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ARTICLE V.-PRESIDENT WOOLSEY'S ADDRESS COMMEMORATIVE OF THE LIFE AND SERVICES OF BENJAMIN SILLIMAN, SENIOR, PROFESSOR IN
It will be but an act of justice to the memory of Professor SILLIMAN, if some one, who can measure accurately his services to science and to education, and his character as a man and a Christian, shall in due time pay him a carefully prepared tribute, which he so well deserves, and express the gratitude of his country to one who has so long commanded universal respect. Such a task I do not propose to myself, but in the expectation that such a task will be undertaken by a more skillful hand, working at leisure on materials which cannot be collected at once, I design to limit myself to a brief sketch of the life of Professor SILLIMAN, followed by an equally brief estimate of his services to science, of his career as an officer in Yale College, and of his general character.
The family to which Professor SILLIMAN belonged is thought to have been of Swiss origin, and his ancestors appear among the early inhabitants of the town of Fairfield, soon after the first settlement. His father, Gold Selleck Silliman, a graduate of Yale College of 1752, was a lawyer in Fairfield, and during the revolutionary war a brigadier-general of the state militia. He stood high in the confidence of Gov. Trumbull, and was entrusted for a time with the protection of the Long Island coast, which his residence at Fairfield enabled him to have in charge. He commanded the troops that were gathered for the defense of Danbury in the summer of 1777, when the British, in far superior force, burnt that depot, and when Gen. Wooster, who went over as a volunteer from New Haven, met his death. In 1780, a party of British troops landed on the coast and carried off Gen. Silliman as a prisoner. He remain ed in captivity six months, until exchanged with Judge Jones of Long Island, whom an expedition from Connecticut seized
and brought off by way of retaliation. Gen. Silliman died in
The mother of Professor SILLIMAN, Mary Fish, daughter of Rev. Joseph Fish, who was for fifty years pastor of the second church in Stonington, was the wife first of Rev. John Noyes, by whom she had two sons, well known as exemplary ministers in this State, and then of Gen. Silliman, by whom she had two sons also,-Gold Selleck and Benjamin, the former of whom still survives at the age of eighty-seven. Benjamin, like his namesake of old, was born away from home. The British forces had, invaded the coast at New Haven in July, 1779, and excited that consternation in the towns toward the west, which was soon afterwards followed by the burning of Fairfield and Norwalk. The family fled to New Stratford, now Trumbull, and there it was that on the 8th of August, 1779, our friend first saw the light. At the age of eleven he was left fatherless, and his education devolved upon his mother, who well fulfilled her task. He was fitted for College at thirteen, and graduated in the same class with his brother, at the early age of seventeen. Three years afterwards he was called to the tutorship, which office he continued to hold for five years.
Dr. Dwight came to the College to preside over its interests in 1795, when Mr. SILLIMAN was a Junior. It was one of the great blessings of his life, and was by him so regarded, that he fell under the influence of this eminent man, whose shining qualities attracted him, and who took an unusual interest in his welfare. For Dr. Dwight Mr. SILLIMAN retained, until the close of life, a most unbounded respect and attachment, and probably no other man did so much for the cultivation of his mind and heart. Having tested his capacity to teach and govern by several years of trial in the office of Tutor, Dr. Dwight proposed to him, in 1802, to leave the law which he had been studying, and for the practice of which he was now ready, and to devote his life to the study of Chemistry and Natural History. But the project of establishing such a chair was not entirely new here, for in September, 1798, the President and Fellows voted, "that a professorship of Chemistry
and Natural History be instituted in this College, as soon as the funds shall be sufficiently productive to support it." This appearing to be the case in 1802, the board proceeded to establish the professorship by the following resolution: "that it is expedient to elect for a Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, some person of competent talents, giving him such time to give his answer, whether he will accept such appointment or not, as he may desire, and as may be agreed upon between him and the Corporation.
"The Corporation being led to the choice of a Professor of Chemistry and Natural History in this College, on the positions of the foregoing vote, BENJAMIN SILLIMAN, Esq., was declared chosen."
Part of the next year was spent by Mr. SILLIMAN in Philadelphia, as a pupil of Dr. Woodhouse, in preparation for his new office, and funds were appropriated by the Corporation for the purchase of apparatus. The next year, also, was in part spent at the same place in chemical studies, and in part, after his return, in the delivery of a course of lectures. A fuller course occupied the early months of 1805.
It was in the spring of this year that he left the country, by consent of the academic authorities, to study the physical sciences abroad. He was absent fourteen months. In these months he attended courses of lectures in London and Edinburgh, traveled in different parts of England, and made an excursion across the channel, which, however, was cut short by the restrictions imposed under Napoleon upon persons visiting the continent from England. Few persons from this land then traveled either in England or on the continent, and fewer still had so good an opportunity to see men and things of interest. Accordingly, when, a year or two after his return, Mr. SILLIMAN published his journal of travels in England, Holland, and Scotland in 1805-6, it was received with a warm welcome in all quarters. I well remember what an engaging book it was for me in my boyhood, and how I became acquainted with and learned to, reverence such men as Wilberforce, whom the author introduces to his readers. This work of travels passed through a second edition a number of years afterwards, and in
1820 an account of a journey from Hartford to Quebec opened Canada to the reader, which was then almost an unknown land.
Professor SILLIMAN returned from England in 1806, and began those instructions in chemistry and mineralogy, which he continued to give ever afterwards, whilst he remained an officer of Yale College. Geology, I believe, was added as a third branch of instruction, somewhat later. The course in chemistry extended through the fall term and into the winter; in the latter part of the winter term the lectures on mineralogy began; and in the first half of the summer term the geological lectures closed the series. Such annual courses continued in almost unbroken sequence until he visited Europe for the second time in 1851, with the exception that the lectures in chemistry of 1823-24 were given by another person, on account of the temporary failure of Professor SILLIMAN'S health.
Let us now leave him in this life-work where Providence has placed him, rejoicing in his pursuits and spreading the same pleasure through his audiences, gathering yearly fresh and increasing tributes of homage and respect from the public, most happy in his domestic and academic life,-let us leave him here in this onward flow of years, and look at him as a man of science, a college officer, a man and a Christian.
In attempting to judge of the services which Prof. SILLIMAN has rendered to science, we must remember at how low a point the physical sciences stood in this country at the beginning of his career, and, especially, what slender help this college could give to one who wished to explore the secrets of nature. Chemistry was then in its infancy; the doctrine of heat, light, electricity, and magnetism was equally immature; and geology could scarcely be said to exist at all. No preparation for study in these departments was made except through the study of natural philosophy in imperfect text-books. The college had no collections, scarcely a retort, only minerals enough to fill a candle-box. In this state of things a young man was induced, by the advice of Dr. Dwight, to enter the unknown field, who had been prepared for another calling, and prepared to shine in it by
personal advantages such as few possess.
After he had com
pleted his tutorship he must qualify himself for a science of which he had not learned the rudiments, and in which there were here, if I am not deceived, almost no books and no smattering of knowledge. He also took upon him the duty of leading students over wide fields. Chemistry during his active life ran into almost infinite details, demanding exclusive study to master them; mineralogy, with its beautiful doctrine of crystallization, was constantly building itself up; and geology, as it grew into a science, made demands upon all its sisters, upon chemistry, zoology, botany, and began to write out a history of the earth, stretching back into inconceivably distant ages. In such wide fields, at a time when every year revealed new treasures of nature, and when man was continually forming combinations of elementary bodies, of which nature had prepared no pattern, a young professor could not be an explorer, he could scarcely grasp what was thrown into his hands by the developments of science. We do not claim for Mr. SILLIMAN the discovery of any great laws in the kingdom of nature,—that, in his circumstances, was almost out of the question. Nor do we claim any more genius and skill in original investigation than many others have possessed. What then are his titles to respect as a man science? They are these:
1. He was almost the pioneer and the father in this country of the three branches in which he gave instruction. The same honor is due to him on this account that is awarded to Professor Moses Stuart,-once his colleague in the college faculty -for the impulse which he gave by his enterprise and zeal to biblical studies. And thus to open the way in any science or discipline, useful to man, is a most valid title to the respect and the gratitude of posterity. It is easy to follow in a trodden path, but the originator of a science and the first inculcator of it-these have a difficult part to play; amid uncertainties and discouragements, with few to cheer them by sympathy, sustained by their own inward convictions chiefly, and warmed by their own inward fires, they are not so much the leaders of the ranks in a conquest over nature, as they are single champions, fighting alone, and unaided by the countenance