Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Scientific Work of W. D. Gunning
WHILE the applause and lasting fame which those win who make great scientific discoveries, or embody their observations in monumental books, are worthily bestowed, those also serve mankind and deserve to be well remembered who labor to make knowledge accessible to the whole people, and to lift the average of intelligence by writing books in plain language, by giving instruction, and by investing their teaching with the charms of their personal magnetism and warm eloquence. Of this latter class William D. Gunning was a conspicuous example. Few in the United States have labored more earnestly, with stricter singleness of purpose, or more successfully than he to interest the general public and make them acquainted with the latest results of true science,
Mr. Gunning was born in Bloomingburg, Fayette County, Ohio, July 28, 1828, and died in Greeley, Col., March 8, 1888. His family was of Scotch-Irish origin, but his direct ancestry is traced no further back than to Armagh, Ireland, whence his grandfather, William Gunning, emigrated in 1793 to Oswego County, N. Y., his father, Andrew Gunning, being then a child. The family removed to Bloomingburg in 1815. All that is told of the boy's early education is that he was taught at the log schoolhouse of his district by a young woman of the neighborhood. He showed an inquiring disposition and a tendency to bookish ways; and busied himself, it is said, with the stones and shells from the brookside near the house, and would ask to be told stories of them. When about fourteen years old he was apprenticed to Robert McLaughlin, his sister's husband, and was taught a trade. He always had a book on the bench by his side.
He developed a taste for discussion very early. He used to relate that it was a great treat to him, when a boy, to listen on Monday mornings to the remarks of the people of the neighborhood concerning the sermons of the Presbyterian minister of Bloomingburg. This minister was the Rev. William Dickey, who christened him, and after whom his second name was given
him. He had a great respect for him personally and as a preacher. But it is recorded of young Gunning that he refused to join the church, because he wished "to do his own thinking." He had a strong bent for theological studies, and would have dearly loved the office of pulpit teacher, but would not endure the restraints put upon thought by the theological schools, and would never give up the privilege of honestly expressing his opinion. He declined several invitations to deliver addresses at Oberlin College, because his views were opposed to the beliefs held in that institution. But he finally consented to deliver the alumni address in 1879. He was never controversial, but simply and earnestly sought the truth. He entered Oberlin College about 1850, and was graduated from the literary department in 1854. Very soon after entering college he became a student of mark, and one of the few who, Mr. W. G. M. Stone, of Denver, a fellow-student in his last year, says, were "head and shoulders above their fellows, and himself second to none." The College Record of Deceased Alumni says of him that "when in college he was an enthusiastic cultivator of oratory and of a fine literary style. He had a marvelous command of words, a most fertile imagination, and was a skillful artist with crayon and chalk, so that his lectures were often enchanting as a dream. In his scientific facts he was accurate, but these were always subordinated to his philosophizing. He was an ardent devotee of the evolution theory. In religion he was of the liberal school."
After graduation he went to Natchez, Miss., where he had two brothers in business; taught in an academy; and studied law a year. His social relations there were all pleasant; but the independent Oberlin man, who in his boyhood had systematically aided fugitive slaves in escaping, could not make himself at home in the very center of the slaveholding region. Returning to Ohio, he exerted himself in behalf of the election of Mr. Chase, the Free-Soil candidate for Governor; and afterward engaged in geological work in Illinois, of which he kept no personal record. He took a course of comparative anatomy in New York, some time previous to 1862, but in what school or college is unknown, though he often bore testimony to the value of the instruction he received there.
Prof. Gunning's continuous career as a scientific author and lecturer began in 1862, and his earliest known publication was a paper on the Age of the Human Race, based on the discovery of relics of man in the caves of France, which was published in the Nevada (California) Journal. In the same year he was married and removed to Massachusetts; and about this time he began lecturing in and around Boston. He spent the summers, between the lecture seasons of several years, in physical and biological studies at Falmouth, Gay Head, Nantucket, Portland Harbor, and Eastport, a part of the time under the direction of Agassiz. Geology was the principal subject of his lectures, but as they went on they expanded till they covered a variety of subjects relating to life, evolution, American antiquities, and social theories. His prime object in all his lectures was to elevate and enlarge the mental vision. He sought to present the truth as his studies had shown it to him in a manner to awaken the interest of his audience and make them informed upon the subject. He sunk himself in his theme, kept the question of money profit farthest from his thoughts, and was never known to relinquish a course because it did not pay. It would be impracticable to enumerate here the several subjects of these lectures or speak of the places in the East and West where they were delivered. The whole country knew him through them. They were given first chiefly in the Eastern States, then Chicago and the Northwest became the principal field, and in the later years of the author's life the Pacific and Southern States. They were delivered in public halls, before lyceums, in colleges, in the field, in churches, before Young Men's Christian Associations, and were nearly everywhere listened to with absorbed attention, and well received even by those whose views were very different from his, and were commended by the public, by scholars, and by men of science. Sometimes they met with opposition and hostile criticism, as at Brooklyn, N. Y., and at Keene, N. H., where the Young Men's Christian Association took pains to resolve that it would not be held responsible for his views. Darwinism had not yet ceased to be a novelty and a shock to theologians, and there were not wanting men who were ready to use any pretext for attacking him on this ground. He was never at a loss for a sufficient answer to these attacks, and simply relied on facts for the vindication of his position. The accounts given by the hearers of his lectures all speak of wonderful power in them — descriptive and persuasive.
He soon came into demand as a contributor to periodicals, and through the columns of such journals as The Congregationalist, Christian Union, Theodore Tilton's Golden Age, Lippincott's Magazine, etc., his articles reached tens of thousands of readers. While addressing common intelligence he would never trifle with his subject or "make a toy of science," and declined offers for papers on the "science-made-easy" plan. His purpose and the thought that animated him were well expressed in the preface to his Life History of our Planet — published in Chicago in 1876, with illustrations by Mrs. Mary Gunning, in the observation that teaching the facts of a science is not teaching the science; that "facts do not enlarge the mind unless they are fertilized by principles," and that he sought to conduct his reader "through method to results."
Visiting Europe in 1866, after the death of the first Mrs. Gunning, he made a pedestrian tour through Yorkshire; was a guest on geological excursions of Sir Thomas Crosley in Halifax; was entertained by Prof. Robert Harley; lectured at Huddersfield and Brighouse, in England; then passing to the Continent, studied the Alps and their glaciers.
Being invited by Prof. E. L. Youmans to contribute to the first volume of the Popular Science Monthly, he wrote for it, after a special study on the spot, the article on The Past and Future of Niagara. This was followed by two other papers — Have Plants a Pedigree? and Progression and Retrogression.
As side incidents of Prof. Gunning's career, we may mention an experiment at orange cultivation in Florida, which, proving unprofitable, lasted but a short time; and services he rendered as a mining expert in the Western Territories.
As his religious views developed they became more and more radical. The independence of thought which he showed in youth when the subject of joining the church was mentioned was never relaxed; neither did the fervor of his religious feeling diminish. He appears through his whole career as a devout believer in the Creator and the spiritual life. He was much interested in the phenomena of spiritualism and impressed by them, wrote much upon the subject, and corresponded sympathetically with spiritualists. He was a member of the Free Religious Association and a valued contributor to The Index when Mr. Abbott and Mr. Underwood were its editors, and afterward to The Open Court, and a paper written by him in 1889 is believed to embody the earliest scientific treatment of the phenomena of that category. In 1887 he delivered a course of Sunday lectures to the Unitarian Society of Keokuk, Iowa. The military body of the city made him their chaplain. An Ethical Society was organized there, of which he served as pastor till January, 1888, when he removed to Greeley, Colorado, hoping to find relief there from frequently recurring attacks of bronchitis. He made an engagement with a Unitarian Society in Greeley, but two addresses — A Study of the Book of Job, and The Whirling Flag, Dante's Inferno — were all he was able to make in fulfillment of it. His health had long been delicate. A friend had warned him, in connection with his lectures in Cincinnati, in the winter of 1886, that he was "mad" to continue his labors in the existing condition of his health and in such weather. Yet he stopped, on his way from Keokuk to Greeley — only two months before he succumbed to his disease — to deliver a course of lectures in Quincy, Ill., which proved as acceptable as any of the long series. Of Prof. Gunning's amiable personal qualities all his friends speak in terms of warm enthusiasm. He was conscious, self-reliant, and tranquil to the last.