An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing

An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing

by C. R. Resetarits (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080625
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 11/01/2013
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

C. R. Resetarits is an essayist, scholar and writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including ‘Gender Studies’, ‘Fabula’, ‘Kenyon Review’ and ‘Mississippi Review’. She was a teaching fellow at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and served as associate editor for the ‘Natural Areas Journal’. Her background in American studies and her interest in natural history have combined with her research expertise to bring about the current anthology.

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An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing

By C. R. Resetarits

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 C. R. Resetarits
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-974-2


PART ONE: 1800–1846


Three themes dominated the science of this period: exploration, classification, and utilization. Jefferson, in his famous letter of instruction to Meriwether Lewis, illustrated the tone: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce." He also listed among the "objects worthy of notice" animals, plants, minerals, soil, topography, and climate. Embedded in this letter – the main focus of which was trade, commerce, and navigation – were Jefferson's own scientific interests, kept subordinate because of the reluctance of Jefferson's largely mercantile oriented congress to pay for science that did not promise a commercial payoff. The pro-British mercantile elite found many of the enlightenment tendencies of the Francophile Jefferson suspect, superfluous, ungodly, but this judgment was more a matter of politics, balance, economy, and utility than any true anti-science bias. The outstanding American scientists of the previous century, Franklin, Bartram, Rittenhouse, all had roots in the mercantile class and were themselves mindful of the young country's need for practical and useful knowledge. Jefferson too thought of science in terms of utility, for though he might not view commerce as the sole guide for scientific activity, he always tended toward a measure of utility. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) he classified plants not only by their scientific name but by their utility: medicinal, esculent, ornamental, and "useful for fabrication."

Philosophical Considerations and Classification

The philosophical underpinnings of science at the start of the nineteenth century were much the same both sides of the Atlantic: Baconian philosophy ruled, and Scottish "common-sense" eased the ambiguities that a larger Baconian tendency might reveal, as did the influential works of Humboldt, who was widely read in America and Britain, as well as Europe; and Natural Theology was there to offer a sense of solace and harmony in the midst of change. Eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century philosophers of natural history substituted classification of species for the Great Chain of Being and assumed that all hierarchies lead naturally to God. Throughout the first third of the nineteenth century, the majority of those who pondered such things at all would have agreed with Samuel Tyler's claim in The Discourse of Baconian Philosophy (1844): "philosophy, revelation, natural theology, and physical science are united in perfect harmony" (Daniels, Age of Jackson, p. 200). For Tyler the whole of Bacon's scientific method was embodied in the classification of species, and his book was a summary, and a defense, of science at the time. It is important to bear in mind, however, that there would have been less need for such a defense if there were not already an undercurrent of resistance to the status quo. Issues, questions and inconsistencies were arising that could not be easily subsumed or classified away. As early as 1818 Amos Eaton was beginning work that would lead to the controversy over the naming of geological strata in America. A similar controversy was paralleled in England. In American meteorology there was controversy over the interpretation of storm data and theories of storm movement. Fossils and new species were turning up everywhere as inspiration, incentive, and obstacle to classification systems. Two of the youngest and brightest of America's fledgling science community, Asa Gray and James Dwight Dana (see Part Two), were each in their own fields turning to a more advanced and organic method of classification, what was becoming known as the natural classification system, which employed the use of type specimens in Gray's case and chemical analysis in Dana's. Classification may have seemed the whole of science for amateur and casual observers early in the nineteenth century, but that whole was already raising as many questions as answers for those few scientists of a more critical bent.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Even with hindsight it is difficult to judge the full effects of the scientific pursuits of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Its position at the beginning of the century established it as both a pivotal event and a window on the growth of American science. Too often the science of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is glossed over with easy praise, citing Jefferson's letter, his foresight in sending Lewis to study under Benjamin Smith Barton, or the lengthy lists of plants and animals cited in the journals. However, the complications that accompanied the actual specimens are an excellent measure of the difficulties of this exploratory and fledgling phase of American science. The first crates of specimens that arrived in the east were later destroyed en route to storage. Another grouping of specimens stored at Great Falls was lost when the Missouri flooded. Nevertheless, several hundred plant and animal specimens did arrive safely. Jefferson sent the botanical specimens to the American Philosophical Society and the zoological specimens to the Peale Museum, which served as a de facto national repository before the Smithsonian Institute. Both Jefferson and Lewis had hoped that Benjamin Smith Barton would prepare a report on the botanicals, but Barton was over committed and failing in health, so Lewis turned to Barton's German protege Frederick Pursh. Pursh worked on preparing and drawing the plants until Lewis's death, a presumed suicide, in 1809 when Pursh abruptly sent a small subset of specimens to Clark and left for London. The specimens sent to Clark were returned to Barton and then passed to the American Philosophical Society on Barton's death in 1815, where they were protectively ignored until Thomas Meehan rediscovered them in 1896. Meanwhile, Pursh had actually kept the majority of specimens as well as his notes on all the rest. His Flora Americae Septentrionalis: Or, A Systematic Arrangement and Description of the Plants of North America was published in London in 1814 and offered American botanists a contemporary look at the plants, although the details of publication were a source of some ire. Pursh's specimens went into the collection of his English employer, A. B. Lambert. Upon Lambert's death in 1842, all but nine of the Lewis and Clark specimens were purchased by Edward Tuckerman, an American artist and naturalist, and given to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1856. The errant nine remaining in England ended up in the collection of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, where they can still be found today. In the 1920s the American Philosophical Society specimens were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences where the remaining 226 extant sheets were finally reunited.

The fate of the zoological specimens at the Peale museum is less breathtaking and more tragic. Over time the specimens were dispersed or loaned to museums and collections and subsequently lost or destroyed. None of the specimens remain. Luckily while at the Peale much of the collection was described and published by Wilson, Ord, Say, and Rafinesque.

Benjamin Silliman and The American Journal of Science and Arts

In 1802 Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, asked a 22-year-old Yale law student, Benjamin Silliman, to consider the new chair of chemistry and natural history at Yale, part of plans to expand the college curriculum. After accepting the professorship, Silliman left for two winters to study at the Medical College of the University of Pennsylvania and then spent 1805 – 1806 studying abroad. Even with the University of Pennsylvania's accreditations, Silliman's principal qualification for his new position remained unchanged: his orthodoxy. Silliman was a man that Yale could trust, as the college's trustees were more than a little hesitant to expand beyond the core curriculum of divinity and classics texts for fear of ungodly influences. Silliman proved to be the right man not only for Yale but for American science too. As Nathan Reingold summarized, Silliman "combined many of the virtues of both the amateurs and the emerging professionals of science. He knew more than the former but not enough to keep up far with the latter" (Science in Nineteenth Century America, p. 2). Silliman may not have left a legacy of groundbreaking science, but he did leave an important legacy as exemplar, promoter, and patron of science in the first half of the nineteenth century. He not only bridged the gap between the years of the amateur and the professional but actively set many of the following generations into place. He brought science not just to Yale but to the public at large. He was the opening act for the Lowell Institute, giving twelve sold out lectures on geology; he wrote textbooks and travel books, all of which sold very well; and he helped found the Yale Medical School. He was a well-respected man of science in the academe at a time when science in the academe was not particularly respected. His most lasting contribution, however, is undoubtedly the American Journal of Science and Arts, known as the American Journal of Science after 1880. Silliman started the publication in 1818, editing and financing it himself, and in the early years it was often known simply as Silliman's journal. The editorship of the journal remained in the Silliman family until 1926, and this lineage is itself quite impressive: Silliman to son-in-law James Dwight Dana to grandson Edward Salisbury Dana. Today the journal is housed in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale and is a leading periodical in earth sciences. One of the most interesting measures of the early import of Silliman's journal might be Hawthorne's reaction after noticing a copy on a desk in the Radcliffe Library at Oxford. It was, Hawthorne remarked, "the only trace of American science, or American learning or ability in any department, which I discovered in the University at Oxford" (Daniels, Science in American Society, p. 151).

The Useful Arts

One of the mainstays of the history of nineteenth-century American science is the premium placed on usefulness. Certainly by both inclination and necessity, usefulness in the New World was paramount, but the Baconian idea that science would be employed to elevate the condition of man and give him more control over Nature was near and dear to men of science throughout Britain and the Continent. In America, however, there was the additional practical consideration of a pioneering community rich in natural resources, sparse in population, and dedicated from the start to more democratic ideals and opportunities. The title of Benjamin Franklin's journal The American Philosophical Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge nicely summarized both the need and the plan for promotion and dissemination to the masses. A hundred years later, Tocqueville's comment in Democracy in America that Americans were addicted to practical rather than to theoretical science was more an observation, query, and caution than an admonishment. Tocqueville displayed the roundedness of his critique later in that same chapter:

I do not contend that the democratic nations of our time are destined to witness the extinction of the great luminaries of man's intelligence, or even that they will never bring new lights into existence. At the age at which the world has now arrived, and among so many cultivated nations perpetually excited by the fever of productive industry, the bonds that connect the different parts of science cannot fail to strike the observer; and the taste for practical science itself, if it is enlightened, ought to lead men not to neglect theory. In the midst of so many attempted applications of so many experiments repeated every day, it is almost impossible that general laws should not frequently be brought to light; so that great discoveries would be frequent, though great inventors may be few. (p. 53)


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Table of Contents

PART ONE: 1800-1846; Introduction; Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Wilson; Nathaniel Bowditch; George Ord; Thomas Say; Thomas Nuttrall; C. S. Rafinesque; Jospeph Henry; Ellias Loomis; PART TWO: 1846-1876; Introduction; Joseph Leidy; John William Draper; Louis Agassiz; Asa Gray; James D. Dana; Daniel Kirkwood; Benjamin Peirce; E. D. Cope; O. C. Marsh; Chauncey Wright; PART THREE: 1876-1900; Introduction; Charles S. Peirce; Clarence King; S. P. Langley; Henry A. Rowland; Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley; Stephen A. Forbes; C. Hart Merriam; Henry Chandler Cowles; J. Willard Gibbs

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“A valuable collection of original source documents on the natural and physical sciences not readily available to scholars and the general public. This anthology expands our understanding of the American contribution to nineteenth-century science, which is often overshadowed by European achievements.” —Alan S. Weber, Premedical Program, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, and editor of ‘Nineteenth-Century Science’

“This work reflects a thorough reading of the major sources in the history of science in America. Its preface and introductions present a well-digested summary survey of scientific activity in the United States, and nothing comparable to this collection of primary sources exists. Its focus on the scientists’ own words brings to life the theories, methods, and questions that animated both their own and their contemporaries’ research.” —Donald deB. Beaver, Professor of History of Science, Williams College

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