Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/November 1890/Sketch of Amos Eaton

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PROF. AMOS EATON was one among those who cultivated science in the earlier half of this century, who labored to popularize the study and make it accessible to the masses. American geology and botany owe much to him. His books on those subjects have two special merits—they were among the first published in which a systematic treatment for America was attempted, and they were written throughout in a language that all could read.

Amos Eaton was born in Chatham, Columbia County, N. Y., May 17, 1776, and died in Troy, N. Y., May 6, 1842. His father, Abel Eaton, was a farmer in comfortable circumstances, and of the best standing as a citizen. The scholastic tendencies which determined the character of his career appear to have shown themselves at an early age, for we find that in 1790, when he was only fourteen years old, he was appointed to make a fourth-of-July oration, and acquitted himself acceptably in the effort. Serving as a chain-bearer in the surveying of some land, he acquired a taste for that business. He had no instruments, and, in order to obtain them, he arranged with a blacksmith to "blow and strike" for him by day, in return for which the blacksmith should help him make instruments at night. After several weeks' work, a needle, magnetized from kitchen tongs, and a working chain were turned out. A compass-case was made out of the bottom of an old pewter plate, well smoothed, polished, and graduated; and the young man, at sixteen years of age, was ready to do little jobs of surveying.

He fitted himself for college with the Rev. Dr. David Potter, of Spencertown; entered Williams College, and was graduated thence in 1799, with a high standing in science. He prepared himself for the legal profession, studying law with the Hon. Elisha Williams, of Spencertown, and the Hon. Josiah Ogden, of New York. An association which he formed in New York with Dr. David Hosack and Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, the most distinguished scientific men in the city at the time, marked another determinative point in his career; for, under their instruction, he became interested in the natural sciences, and particularly in botany. So earnest did he become in these studies that, having borrowed Kirwan's Mineralogy, he made a manuscript copy of the whole work. Having been admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of New York, he settled in Catskill as a lawyer and land agent, and continued his studies in science. At this place he began, in 1810, a popular course of lectures on botany, which is believed to have been the first attempted in the United States. In connection with the lectures he compiled a small elementary treatise. Dr. Hosaek commended him as being the first in the field with this course, saying: "You have adopted the true system of education, and very properly address yourself to the memory."

Finding that his taste for the incidents of legal practice was diminishing, and his interest in science was growing upon him, Mr. Eaton resolved to abandon the law and devote himself to the more congenial pursuit. He removed to New Haven in 1815, and there placed himself under the tuition of Prof. Silliman, who was lecturing on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. He enjoyed the advantage of Prof. Silliman's library and of that of Prof. Ives, in which works on botany and materia medica were prominent, and was a diligent student of the college cabinet of minerals. He removed to Williams College, where he gave courses of lectures to volunteer classes of the students on botany, mineralogy, and geology, and awakened a permanent interest in the natural sciences. An interesting description of his personality at this time, when he was in his prime, is given by Prof. Albert Hopkins, who speaks of him as "of striking personage, a large form, somewhat portly and dignified, though entirely free from what is commonly called starch. His face was highly intellectual, the forehead high and somewhat retreating, locality strongly marked, and the organs of observation and compassion well developed. His hair was black, and, being combed back, rendered his fine physiognomy still more striking." In the same year the first edition was published of Prof. Eaton's Manual of Botany, a work the appearance of which, according to Dr. Lewis C. Beck, gave an impulse to the study of botany in New England and New York, which had been hampered by the want of a manual in English. The only descriptive work previous to this one was that of Pursch, in which the descriptions were in Latin. The Manual was added to and became fuller, in successive editions, till the eighth edition, published in 1840, was a large octavo volume of 625 pages, known as the North American Botany of Profs. Eaton and Wright, and contained descriptions of 5,267 species of plants.

From Williams College the lectures were extended, in the shape of courses, with practical instructions to classes, to the larger towns of New England and New York. Prof. Eaton was greatly aided in this enterprise by the patronage and encouragement he had received from the faculty and students of Williams College, and the fame he derived from his lectures there; and he made an acknowledgment of this fact in dedicating the second edition of his botany to the president and professors, when he said: "The science of botany is indebted to you for its first introduction into the interior of the Northern States, and I am indebted to you for a passport into the scientific world." In the course of two or three years, says Prof. H. B. Nason, to whose Biographical Record of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute we are most largely indebted for the material for this sketch, "Prof. Eaton diffused a great amount of knowledge on the subjects of his lectures; and so far excited the curiosity and enthusiasm of many young students that there sprung up, as a result of his labors, an army of botanists and geologists." The late Prof. Albert Hopkins, of Williams College, accrediting Prof. Eaton with being one of the first to popularize science in the Northern States, mentioned as among his special qualifications for the task an easy flow of language, a popular address, and a generous enthusiasm in matters of science, which easily communicated itself to his pupils. He adds: "Prof. Eaton was among the first in this country to study nature in the field with his classes. In pursuance of this idea, he used to make an annual excursion with Rensselaer School, sometimes leading these expeditions in person, at others deputing some competent teacher to take the lead. The cause of natural history in Williams College owes, undoubtedly, a good deal to Prof. Eaton. I think his zeal in the department of botany led Prof. Dewey to direct his discriminating mind to the study of plants, a study which he pursued farther than Prof. Eaton had done in certain lines. . . . At this time, also, Dr. Emmons took the field. In fact, natural history came on with the spring-tide, and has never lost the impulse since." While at Albany, in 1818, on the invitation of Governor Clinton, delivering a course of lectures before the members of the Legislature of New York, Prof. Eaton became acquainted with many leading men of the State, and interested them in geology and its application by means of surveys to agriculture. Here was planted the idea which eventually fructified in that great work, The Natural History of New York. In the same year Prof. Eaton published his index to the Geology of the Northern States, which has been pronounced "the first attempt at a general arrangement of the geological strata in North America." Although under the undeveloped condition of geology at the time, with the defective knowledge even among its advanced students, this book could not fail to contain many statements now known to be errors, it must be recognized as a creditable and valuable effort. An interesting view of the conditions of geology at the time and of the method of study is given in a letter which Prof. Eaton wrote to Mr. Henry R. Schoolcraft, in 1820, while preparing a second volume of the index. In it he said: "I have written the whole over anew, and extended it to about two hundred and fifty pages, 12mo. I have taken great pains to collect facts in this district during the two years since my first edition was published, but I am rather deficient in my knowledge of secondary and alluvial formations. I wish to trouble you with a few inquiries on that subject. From what knowledge I have been able to obtain in that department, I am inclined to arrange the secondary class thus: Breccia, compact, or shell limestone; gypsum, secondary sandstone. I leave much, also, for peculiar local formations. A gentleman presented specimens to the Troy Lyceum, from Illinois, of gypsum and secondary sandstone, and informed me that the latter overlaid the former in regular structure. Myron Holly and others have given me similar specimens, which they represent as being similarly situated, from localities in the western part of this State. This secondary sandstone is sometimes more or less calcareous. I believe it is used for a cement by the canal company, which hardens under water. Will you do me the favor to settle this question? On your way to Detroit you may perhaps, without material inconvenience, collect facts of importance to me in reference to secondary and alluvial formations. Anything transmitted to me by the middle of April on these subjects will be in season, because I shall not have printed all the transition part before that time. Have you any knowledge of the strata constituting Rocky Mountains? Is it primitive, or is it gray wacke, like Catskill Mountains? I have said in a note that after you and Dr. E. James set foot upon it we shall no longer be ignorant of it. I intend to kindle a blaze of geological zeal before you return. I have adapted the style of my index to the capacity of ladies, plow-joggers, and mechanics." Prof. Eaton also delivered lectures at Lenox Academy and the Medical College at Castleton, Vt., where he was appointed Professor of Natural History in 1820. He gave lectures and practical instructions in Troy, and thus laid the foundation for the establishment there, as a direct result of his work, of the Lyceum of Natural History; and it is said that in the fall of 1818 Troy could boast of a more extensive collection of American geological specimens than could be found at any other literary institution in this country. The geological and agricultural survey of Albany and Rensselaer Counties, made in 1820 and 1821, by Prof. Eaton and Drs. T. Romeyn and Lewis C. Beck, at the expense of the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, is believed to have been the beginning of such surveys in this country, and was described by Prof. Silliman, in his Journal, as a novel attempt. Next was a geological survey by Prof. Eaton, also at the instance of Mr. Van Rensselaer, of the district adjoining the Erie Canal, the result of which was published in 1824, in a report of one hundred and sixty pages, with a profile section of rock formations, from the Atlantic Ocean, across Massachusetts and New York, to Lake Erie. Governor Seward said of this work, in the Introduction to the Natural History of the State of New York, that it "marked an era in the progress of geology in this country. It is in some respects inaccurate, but it must be remembered that its talented and indefatigable author was without a guide in exploring the older formations, and that he described rocks which no geologist had at that time attempted to classify. Rocks were then classified chiefly by their mineralogical characters, and the aid which the science has since learned to derive from fossils in determining the chronology and classification of rocks was scarcely known here, and had only just begun to be appreciated in Europe. We are indebted, nevertheless, to Prof. Eaton for the commencement of that independence of European classification which has been found indispensable in describing the New York system. . . . Prof. Eaton enumerated nearly all the rocks in western New York, in their order of succession, and his enumeration has, with one or two exceptions, proved correct. It is a matter of surprise that he recognized, at so early a period, the old red sandstone on the Catskill Mountains, a discovery the reality of which has since been proved by fossil tests."

In 1824 Prof. Eaton was placed at the head, as "Senior Professor," of the School of Science founded by the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer at Troy, N. Y., then called the Rensselaer School, now the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He spent the remainder of his life in this position. He introduced and developed here a system of instruction in which the students were made experimenters and workers, and, in place of recitations, delivered lectures to one another. The success of this method was such that some one or other of its features were introduced into other schools.

Summarizing his career in brief, Prof. Nason says, in his biography in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Record: "In developing the botany and geology of the Northern States, Prof. Eaton rightfully ranks among the pioneers of the new era of the natural sciences in this country. His efforts in various departments of natural history were a rich gift to New England, New York, and even to the whole country, for which the country owes him a debt of gratitude. Many of his pupils have been for years among the most justly distinguished scientific men of the country. As an educator and an active laborer in the general cause of natural history in America, his memory will long be cherished. The history of natural science on this continent can never be faithfully written without giving the name of Amos Eaton an honorable place. It was he, more than any other individual in the United States, who, finding the natural sciences in the hands of the learned few, by means of popular lectures, simplified textbooks, and practical instruction, threw them broadcast to the many. He aimed at a general diffusion of the natural sciences, and nobly and successfully did he accomplish his mission."

Prof. Eaton is described as having been a kind and courteous gentleman, whose vast acquirements and simple habits were pleasantly characterized by Mrs. Emma Willard's designation of him as "the Republican Philosopher." Three of his sons adopted scientific pursuits or cultivated scientific tastes. One, Hezekiah Hubert Eaton, was Assistant Professor of Chemistry in Transylvania University, but died when only twenty-three years old. Major-General Amos B. Eaton was an officer of the United States Army and interested in science. A daughter, Sara C. Eaton, was a teacher of natural sciences and the modern languages in a young woman's seminary at Monticello, 111. A grandson, Prof. Daniel Cady Eaton, has been Professor of Botany in Yale College since 1864.

The list of Prof. Eaton's books includes an Elementary Treatise on Botany, 1810; Manual of Botany, 1817; Botanical Dictionary, 1817; Botanical Exercises, 1820; Botanical Grammar and Dictionary, 1828; Chemical Note-Book, 1821; Chemical Instructor, 1822; Zoological Syllabus and Note-Book, 1822; Cuvier's Grand Division, 1822; Art without Science, 1800; Philosophical Instructor, 1824; Directions for Surveying and Engineering, 1838; Index to the Geology of the Northern States, 1818; Geological and Agricultural Survey of the County of Albany, N. Y., 1820; Geological Nomenclature of North America, 1822; Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District adjoining the Erie Canal, 1824; Geological Text -Books, prepared for Popular Lectures on North American Geology, 1830; and Geological Text-Book, for the Troy class, 1841.

Speaking of the practical teaching of geology, in his address in the British Association, Prof. A. H. Green took np the case of places where it is hard to find within manageable distance of the school the kind of field geology which is within the grasp of a beginner. Even here the teaching need not be wholly from books. Object-lessons may be given indoors. "For instance, give a lad a lump of coarsest sandstone; let him pound it and separate by elutriation the sand-grains from the clay; boil both in acid, and dissolve off the rusty coating that colors them; ascertain by the microscope that the sand-grains are chips and not rounded pellets, and so on. All such points he will delight to worry out for himself; and, when he has done that, an explanation of the way in which the rock was formed will really come home to him. Or it is easy to rig up contrivances innumerable for illustrating the work of denudation. A heap of mixed sand and powdered clay does for the rock denuded; a watering-can supplies rain; a trough, deeper at one end than the other, stands for the basin that receives sediment. By such rough apparatus, many of the results of denudation and deposition may be closely imitated, and the process is near enough to the making of mud pies to command the admiration of every boy. . . . The great facts of physical geology, which have so important a bearing on geology and history too, often admit of experimental illustration, such, for instance, as the well-known methods of imitating the rock-folding caused by earth-movements."