district, which comprised Washington, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, and Delaware Counties, and all that part of the State to the southeast of them. What this survey accomplished has been told by Dr. James Hall, in the Popular Science Monthly for April, 1883. The work of the survey lasted about seven years. During this time Prof. Mather made five periodical reports and a final report. This last forms a quarto volume of six hundred and fifty-three pages, with forty-six colored plates, being one of the set of volumes embodying the results of the survey and published by the State.

In 1837 a State Geological Survey of Ohio was projected and Prof. Mather was made chief geologist. This ill-fated project was killed after an existence of little more than two years by a spasm of economy which attacked the Ohio Legislature of 1839. Two annual reports had been presented, and were printed as State documents, and a report on the collections was made afterward, but there was no final report, and no provision was made for preserving papers, field-notes, and maps. A geological reconnaissance of Kentucky, authorized by the Legislature of that State, was made by Prof. Mather in 1838-'39, his report being issued as a State document. Both his appointment in Ohio and that in Kentucky had been accepted with the condition that they should not prevent the completion of his work in New York.

Colonel Charles Whittlesey has stated, in an article on the Personnel of the First Geological Survey of Ohio, that after the suspension of the Ohio survey, Mather bought a tract of several hundred acres, including the Pigeon Roost, north of the courthouse in Jackson County, and became a citizen of Ohio. He cleared a part of this land for a farm and built him a comfortable house on it. Afterward he and Prof. James Hall entered a large tract of Government land in the southern part of the same county, on which they erected an iron furnace.

When Mr. Mather settled in Jackson County, in 1841, it was impossible to obtain sperm oil there for domestic lighting. The only recourse of the family was to mold tallow candles, which was very unsatisfactory. In the following winter Mr. Mather began experimenting on the preparation of oil from lard. He placed the lard in a canvas bag and suspended it in a warm room, thus obtaining by the slow process of dripping an oil that the family used in lamps. An account of these experiments was published, and is believed to have been the starting point of the production of lard oil, which has since become so extensive.

About the time the field work of the New York survey was finished, Prof. Mather became Professor of Natural Science in the Ohio University at Athens. He held this position from 1842 to 1845 and from 1847 to 1850, being vice-president and acting president in 1845. The period from 1845 to 1847 was occupied in examining mineral lands for mining companies, mainly about Lake Superior, but also in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts. During the first quarter of 1846 he was acting Professor of Chemistry and Geology in Marietta College, his other engagements making him unwilling to accept the professorship. In the winter of 1845 he began a series of experiments on the extraction of bromine from the bitter waters of the salt works near Athens, Ohio. At that time bromine, which can now be had for sixty cents a pound, was selling at sixteen dollars an ounce. The results of his investigations were published in the American Journal of Science. They showed that bromine could be obtained from these waters for much less than it was then costing, and resulted in the establishment of a plant at Pomeroy, Ohio, which produces the greater part of the world's present supply of this substance.

In similar public and private employments the rest of his life was passed. He was Agricultural Chemist for the State of Ohio, and Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture from 1850 to 1854. During part of this time he edited the Western Agriculturist, and during the last year was member for Ohio of the United States Board of Agriculture. He also continued to make examinations of mineral lands. His first wife having died, he married in 1851 Mrs. Mary (Harries) Curtis, who survived him. By this marriage he had one son. The person of Prof. Mather was large and robust, and he had a great capacity for physical and mental labor. He died February 26, 1859, in Columbus, Ohio, at the age of fifty-four. His death was sudden, and was ascribed to a complication of dropsy and paralysis.

In addition to his writings already mentioned. Prof. Mather contributed frequent papers to the American Journal of Science and other scientific periodicals, and he wrote many reports on the explorations made in the course of his professional work. He received the degree of LL. D. from Brown University in 1855, was a member of twenty-five scientific and literary organizations, a life-member of many religious associations, and for fifteen years a trustee of Granville College.

In his various expeditions he collected large numbers of minerals and geological specimens. His collection was much increased by exchanges with American and foreign geologists, and at his death contained about twenty-six thousand specimens. At present it is owned by his son Richard, of Ironton, Ohio.

Mr. Austin thus describes his character: “Equable in his disposition and gentle in his manners, considerate of others and just in his judgment of them, modest, but manly and self-reliant, thoroughly versed in the branches of science to which he devoted himself, he had neither dogmatism nor ostentation. As he observed in a letter to a personal friend, who differed from him in regard to a geological question, ‘I am not wedded to any theory, but seek the truth—and when found adopt it.’ ” He was not inclined to court popularity, neither was his manner forbidding. Letters preserved by his family and friends give abundant evidence of his gentle disposition, firm principles, and high sense of honor.

The supremacy of his will-power over physical pain is illustrated in the following anecdote: “While making an examination of coal lands near Pomeroy, in Ohio, he was wounded in the second finger of his right hand. This wound induced a partial paralysis, and required an amputation of the finger. The cause of it was supposed to be a snake bite. As soon as he was convinced by the examination that amputation was inevitable, he directed the surgeon to procure a block, a chisel, and a mallet, and, placing his finger on the block, told him to sever the finger at one blow. This was attempted, but proved a sad failure. The chisel was too thin and highly tempered, and the edge crumbled. Nevertheless, he directed the surgeon to go on, and several blows were required before a complete severance could be made; although in this painful operation the bone was crushed instead of being cut, he bore it without flinching.”

The substantial national reputation as a geologist won by William W. Mather was the result of the steady and conscientious application of a natural aptitude. “Not possessing the genius which dazzles,” says his friend Austin, “he had the intellect which, continually improved by exercise, achieved valuable results by patient and conscientious industry. What duty demanded, that he performed regardless of consequences, either to himself or others. Not indifferent to fame, he never sought it by doubtful or devious courses. His object was not to enhance his reputation, but faithfully to do the work before him. Through the whole of his active and laborious life of thirty years in the cause of science, in all the various and important public positions which he occupied, no breath of censure assailed his integrity, which was a law of Nature with him, rather than a choice or a principle.”

  1. It is from this memorial that most of the facts in the present article are derived.