The collections in the Division of
Meteorites and Planetary Science were begun in the early 19th century with a
heaven-sent opportunity for Yale’s young professor Benjamin
Silliman to make a scientific name for himself. The fall of the Weston
meteorite on December 14, 1807, not far from New Haven, Connecticut, was the New
World’s first witnessed fall of a meteorite, with subsequent recovery of
specimens, after the arrival of the European settlers. Silliman’s description of
the fall and his chemical analysis of the stone meteorite, the first performed
in the United States, received much attention in the national and international
press. Some of the meteorites acquired by Silliman over the next half century
came in mineral collections, most notably the Gibbs Collection.
When Silliman retired in the 1850s, James D. Dana inherited his curatorial duties, but he seems to have had little to do with meteorites. Benjamin Silliman, Jr., who succeeded his father as Professor of Chemistry, acquired and described several iron meteorites found in the U.S., and exchanged specimens with several individuals and institutions, particularly the British Museum and the Mineralogical Museum of the University of Berlin. Although about 25 meteorites in the Division’s holdings are directly traceable to his efforts, more certainly passed through his hands, but documentation of these early acquisitions is scanty.
In 1867 George J. Brush was named the first Curator of Mineralogy in the newly founded Peabody Museum; for the next 100 years this post also included the curation of the meteorite collection. In the first year and a half Brush added 49 new meteorites, bringing the total to 103, and published a catalog, apparently the collection’s first. Brush’s appointment as Director of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School in 1872 and his duties as a professor made it impossible for him to continue his curatorial work, and he resigned from the curatorship in 1874.
Edward S. Dana, the son of J. D. Dana, was named Curator in 1874 while he was still a graduate student. In the next 46 years he more than doubled the size of the meteorite collection.
William E. Ford succeeded E.S. Dana in 1922. His principal achievement was overseeing the installation of a meteorite exhibition in the current Peabody Museum building (which opened to the public on January 1, 1926). C.R. Longwell and Horace Winchell, subsequent caretakers of the collection, made a few exchanges and purchases, but interest in meteorites stayed at a low ebb for many years.
Later in the 20th century meteorites became prime source material for geochemists studying the history of the solar system. Karl K. Turekian, a geochemistry professor, was appointed the Peabody’s first Curator of Meteorites in 1966 and has added more than 200 meteorites and many impact-related objects to the collection, including the former meteorite collection of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a gift in 1976, and Connecticut’s most recent meteorite, Wethersfield (1982).
For a more detailed history, see “The Peabody Museum Meteorite Collection: A Historic Account,” by Barbara L. Narendra, 1978, Discovery 13(1):1–23.