Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/Sketch of Benjamin Silliman

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PSM V16 D458 Benjamin Silliman.jpg



THERE is no other name so long and closely associated with the history of American science as that of Silliman. The first who made it illustrious was Benjamin Silliman, born in 1779, and educated for a lawyer, but who entered the field of science early in the century, accepting the new chair of Chemistry in Yale College in 1802. He was a pioneer in the department of geology, contributing to the formation of that science, not only by observations and explorations, but ably maintaining its claims and rights when these were strenuously resisted by an unenlightened public opinion. Professor Silliman also rendered an incomparable service to American science by founding, in 1818, the "American Journal of Science and Arts," but better known, both in Europe and America, as "Silliman's Journal." Of this periodical, he was for twenty years sole, and for eight years more the senior editor. After half a century of duty in the college he resigned his professorship, and died in 1864.

Benjamin Silliman, Jr., son of the preceding, and the subject of the following notice, was born in New Haven, December 4, 1816, and entered college in August, 1833. After graduation he was employed as assistant and teacher in the departments of Chemistry, ]Mineralogy, and Geology in Yale College, and in original studies and investigations in these sciences and their practical applications in the arts. He became associate editor with his father, in 1838, of the "American Journal of Science and Arts," until the close of the first series of fifty volumes of that journal in 1845. In 1846, with the accession of Professor James D. Dana, the management of the second series of that journal devolved upon the younger editors. In the same year he was appointed at Yale Professor of Chemistry applied to the Arts, the first appointment in the "Fourth Department of Philosophy and the Arts," then inaugurated, and which is more particularly mentioned below. His "First Principles of Chemistry" appeared in this year, of which over fifty thousand copies have been sold. He was a member of the Common Council of the city of New Haven in 1845-'49. In 1845-'46 he gave in New Orleans a course of lectures on agricultural chemistry, upon the invitation of the leading professional and commercial men of that city, and this, it is believed, was the first course of lectures on that subject given in the United States.

In 1849 he was elected to the chair of Medical Chemistry and Toxicology in the Medical Department of Louisville University, at that time in a highly prosperous condition, the duties of which he discharged for five winters. In 1854 he resigned this chair, to take up the instruction in chemistry in the Academical and Medical Departments at Yale, made vacant by the resignation of his father, the Geology and Mineralogy having been assigned to Professor Dana. This instruction was given under the appointment to the chair of "General and Applied Chemistry" (1854). He resigned his duties in the Academical Department in 1870.

In 1858 he published "First Principles of Natural Philosophy or Physics," and a second edition of the same in 1861.

Mr. Silliman visited Europe with his father in 1851, and subsequently edited his father's "Visit to Europe in 1851," 2 vols.; the work having been originally prepared for three volumes, it was cut down to two volumes, to match the author's "Visit to England, Holland, and Scotland, 1805."

He visited California in March, 1864, returning in February, 1865, and again in 1867 and 1872, being occupied with professional work in the mines and in mineralogical and geological explorations. He delivered the annual oration before the College of California in 1867, which has been published.

Mr. Silliman has for some years been much occupied as a scientific witness in the courts, having been employed in many important causes in which scientific testimony and investigation were called for. His aid has been also constantly invoked in various matters connected with the practical arts, where a knowledge of scientific principles is involved.

In addition to the works named above, he has printed many memoirs upon various scientific and practical subjects, addresses and opinions too numerous to mention, besides his original investigations recorded in the "American Journal of Science and Arts."

He was one of the fifty original members named in the act of Congress in 1863 incorporating the National Academy of Sciences, and served the Government in this capacity during the war upon some important commissions.

He is also one of the trustees of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, provided by the munificence of the late George Peabody, of London; and is a member of numerous scientific societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1849 he received the honorary degree of M. D. from the University of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1853 Mr. Silliman had charge of the chemical, mineralogical, and geological department of the Crystal Palace in New York; and also, in connection with Mr. Charles R. Goodrich, edited the "World of Science, Art, and Industry," illustrated, 500 figures, pp. 207, 4to; and in 1854, "The Progress of Science and Mechanism," 4to, pp. 258, in which the chief results of the great Exhibition were recorded.

In 1868 Professor Silliman parted with his private cabinet of minerals, of his own collecting, to Cornell University, where it is now exhibited as the "Silliman Cabinet." He has made important additions to the mineralogical collections of Yale College, and to the metallurgical cabinet of the Scientific School, the results of his various explorations. He solicited the funds by which the mineralogical cabinet of the late Baron de Lederer was added to the college collections in 1843.

In 1842 Mr. Silliman commenced to receive private pupils in analytical chemistry and mineralogy, in an apartment of the old laboratory in Yale College, which he had fitted up at his own expense for this purpose and to conduct original investigations in science. Previously to this time there had been no provision made for the instruction of advanced students in physical and chemical science either at Yale College or elsewhere in the United States, and the academical students had been instructed in chemistry almost exclusively by public lectures. From the first it was evident that there was the germ of a new development in the small beginning, which soon took form as the "Yale Scientific School," and subsequently grew into the "Sheffield Scientific School."

Among the first students who sought Professor Silliman's instruction were Mr. John P. Norton and Mr. T. Sterry Hunt, since among the most distinguished men of science in the United States. These studies were entirely outside the college curriculum. The college for some years took no cognizance of this effort, which was sustained solely as an individual enterprise. The students it brought to the university were not even recognized as such, and their names did not appear for some years in the college catalogue. But in 1846 a memoir was addressed to the corporation of Yale College, drawn up chiefly by Mr. Silliman, Jr., but adopted and ably seconded by his father, who personally advocated it before the corporation at their session in July, 1846. This memoir contemplated the official recognition and organization of the new department of advanced science-teaching which had, unbidden by and almost unknown to them, sprung into existence. The result was the appointment of a committee and the widening of the plan to embrace advanced instruction in other subjects, at the suggestion of Mr. Woolsey. This committee reported in 1847 the plan of a "Fourth Department," devoted to philosophy and the arts, the first appointments to which had already been made in 1846—Mr. John P. Norton to agricultural chemistry and Mr. Silliman to chemistry applied to the arts. The "Yale Scientific School" as then organized commenced its operations in 1847, opening its laboratories in the old Presidential Mansion (formerly the dwelling of Dr. Day and Dr. Dwight).

It is proper to record the fact—as showing under what difficulties and discouragements these early efforts were made—that beyond an income of three hundred dollars per annum paid for a few years by a liberal friend of the college, at the solicitation of Professor Silliman, the new department was absolutely penniless, and the entire cost of fitting and furnishing the laboratories, apparatus, libraries, and cabinets, was paid out of the private means of the two professors; who also for two years (to the shame of the corporation be it said) paid into the college treasury a rental for the use of the old house they had also paid for adapting and fitting for these purposes! Little encouraging as were these small beginnings, there were not wanting the zeal and enthusiasm which were better than gold, and which were reproduced in the early pupils. From its very commencement this new undertaking bore good fruit. Pupils came up in goodly numbers, and the first classes embraced names now widely known on both sides of the Atlantic. Of these, three Brewer, Brush, and Johnson—are now professors in the Sheffield Scientific School. Out of the effort which he then commenced single handed, and to which he devoted some of the best years of his life—always paying his own salary—has grown up a new college, embracing more professors than the old academic college had when he graduated in 1837, with two hundred students, and with constantly increasing power and endowments.

  1. For this sketch we are indebted to the "Yale Book," published by Henry Holt & Co.