History
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Azurite and malachite
Azurite and malachite, Morenci, Arizona, USA (YPM MIN. 031209); picture height: 10 cm

The Mineralogy Collection can be traced to the 1802 appointment of Benjamin Silliman (1779 - 1864) to Yale University’s new professorship of chemistry and natural history. Silliman began to acquire material for Yale College at home and on his trip to England and Scotland in 1805 and 1806. The first significant addition was this material from Europe, and the Perkins Cabinet, acquired in 1807.

In 1811 and 1812, George Gibbs III (1776 - 1833) of Newport, RI shipped his mineral collection to Yale to be set up “where it could be useful to science” (it was ultimately purchased by Yale College in 1825). The Gibbs Cabinet consisted of two large separate collections and several smaller ones purchased by Gibbs, as well as specimens collected by him during his travels.

One of the two larger collections was that of Jean B. F. Gigot D’Orcy of France (1737 - 1793). Based on the handwritten 18th century Gigot d’Orcy catalogue (preserved in the Yale University Library), original specimen labels and an 18th century publication, several hundred of these specimens have been identified.

The other large collection, that of Count Grigorii Kyrillovitch Razumovskii (1759–1837), contains minerals of the Russian empire, Germany and Switzerland. A smaller collection was acquired by Gibbs from Jacques Louis, Comte de Bournon (1751 - 1825). Unfortunately, because neither the Razumovskii, nor the Bournon mineral collection was accompanied by a catalogue and because of the absence of original labels on the specimens, it has not been possible to positively identify which specimens came from these different subcollections of the Gibbs Cabinet.

In 1843, Yale purchased a collection of American minerals assembled by Baron Alois J.X. von Lederer (1773 - 1842), the Austrian Consul-General to the United States. This collection contained 3,000 specimens that Lederer collected himself or exchanged with noted mineralogists and naturalists of the time. Many of these specimens have been identified based on the labels used by Lederer.

With Silliman’s retirement in 1853, James D. Dana (1813 - 1895) inherited the curatorship. The collection was developed through the investigations and publications of James D. and Edward S. Dana (1849 - 1935), which formed the basis of J. D. Dana’s The System of Mineralogy (now in its 8th edition, it remains a principal reference in the field; many 19th century mineralogists sent material to the Danas for inclusion in the System).

In 1866, the collection was included in the newly established Peabody Museum, and George J. Brush (1831 - 1912), Professor of Metallurgy and Mineralogy in Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, was subsequently appointed the first official curator of the Museum’s mineral collection. Throughout his career Brush acquired specimens through personal collecting, purchase and exchange, and he built his collection specifically for research and reference purposes. After Brush was named Sheffield’s first director in 1872, E. S. Dana became Curator in 1874. Meanwhile, Brush continued to develop his own collection. Samuel L. Penfield (1856 - 1906) curated the Brush Collection after its donation to Yale in 1904; at his death in 1906 Penfield was succeeded by William E. Ford (1878 - 1939).

The Blum Collection of pseudomorphs was acquired in 1871. This collection of over 1,700 specimens was assembled by Professor Johann R. Blum (1802 - 1883) of the Heidelberg University, Germany, the first authority on pseudomorphs, and was the basis for his publications from 1842 through 1879. The material was catalogued by Michael Fleischer (1908 - 1998).

The Lazard Cahn (1865 - 1940) Collection of micromounts, numbering just under 5,000 specimens, was acquired in 1958 and curated by L. Neil Yedlin (1908 - 1977).

With E. S. Dana’s retirement in 1922, the curatorship of the Peabody collection was combined with that of the Brush Collection under Ford. Other Yale scientists who assisted with the curation of the collections include Louis V. Pirsson (1860 - 1919), Charles H. Warren (1876 - 1950), George S. Switzer (1916 - 2008) and Adolph Knopf (1882 - 1966). Horace Winchell (1915 - 1993) was named curator in 1951. Karl K. Turekian (1927 - 2013) served as Acting Curator beginning in 1985, and served until Jay J. Ague became Curator-in-Charge in 1998.

 

The Meteorite Collection was started 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 stony 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 1853, James D. Dana inherited his curatorial duties, but he seems to have had little to do with meteorites. Benjamin Silliman, Jr. (1816 - 1885), 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.

 

Named Curator in 1874, while still in graduate school, Edward S. Dana (James D. Dana’s son and Benjamin Silliman’s grandson) more than doubled the size of the meteorite collection in the next 46 years. Among his most significant acquisitions were:

  • Multiple specimens from the 3 great Iowa meteorite showers, Homestead (1875), Estherville (1879) and Forest City (1890).
  • A 65-pound (29.5-kilogram) stone (Jerome) found in Kansas by one of O.C. Marsh’s fossil hunters.
  • An 826-pound (375-kilogram) specimen of Canyon Diablo.
  • A large slice of Gibeon that shows boundaries of four grains of iron.
  • A 101-pound (46-kilogram) piece of the Brenham pallasite.

A collection of about 100 meteorites made by Yale mathematics professor Hubert A. Newton (1830 - 1896) was the gift of his family after his death.


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). Chester R. Longwell (1887 - 1975) 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 Curator of Meteorites in 1966 and 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 one of Connecticut’s most recent meteorites, Wethersfield (1982), the gift of the owners of the house into which it fell, only a mile and a half away from a house hit by another meteorite – Wethersfield (1971) – 11 years earlier.

In 2013 the Mineralogy and Meteorite Collections were reunited in the Division of Mineralogy and Meteoritics, under the curatorship of Jay J. Ague.

 

For a more detailed history, see “The Peabody Museum Meteorite Collection: A Historic Account” 1978. Discovery 13(1):1–23 and “Benjamin Silliman and the Peabody Museum” 1979. Discovery 14(2): 12-29, both by Barbara L. Narendra.