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Benjamin Silliman

Benjamin Silliman
Silliman around 1850
Born August 8, 1779 (1779-08-08)
Trumbull, Connecticut, USA
Died November 24, 1864(1864-11-24) (aged 85)
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Residence USA
Nationality USA
Fields chemist
Institutions Yale University
Alma mater Yale University
Doctoral students James Dwight Dana
Known for Distillation of petroleum
Notable awards National Academy of Sciences
Silliman c. 1860
Silliman as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Yale professor and famed chemist Benjamin Silliman with his extended family.

Benjamin Silliman (8 August 1779 – 24 November 1864) was an early American chemist and science educator. He was one of first American professors of science, at Yale College, the first person to distill petroleum in America, and a founder of the American Journal of Science, the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the United States.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Education 2
  • Career 3
  • 1807 meteor 4
  • Family 5
  • Legacy 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Silliman was born in a tavern in North Stratford, now Trumbull, Connecticut, a few months after his mother, Mary (Fish) Silliman (widow of John Noyes), fled for her life from their Fairfield, Connecticut, home to escape two thousand invading British troops that burned Fairfield center to the ground. The British forces had taken his father, General Gold Selleck Silliman, prisoner in May 1779.


Silliman was educated at Yale, receiving a B.A. degree in 1796 and a M.A. in 1799. He studied law with Simeon Baldwin from 1798 to 1799 and became a tutor at Yale from 1799 to 1802. He was admitted to the bar in 1802. President Timothy Dwight IV of Yale proposed that he equip himself to teach in chemistry and natural history and accept a new professorship at the university. Silliman studied chemistry with Professor James Woodhouse at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and delivered his first lectures in chemistry at Yale in 1804. These lectures were the first science lectures ever given at Yale.[2] In 1805, he traveled to Edinburgh for further study.


Title page, inaugural edition of the American Journal of Science, founded by Benjamin Silliman, 1818

Returning to New Haven, he studied its geology, and made a chemical analysis of the meteorite that fell near Weston, Connecticut, publishing the first scientific account of any American meteorite. He lectured publicly at New Haven in 1808 and came to discover many of the constituent elements of many minerals. Some time around 1818, Ephraim Lane took some samples of rocks he found at an area called Saganawamps, now a part of the Old Mine Park Archeological Site in Trumbull, Connecticut, to Silliman for identification. Silliman reported in his new American Journal of Science, a publication covering all the natural sciences but with an emphasis on geology, that he had identified tungsten, tellurium, topaz and fluorite in the rocks.[3] In 1837, the first (and at the time only) prismatic barite ore of tungsten in the United States was discovered at the mine. The mineral sillimanite was named after Silliman in 1850. Upon the founding of the Medical School, he also taught there as one of the founding faculty members.

American historian David McCullough mentions in his book about early 19th century Americans in Paris that in 1825 Professor Benjamin Silliman while on a tour of Europe conferring with other scientists encountered his former Yale science student Samuel F. B. Morse in the Louvre. McCullough also relates that Silliman would later become president of the college.[4]

As professor emeritus, he delivered lectures at Yale on geology until 1855; Benjamin Silliman Sr had been the first person to use the process of fractional distillation, and, in 1854, Benjamin Silliman Jr became the first person to fractionate petroleum by distillation.[5]

Like his son-in-law James Dana, Silliman was a Christian.[6] In an address delivered before the Association of American Geologists he spoke in favor of old-earth creationism, stating:

It is already admitted by multitudes, that the chronology of the Scriptures is, in strictness, applied only to the history of our race, the sole moral beings whom God has placed in this World; while all that precedes man in the creation, is limited, in duration backwards, only by that beginning, whose is known to no being but the infinite Creator, and which certainly precedes, by many ages, the creation of man.
— Silliman, (1842)[7]

In the same line of thought, he posed arguments against atheism and materialism.[8]

1807 meteor

At 6:30 in the morning of December 14, 1807, a blazing fireball about two-thirds the size of the moon, was seen traveling southwards by early risers in Vermont and Massachusetts. Three loud explosions were heard over the town of Peabody Museum collection today.[9][10]


His first marriage was on September 17, 1809, to Harriet Trumbull, daughter of Connecticut governor Grove Street Cemetery.

Photo of the Benjamin Silliman family with portrait of his deceased wife Harriet Trumbull on wall.


Silliman deemed slavery an "enormous evil". He favored colonization of free African Americans in Liberia, serving as a board member of the Connecticut Colonization Society between 1828 and 1835. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1813.[11] He founded and edited the American Journal of Science, and was appointed one of the corporate members of the National Academy of Sciences by the United States Congress.

Ebenezer Hawley house c. 1765 birthplace Benjamin Silliman
A statue of Silliman in front of Yale's Sterling Chemistry Laboratory

Silliman College, one of Yale's residential colleges, is named for him, as is the mineral Sillimanite.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Silliman History". Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  3. ^ History and Minerals of Old Mine Park (Saganawamps), Earle Sullivan, Trumbull Historical Society, 1985, p. 8
  4. ^ McCullough, David (2011). The greater journey : Americans in Paris (1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.  
  5. ^ "Benjamin Silliman Jr.". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 12 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Buckingham Mouheb, Roberta (2012). Yale Under God, p. 110. Xulon Press, ISBN 9781619968844
  7. ^ Silliman, Benjamin. Address Delivered Before the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists: At Their Meeting Held in Boston, April 25-30, 1842. B.L. Hamlen., p. XXXII
  8. ^ Silliman, Benjamin (1839). Suggestions Relative to the Philosophy of Geology, as Deduced from the Facts and to the Consistency of Both the Facts and Theory of this Science with Sacred History. pp. 79-80
  9. ^ Yale Peabody Museum website retrieved 2011 March 10
  10. ^ Seeley, Tales of Trumbull's Past, Trumbull Historical Society, 1984
  11. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  12. ^ "'"Author Query for 'Silliman.  

Further reading

  • Brown, Chandos Michael (1989). Benjamin Silliman: A Life in the Young Republic. Princeton University Press.  
  • Fisher, George P. (1866). Life of Benjamin Silliman, M.D., LL.D. 1. New York: Charles Scribner and Company.  
  • Fisher, George P. (1866). Life of Benjamin Silliman, M.D., LL.D. 2. New York: Charles Scribner and Company.  
  • Jackman, S. W. (1979). "The tribulations of an editor: Benjamin Silliman and the early days of the American Journal of Science and the Arts". The New England Quarterly 52 (1): 99–106.  
  • McCullough, David (2011). The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. New York: Simon & Schuster.  
  • Prince, Cathryn J. (2010). A Professor, A President, and A Meteor: The Birth of American Science. Prometheus Books.  

External links

  • Yale University on Silliman
  • The Yale Standard on Silliman
  • On his abolitionism
  • Sillimanite
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