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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 736

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This is the grave of Benjamin Silliman.

Born in 1779 in Connecticut, Silliman was birthed into the chaos of the American Revolution. He was actually born in a tavern after the British burned the town of Fairfield to the ground, forcing his mother to flee. Meanwhile, his father, General Gold Selleck Silliman (first rate name!) was at that time a prisoner of the British. But the family managed to survive and flourish. Silliman went to Yale, He graduated in 1796, did a master’s that he finished in 1799, and also studied law in the late 1790s. He then became a tutor at Yale. In 1802, he was both admitted to the bar and hired by Yale as a professor in chemistry.

Now, let’s talk about “education” in America worked at this time. See, Silliman had….never studied chemistry before! Now, I don’t really know what happens at a school like Yale. Given the number of terrible people running our nation who come out of there these days, I’m not sure it’s improved any. In any case, Silliman took some time off so he could actually learn the subject matter. He went to study with someone at Penn, came back for a year, then went to the University of Edinburgh to actually learn something. The story of how this happened is also kind of interesting. The state of Connecticut had provided some some support for Yale and it wanted to stop doing that. So it offered Timothy Dwight, president of Yale at that time, $20,000 as a one-time present to end support. Silliman was hired with some of that cash. He also got $10,000 of it to buy science books in Europe.

Now, however limited his training, Silliman became a leading American scientist. A lot of it was totally bunkum. Silliman was deeply committed to the literal meaning of the Bible and therefore all his scientific discoveries had to conform to his belief in the Bible. Despite his chemistry “training,” it was geology that he became known for studying. He did a lot of exploration of the geology around New Haven as that field was developing. But what this meant is that the revealed geology meant that the Flood from Genesis was real. Now, I don’t want to be too unfair here. It was the times and Silliman was a curious man who did discover quite a bit about the region’s geology. There’s even a mineral named after him and he discovered the first fossilized fishes in the U.S., though I’m not sure how he reconciled those fossils with the infallibility of the Biblical Word.

Silliman also let women sit in on his classes, well over a century before Yale allowed women to be admitted. He strongly believed in women’s education and that’s definitely a point in his favor, especially at that time. He was also strongly anti-slavery but like so many abolitionists at the time, believed that Black and white people could not live together peacefully. Therefore, he was a big supporter of the American Colonization Society to send Black Americans to Liberia.

Silliman continued to lecture at Yale until 1855. He also became the first American expert in fractional distillation, which was critical in the development of the oil industry just getting under way at this time. In fact, Silliman’s son, who also taught at Yale, was a critical player in the early oil industry. More on him later in this series. Silliman spent his later years as one of the most respected intellectuals in the nation, a member of the American Antiquarian Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and National Academy of Sciences. He died in 1864 at the age of 85.

Benjamin Silliman is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other famous geologists in American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Florence Bascom is in Williamstown, Massachusetts and G.K. Gilbert is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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