Silliman Sr., Benjamin (1779-1864)

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Benjamin Silliman Sr. (1779-1864)


Scientist and educator

Yale. Benjamin Silliman Sr. was born in Connecticut in 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution. At the time of his birth the British were holding his father, Gold Selleck Silliman, prisoner of war. His mother, Mary Fish Noyes Silliman, imparted to him in his youth her devout evangelical faith. Having received his early education from his pastor, Andrew Eliot, he entered Yale College in 1792, graduating in 1796. After a brief stint working on the family farm and teaching grammar school, Silliman returned to New Haven to study law under the guidance of two local attorneys. He was admitted to the bar in 1802.

Scientific Career. Sillimans future did not include a career in law, however. During his last year of study he also served as a college tutor at Yale. At the end of the period and just after his admission to the bar, President Timothy Dwight offered him a position as professor of chemistry at the college. Silliman was completely unqualified for the post, but in the early nineteenth century hardly any Americans were qualified by formal academic training to teach the sciences, commonly called natural history or natural philosophy. Rather than import someone from Europe, Dwight chose to hire Silliman, who was a Yale man and a committed evangelical Christian. One of Dwights primary purposes in introducing a scientific curriculum at Yale was to present a Christian response to the Enlightenment by demonstrating the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific understanding.

Learning His Trade. The college formally appointed Silliman professor of chemistry and mineralogy in September 1802, but he did not assume his post for two years. To qualify him for the position Dwight sent him to Philadelphia to attend lectures in chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and medicine. He began teaching at Yale in 1804 but apparently found his preparation inadequate. In order to pursue additional study, as well as to purchase books and scientific equipment for the college, Silliman went to England, where he divided most of his time between studying with a London chemist and attending medical lectures in Edinburgh. May 1806 marked the beginning of his active service as a professor at Yale, a post he held until he retired in 1853.

Professional Service. Silliman did not make any great scientific discoveries in his career, but he exerted considerable influence as an educator. Bowdoin College awarded him an honorary doctor of medicine degree for his role in establishing the Yale Medical School, which opened in 1818. In the 1840s, with his son Benjamin Silliman Jr., he founded a private laboratory that was eventually incorporated into Yale as the Sheffield Scientific School. The founding of Sheffield marked the beginning of graduate scientific education in the United States. Some of Sillimans students, including Amos Eaton, Edward Hitchcock, Charles Upham Shepard, James Dwight Dana, and Denison Olmsted, became renowned men of science.

Popularizing Science. Silliman also did more to popularize science in the antebellum period than perhaps any other person. One of his former students and laboratory assistants, Josiah Holbrook, began the lyceum movement in the 1820s. Holbrook wanted to make scientific instruction widely available to the working classes. The method he devised to accomplish this goal was the lyceum, a local institute that offered free public lectures given by noted scientists and other scholars and stocked libraries and reading rooms with useful publications. Gifted with the ability to communicate scientific knowledge to lay people of all classes, Silliman traveled extensively on the lyceum circuit for twenty years, becoming something of a national celebrity. As late as 1845, when he was sixty-six years old, Silliman traveled to New Orleans to deliver a series of twelve lectures on geology. The New Orleans Picayune reported that he drew one of the largest, most intelligent, and fashionable audiences ever seen convened in this city.

American Scientific Community. Finally, Silliman played a significant role in the creation of the American scientific community. This he accomplished primarily through the journal that he established in 1818. Between 1810 and 1815 Silliman had contributed articles to the American Mineralogical Journal. The primary purpose of that journal, however, was to disseminate the work of European mineralogists and geologists to an American audience. When the publishers health failed, and with it the journal, a network of correspondents from Maine to South Carolina encouraged Silliman to start a new publication. One of those correspondents wrote in March 1818 that There is at present, an uncommon disposition to cultivate Natural Scienceit pervades all ranksI am glad to see that you intend to lead science into one of her most important objects, viz. the improvement of the arts By improvement of the arts the writer meant the application of science to technological innovation. With the financial backing of George Gibbs (also a major patron of scientific instruction at Yale), the American Journal of Science, More Especially of Mineralogy, Geology, and Other Branches of Natural History; Including Also Agriculture and the Ornamental as Well as the Useful Arts commenced in 1818. Silliman served as sole editor of the journal for twenty years; his son succeeded him.

Sillimans Journal. Unlike its predecessor, the American Journal of Science (popularly known as Sillimans Journal) sought to disseminate the work of Americas naturalists. In his conclusion to the first volume Silliman wrote of his vision of science as a unifying force in a time of political dissension and sectional conflict. He hoped in no small degree to nourish enlarged patriotism, by winning the public mind from the odious asperities of party. In other words, he hoped that pride in scientific achievement would help citizens of the United States to form a national identity that would override their local, sectional, and political loyalties. Both the American Journal of Science and the American scientific community flourished during the antebellum period, due in no small measure to the work of Benjamin Silliman Sr. Sillimans hope for national unity, however, was disappointed by the onset of the Civil War. He followed closely the progress of the Union armies but did not live to see the war concluded and the nation reunited. He died on 24 November 1864.


Chandos Michael Brown, Benjamin Silliman: A Life in the Young Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989);

Leonard G. Wilson, ed., Benjamin Silliman and His Circle: Studies on the Influence of Benjamin Silliman on Science in America, Prepared in Honor of Elizabeth H. Thomson (New York: Science History Publications, 1979).

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Silliman Sr., Benjamin (1779-1864)

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