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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 763


This is the grave of Charles Thomas Jackson.

Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1805, Jackson grew up in the New England elite. Just as an example, his sister married Ralph Waldo Emerson. That didn’t necessarily mean huge money by modern standards or even by mid-19th century standards, but it did mean a lot of cultural capital and relative financial comfort. Thus, Jackson went to Harvard and then Harvard Medical School, graduating from the latter in 1829 with a prize-winning dissertation. But instead of medicine, Jackson went into the very new field of geology.

It’s interesting to think about how cultures thought about the natural world around them before the development of geology as a science. I know there are answers to this among anthropologists and religious scholars since so much of this was religious nature, but I just don’t know much about it. I know more about how people thought about the connection between time and religion and I assume that looking at the earth itself and the rock and soil that made it up was just wrapped up into this. In any case, as part of the Enlightenment, people started thinking about these questions in a new way.

Jackson became part of this new geological science in North America. While in college, he and a friend engaged in a geological exploration of Nova Scotia. In 1829, he decided to go to Europe to engage in further studies, both in medicine and geology, staying there several years and studying under several leading doctors and scientists. He returned to the U.S. in around 1835 as a committed geologist. Maine hired him in 1836 to be its state geologist. The point here, especially given the small state governments of the time that were reluctant to pay people for much of anything, was to find resources for exploitation. Jackson proved pretty good at this and worked for Maine, Rhode Island (we have mineral resources?) and New Hampshire over the next decade.

Jackson then went into the private sector briefly in 1844, serving as the geologist for the Lake Superior Copper Company in Michigan as the northern part of that state became a leading supplier of copper for the nation. In 1847, the federal government appointed Jackson as geologist for the Lake Superior district. His job here was to survey the copper resources. But he did a very poor job of it and was fired. Part of the problem here seems to have been his overwhelming ego. Jackson had a big problem of taking credit for other people’s discoveries. This became well-known; someone would make a discovery and then Jackson would publicly say that he discovered it first. Of course, you can only do this so often before people realize you are a liar. It wasn’t just in geology that he did this. Like a lot of scientists of the day, he was a general scientists experimenting in all sorts of things. So when Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, Jackson claimed credit for it. As Morse was a litigious bastard in his own right, this did not go well for Jackson. They sued and countersued each other for years.

All of this led to Jackson’s promising career ending up in ashes. He did discover several mining claims of course. He wrote a book about the use of ether in surgery in 1861, another area where he tried to take credit for others’ discoveries, in this case William T.G. Morton. Or maybe not. This was disputed. He was still acting as a doctor through most of his life. One of his dental students (please do not make me think about 19th century dentistry anymore than necessary) was….William T.G. Morton. They worked together how to make dentistry less painful. Morton definitely is who first gave the medical presentation on how to use ether in dentistry in 1846 at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is a real jump in the science, I think we can all agree. But Jackson claimed credit and the two men hated each other ever after.

In 1873, Jackson had to be institutionalized for mental illness. Of course diagnosing something like mental illness in 1873 was an inexact art to say the least and reading back into those descriptions today doesn’t always help much. But some said anyway that upon visiting Morton’s grave, he had a manic attack and just lost it. Others say he started having seizures. Perhaps he had mental illness for a long time before this. Who knows. In any case, he spent the last seven years of his life in an institution. He died in 1880. He was 75 years old.

Charles Thomas Jackson is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The gravestone definitely tries to make the case for his ether discovery. Actually, that’s why I took this picture. I’d never heard of the guy before but stumbled upon the gravestone and snapped a pic just in case this was a worthy person for a post. I’d say it was worthwhile enough.

If you would like this series to visit other American geologists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Florence Bascom is in Williamstown, Massachusetts and Clarence Dutton is in Wallingford, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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