Lyman, Benjamin Smith

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Lyman, Benjamin Smith

(b. Northampton, Massachusetts, 11 December 1835; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 30 August 1920)


In 1852–1855 Lyman studied law at Harvard University. He spent the field seasons of 1856 and 1857 assisting his uncle, J. P. Lesley, with the geological survey of Pennsylvania. He went to Philadelphia in 1856, and the following year he traveled to the middle Atlantic and southern states to collect statistics on iron manufacturing for the Iron and Steel Association. In 1858 Lyman joined the Geological Survey of Iowa as assistant to James Hall. Under Hall’s influence he decided to become a geologist. In September of that year he entered the School of Mines at Paris, and in 1861 he transferred to the Freiberg Mining Academy. Lyman returned to the United States in 1862, subsequently working, again with his uncle, on geological surveys of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nova Scotia, California, and Alabama. About 1866 Lyman devised the method of representing subsurface geological structure by the use of structural contour lines. In 1870 he was employed by the government of India to carry out a geological survey of oil fields in the Punjab.

The Meiji government of Japan invited experts from the West to assist in transforming Japanese society. The American contingent, led by Horace Capron, included Lyman. In 1872 he contracted with the Hokkaido kaitakushi (development board) as geologist and mining engineer. He undertook a geological survey of Yesso (the ancient name for Hokkaido) in 1873–1875. Beginning in 1876 he prospected for oil in Japan, and he returned to America in 1881. He worked as a geologist for the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania from 1887 to 1895.

In 1873–1875 Lyman and his co-workers, to whom he taught mathematics, physics, and geology, undertook the geological survey of the Kayanuma and Poronai coalfields. They published a geological map on a scale of 1:5,000. In the same period Lyman visited other areas on Hokkaido; results of these visits are Geological Sketch Map of the Island of Yesso, Japan (1876) and A General Report of the Geology of Yesso (1877).

Lyman had hoped to return to America after finishing the geological survey of Hokkaido; but instead he undertook a geological survey for oil for the Ministry of Industry. He visited the Niigata oil field and western Japan in 1876–1881. The article “Geological and Topographical Maps of the Oil Lands in Japan,” written during this period, includes a geological map of the Niigata oil field on the scale 1:60,000.

Lyman made lasting contributions to Japan by establishing the first geological map of an extensive area, making structure contour maps of the coalfields and oil fields, and teaching practical American geology to thirteen young Japanese geologists. The future geologists, managers, and administrators of the Japanese mining industry were among Lyman’s protégés, for example, E, Yamagiwa and J; Shimada, who found the great coalfield at Ikushumbetsu (18801 and I. Ban, who found the Oyubari coalfield (1888).

Lyman returned to the United States and from 1887 to 1895 Lyman was vice-director of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. He had a deep knowledge of literature, philosophy, law, art, and archaeology. A lifelong bachelor, Lyman was also a vegetarian.


I. Original Works. Lyman’s books and papers have been collected at the Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass., but there is no complete bibliography of the more than 150 publications attributed to him. His most important writings are the Geological Survey of Hokkaido, 5 vols. (Tokyo, 1875–1877); Geological Sketch Map of the Island of Yesso, Japan (1:2,000,000) (Tokyo, 1876); and A General Report on the Geology of Yesso (Tokyo, 1877). Other of his works on Japanese geology are included in Horace Capron, Reports and Official Letters to the Kaitakushi (Tokyo, 1875) and Geological Survey of Japan, Reports of Progress for 1878, 1879 (Tokyo, 1879). Works on American geology, mostly that of Pennsylvania, are listed in J. M. Nickles, “Geologic Literature on North America, 1785–1918,” in Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, no. 746 (1922). See also E. S. Dunkman, “Notes on the Benjamin Smith Lyman Collection,” MSS, Forbes Library, Northhampton, Mass.

II. Secondary Literature. See M. L. Ames, Life and Letters of Peter and Susan Lesley (New York, 1909), which contains correspondence between Lyman and the Lesleys; Gonpei Kuwada, Biography of Benjamin Smith Lyman (Tokyo, 1937); and F. B. Sanborn, Recollections of Seventy Years (Boston, 1909), which includes recollections of Lyman, with a photograph.

H. Kobayashi