Amos Eaton (b. 1776, d. 1842) was born in Chatham, New York, in
1776. He trained as a lawyer and graduated from Williams College in
1799. Despite his interest in the natural sciences, he moved to the
Catskills to practice law as a land agent and surveyor.
As a result of a land dispute he was accused of forgery and imprisoned for 5 years. During his imprisonment he began devoting his time to the study of natural sciences. While in jail he mentored a young John Torrey, who later became one of the earliest professors of botany in the country.
On his release, Eaton spent a year working at Yale University under the direction of Benjamin Silliman and Eli Ives. He then returned to Williams College, where he introduced a series of lectures on scientific topics. He published his Botanical Dictionary and, in 1817, the first edition of the Manual of Botany for the Northern States. As an itinerant natural history lecturer, he taught at several colleges in New York State and New England, and compiled textbooks on botany, chemistry, zoology and geology.
In 1824, with the financial support of Stephen van Rensselaer, he founded the Rensselaer Institute in Troy, New York. Here he formally implemented his methods, which focused on an empirical approach to teaching science. Students were encouraged to take field trips, collect material, perform laboratory analyses and report results in the form of a lecture to peers.
Amos Eaton was the first natural history teacher of his time. His passion for science was transparent and encouraged many young students who later became influential scientists.