Silliman, Benjamin

views updated Jun 11 2018


b. North Stratford [now Trumbull]. Connecticut, 8 August 1779; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 24 November 1864),

chemistry, mineralogy, geology.

Graduated from Yale College in 1796, Silliman was diverted from following his father and grandfather in the law when he was offered the newly established (1802) professorship of chemistry and natural history at Yale. Untrained in these subjects, Silliman went to Philadelphia to study, profiting greatly not only from formal course work in the medical school there but also from occasional visits with John Maclean at Princeton and from informal chemical experiments with his classmate and fellow boarder Robert Hare. In the spring of 1805 Silliman sailed for Britain to continue his scientific education and to purchase books and apparatus for Yale College. After visiting Liverpool, Manchester, London, Holland, and the mining disricts of cornwall, he settled in Edinburg, where spent the winter studying, geology, medicine.

In the years following his return to the United States. Silliman established himself as leading figure in American science less through his original research than through his teaching and educational statesmanship at Yale, his editorship of the American Journal of Science, his public lectures on chemistry and geology, his textbooks, and his role in founding and strengthening scientific organizations.

As an original investigator, Silliman made his chief contributions during the early part of his career, the best-known being his description and chemical analysis of the Weston meteor of 14 December 1807 and his experiments with the oxyhydrogen blowpipe and the deflagrator, both invented by his friend Robert Hare. Silliman’s analysis of fragments of the Weston meteor was widely reprinted in Europe and won him election to the American Philosophical Society. His experiments on the fusion of refractory substances also attracted considerable attention abroad. Using his own improved version of Hare’s blowpipe, Silliman added substantially to the list of substances proved capable of fusion by heat, including zircon, lime, magnesia, chalcedony, beryl, and corundum (1813). In his experiments with the deflagrator on the fusion of carbon (1822), Sillimen noted the transfer of volatilized carbon from the positive electrode to the negative, an observation subsequently confirmed by César Despretz. Silliman’s geological papers were mostly descriptive essays on New England localities, but George P. Merrill credits him with anticipating the aqueo-igneous theory of eruptive rocks in hiss views on rock crystallization.

By 1820 Silliman had made Yale College the leading center in the United States for training in Chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. Through his friendship and collaboration with George Gibbs of Newport. Rhode Island, he secured for Yale the splendid collection of minerals that Gibbs had purchased in Europe during his travels there. Arranged according to Haöy’s system, these specimens served as an invaluable teaching aid for Silliman published four American editions of William Henry’s Epitome of Chemistry with notes and additions. In 1830–1831 he brought out his own Elements of Chemistry, a solid, up-to-date work that compared favorably with European textbooks of that day. Silliman also prepared three American editions of Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology, accompanied by an appendix in which he outlined his own geological lectures and endeavored to demonstrate the harmony of geology and Genesis.

An excellent teacher, Silliman trained a generation of American chemists, geologists, and mineralogists, including Denison Olmsted, Amos Eaton, Edward Hitchcock, Cheater Dewey, Oliver P. Hubbard, George T. Bowen, Charles U. Shepard, James Dwight Dana, and Benjamin Silliman, Jr. He also took the lead in establishing graduate and professional training in the sciences at Yale. He helped to found a medical school at Yale (1813) and served as professor of chemistry and pharmacy in that institution for nearly forty years. In 1846 Silliman joined with his son to established a professorship of agricultural chemistry and plant and animal physiology at Yale, for the express purpose of providing graduate training in chemistry and its applications to agriculture. The eventual result was the Department of Philosophy and the Arts, from which grew the Graduate School of Yale University and the Sheffield Scientific School.

In 1818 Silliman launched the American Journal of Science, which quickly became the leading American scientific journal and gave Silliman an international reputation. By 1830 the Journal was self-sustaining and was drawing important contributions from all fields of American science, including applied science. Deeply interested in the applications of science, Silliman kept his readers posted on the progress of the industrial arts. As a consulting chemist and geologist, he inspected mining properties in New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and published excerpts of his reports in the Journal, and nine years later his son-in-law James Dwight Dana began assisting in the work.

Meanwhile, Silliman had begun to carry the cause of science to the American public as a lecturer on chemistry and geology. Beginning in 1834, at Hartford, Connecticut, Sillman extended his lecturing activities to Boston and thence to New York, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Mobile, and New Orleans. These lectures did much to generate interest in science throughout the country, as Charles Lyell noted during his American travels. They also served to allay religious opposition to science, since Silliman went out of his way to harmonize Genesis and geology.

As his reputation increased, Silliman became a member of a great many scientific societies both at home and abroad. Elected early to the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosphical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he joined with George Gibbs in founding the short-lived American Geological Society in 1819. More successful was the Association of American Geologists, formed in 1840 by Edward Hitchcock and several geologists from the New York and Pennsylvania surveys. Silliman served as president of this organization in 1841–1842 and remained active in it as it evolved into the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On his second trip abroad in 1851 Silliman, now well-known in the world of science, was warmly received by his European colleagues. He was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences, established in 1863. His scientific work is commemorated in the name of the mineral sillimanite.


I. Original Works. Extensive Silliman MSS, including much corresopondence, his student diary for 1795–1796, account books, daybook for 1840–1864, and a 9-vol. MS, “Origin and Progress in Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology in Yale College and in Other Places, With Personal Reminiscences,” are at the Yale University Library. Numerous other letters may be found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library of the American Society of Pennsylvania, the Library of the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the New-York Historical Society. Silliman’s scientific papers are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 694–697. Other writings are listed in F. B. Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, With Annals of the College History V (New York, 1911), 220–227. Silliman’s European travels are narrated in his A Journal of Travels in England. Holland and the Years 1805 and 1806, 2 vols. (New York, 1810) and A Visit to Europe in 1851. 2 vols. (New York, 1853).

II. Secondary Literature. For a nineteenth-century view of Silliaman’s life and work, see George P. Fisher, Life of Benjamin Silliman, M.D., LL.D.., 2 vols. (New York, 1866), which contains extensive quotations from the MS sources. A more recent and very well balanced account of Silliman’s career is John F. Fulton and Elizabeth H. Thomson,Benjamin Silliman 1779–1864, Pathfinder in American Science (New York, 1947), containing a useful section, “Bibliography and Sources, “See also Alexis Caswell’s article in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 1 (1877), 99–112; R. H. Chittenden, History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University 1846–1922. 1 (New Haven, 1928), chs. 1–2; E. S. Dana. Charles Schuchert. et al., A Century of Science in America, With Special Reference to the American Journal of Science, 1818–1918 (New Haven, 1918), ch. 1; Memorial of the Centennial of the Yale Medical School (New Haven, 1915), ch. 1: George P. Merrill, The First 100 Years of American Geology (New Haven, 1924), 157: and Margaret Rossiter, “Benjamin Silliman and the Lowell Institute: The Popularization of Science in Nineteenth-Century America,” in New England Quarterly, 44 (1971), 602–626.

John C. Greene

Benjamin Silliman

views updated Jun 27 2018

Benjamin Silliman

The most prominent and influential man of science in America during the early 19th century, Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864) was a chemist, naturalist, and editor.

Benjamin Silliman was born on Aug. 8, 1779, in what is now Trumbull, Conn., and brought up in nearby Fairfield. He entered Yale in 1792 at the age of 13, graduating in 1796. He spent 2 years partly at home and partly teaching in a private school in Connecticut, then returned to Yale to begin studying law and to tutor. He was admitted to the bar in 1802.

That same year, with no background for the position, Silliman was appointed to the newly established professorship of chemistry and natural history at Yale, with permission to qualify himself for the job before beginning his duties. His preparation included attending lectures at the Philadelphia Medical School; work with the chemist Robert Hare; occasional visits to John Maclean, professor of chemistry at Princeton; and 2 years at Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1808 he assumed full professorial duties at Yale, lecturing in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy.

Although Silliman was a competent researcher, he was not an original scientist. However, he was without a peer in his contributions to the institutional development of science. During nearly 50 years as a professor, he was instrumental in establishing the sciences at Yale, arranging for the college to receive the finest mineral collection in America, aiding in establishing the Yale Medical School in 1813, and persuading the Yale Corporation to establish the "department of philosophy and the arts," where science could be studied intensively. Within a few years the department had grown into the Yale Scientific School, which subsequently became the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale's most distinctive contribution to American education in the 19th century.

In July 1818 Silliman issued the first number of the American Journal of Science and Arts, of which he was founder, proprietor, and sole editor for almost 20 years. Devoted to the publication of original papers, notices, and reviews in the broad field of the natural and physical sciences, it won international acclaim. Even more important, he, and later his junior editors, used the journal to introduce the latest in European science to American readers. In its pages Americans first learned of such advances as the natural system of classification, the classification of rocks in terms of the fossils they contained, the chemical approach to mineralogy, and Darwin's theory of evolution.

A brilliant lecturer, Silliman was much in demand by popular audiences for lectures on chemistry, geology, and the bearing of science on religion throughout the 1830s and 1840s. He spent his last years compiling memoirs and conducting his voluminous correspondence. He died on Nov. 24, 1864.

Further Reading

A biography of Silliman is John F. Fulton and Elizabeth H. Thompson, Benjamin Silliman (1947). George P. Fisher, Life of Benjamin Silliman (2 vols., 1866), is useful primarily for its verbatim quotations from reminiscences, diaries, and correspondence. For Silliman's part in establishing the teaching of science at Yale see Russell H. Chittenden, History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, 1846-1922 (2 vols., 1928).

Additional Sources

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.

Brown, Chandos Michael, Benjamin Silliman: a life in the young republic, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. □

Benjamin Silliman

views updated May 18 2018

Benjamin Silliman


American chemist and geologist who founded the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1818. Silliman is remembered through the mineral sillimanite, an aluminosilicate mineral found in rocks exposed to high temperatures.

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