Benjamin Silliman
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Benjamin Silliman

Benjamin Silliman‘s (b. 1779, d. 1864) influence on the development of science — not only at Yale University, but in the United States as a whole — was profound. Although Silliman died 2 years before the Yale Peabody Museum was even founded, and 12 years before its first building was completed, the Museum would not have come into existence without his work in building up Yale‘s collections in mineralogy and geology, his pioneering teaching of chemistry, mineralogy and geology, and the resultant preeminence of Yale in 19th century scientific education.

Silliman was appointed in 1802 to Yale College’s new professorship of “chymistry” and natural history. He had little knowledge of chemistry, and while preparing to teach his subject he quickly realized that chemistry could not be self-taught. Silliman left for 2 winters to study at the Medical College of the University of Pennsylvania, and in his spare time he and chemist Robert Hare performed experiments in a laboratory they set up in a cellar kitchen of their boarding house.

With this background, and his conscientiousness, energy and ambition, Silliman would have become at least a competent instructor in his basic subject, chemistry. However, his appointment included natural history, which in those days was understood to cover geology, mineralogy, botany and zoology. Silliman sought to fill this gap by study abroad, and spent 1805 and 1806 in England and Scotland, notably at the University of Edinburgh. Silliman emerged from these several years with a solid, up-to-date background in theoretical and experimental chemistry, and a practical knowledge of geology, mineralogy, zoology and medical subjects.

While acquiring knowledge, he was also acquiring the materials he would need — rock and mineral specimens — to teach geology and mineralogy. Only 20 years later, thanks to him, Yale’s mineral collection would be the largest and most important in the United States. In addition to material collected by him and others, Silliman made several important early acquisitions for the growing mineral collection, including the Perkins Cabinet in 1807 (about 2,000 minerals from England and the Continent) and the Gibbs Cabinet in 1811–1812 (about 12,000 fine minerals, none American; it was purchased subsequently in 1825).

In 1820 the growing collection was rehoused in the second story of a newly erected college building, and remained there for more than half a century until the first Peabody Museum was ready to receive it. This “Cabinet Building,” as is became known, was Yale’s museum from 1820 until 1876. Until mid-century the Cabinet was mainly a collection of rocks and minerals. It included some shells and some corals; there were several cases of fossils, but not nearly enough to illustrate the geology lectures.

Silliman little imagined that before long there would be a surfeit of American fossils, fossils that would eclipse his precious minerals in their fascination for the public — O.C. Marsh’s dinosaurs. Silliman retired in 1853, although he continued to teach geology and mineralogy for 2 more years, until James Dwight Dana was ready to take over.

Excerpted from “Benjamin Silliman and the Peabody Museum,” by Barbara L. Narendra, 1979, Discovery 14:13–29.