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How Science Education Came to America–The Patriarch Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Undergraduates at Yale are associated with a single residential college for their entire four years, and when I was a student, my college was named Silliman College.  It was my home.  I was, yes, a Sillimander.  But the name Silliman was just a name to me, another one of those obscurely eminent names from Yale’s past. 

For the past year, though, I have been working on a new book (working title: House of Lost Worlds) about how the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History changed our world. And in the course of my research, I learned that Silliman–Benjamin Silliman Sr.–was a far more important figure in American history, and the history of American science, than I had imagined.  Here’s the story:

On October 26, 1802, a 23-year-old Yale-educated lawyer boarded a stagecoach in New Haven for the long, dusty, motion sickness–inducing trip to Philadelphia. Under his arm, he carried a wooden candle box full of mineral specimens to be properly identified.

They were remnants of a higgledy-piggledy museum of curiosities Yale had maintained for a time but then largely misplaced, not altogether regrettably. The original collection had included a 50-pound set of moose antlers, a nine-foot-long wooden chain carved from a stick by a blind man, and a two-headed calf. It also included miscellaneous unlabeled mineral specimens. The candle box in which Benjamin Silliman carried these specimens to Philadelphia would enter Yale legend as the beginning of proper scientific collecting at Yale. More than that, it was the beginning of the collections that would later become the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the beginning of Yale’s rise from a college to a university.

The polymath Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, yet for most Americans then, science was still a foreign enterprise, somewhat nervously regarded. There were signs of growing interest in this strange idea of knowing the world not just by faith but by experiments, expeditions, and observation. But many considered it a threat to their religion and to the idea of a classical education.

Timothy Dwight IV, then president of Yale, had seen that it was time for the college to branch out from its primary function as a training ground for Congregational ministers. He wanted to add a faculty position in chemistry and natural history. But Dwight was a pastor and an adamant defender of the Congregational Church in Connecticut, and he was cautious. He said he could find no American who was qualified for the job, and he feared that “a foreigner, with his peculiar habits and prejudices, would not feel and act in unison with us… however able he might be in point of science.”

Instead, Dwight had turned in 1801 to Silliman, a recent Yale graduate and family friend, who was known to be devout. So devout, in truth, that he could describe Yale contentedly as “a little temple,” where “prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students.” Silliman admitted to being “startled and almost oppressed” by Dwight’s job offer. He knew nothing about science. It was a spectacularly inauspicious start.

Dwight argued his way around Silliman’s concerns. He pointed out that there were already plenty of lawyers, but as a scientist “the field will be all your own.” He also advised Silliman not to pursue a job possibility he had been considering in Georgia, because of the morally repugnant association with slavery. Silliman had become adamantly opposed at Yale to “the sin and shame of slavery,” but his Fairfield County family was neck deep in the Connecticut practice of slaveholding. Dwight cleverly made the Georgia job sound like a kind of falling back.

Thus Silliman soon found himself en route to Philadelphia to take a crash course in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, which had the nation’s first school of medicine. Dwight, it turned out, had chosen wisely. Silliman was certainly devout. But after another year studying and attending lectures in London and Edinburgh, he was also a knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher of chemistry, and later of mineralogy and geology. He came back to lecture brilliantly at Yale, and these lectures were the beginning of science education in America, that is, of science for its own sake, not merely as an adjunct to medicine.

Continue reading at “The Teacher, Preacher, and P.R. Man of Early Science.”

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