Bill Long 11/09/04
The Story of a New Mineral
If someone stopped you on the street and told you he would give you a million dollars if you properly defined jeffersonite, you would proably say that it was someone who followed the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. You would be wrong, your million dollars would disappear, and you would have to go back to playing the lottery or working for a living. A person following Jefferson's philosophy is a Jeffersonian, but jeffersonite is a mineral, named to be sure after the third President, but quite different from those who favored rural or agrarian concerns in the early 19th century. Yet the story of its discovery and the two men who discovered it sheds interesting light on the history of mineralogy.
Setting the Context
The modern study of minerals was just coming into its own at the beginning of the 19th century. Werner, the father of German geology (and sometimes considered the father of mineralogy) was still at his prime (he died in 1817). Mohs had just developed his hardness scale in 1811 and his contemporary the Abbe Hauy, a French priest, was one of the leading figures in developing the Paris School of the Mines. Discoveries of potentially new minerals were happening frequently, and there was no organized or recognized international body which could systematize or control the naming and identification of new minerals. Yet a method of mineral identification was gradually being accepted, as is clear from the story of the finding and naming of jeffersonite.
That story is told by one of the two discoverers, William H. Keating, who, along with his friend Luther Vanuxem, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy at South Carolina College, decided to explore the region around the Franklin Iron Works (near Sparta, NJ) in the summer of 1821. The account of their find was given on June 4, 1822 and appears in Vol 2., pt. 2 Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Before describing their "find," it might be nice to meet the men.
Vanuxem and Keating
Vanuxem was 29 years old at the time of the find. He was born into a strict Presbyterian family in Philadelphia in 1792 and studied geology/mineralology with Abbe Hauy in Paris in the late 1810s. After returning to the States, he taught at South Carolina College from 1819-26 before devoting his professional life to mapping some of the geological features of the States of New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. While in New York he assembled a fine geological "cabinet" which became the basis for the geological collection of the New York state museum. His desire to establish a uniform system of mineral nomenclature in the United States led him to form a collaborative group that would grow into the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1847. At his death in 1848 he was considered to have the finest and most complete private collection of fossils and rock/mineral specimens in the United States. A brief detour into the history of that collection illustrates the "happenstancesical" nature of human life.
His collection was reputed to have 12,000 fossils and 6,000 mineral specimens. Bidding for the collection commenced after his death, with a certain geology professor William May Stewart outbidding Brown University and paying $10,000 for the collection. This William Stewart donated the collection to his college and, voila, became President of the College in Clarksville, TN. Which college, you ask? Why, Stewart College. The college stayed in that town until 1925, when it was renamed Rhodes College and moved to Memphis (do you suppose there was a Mr. Rhodes behind this move?) Thus, the collection was lodged in Clarksville in the mid-1850s rather than the more "safe" confines of University Hall or Rhode Island Hall of Brown University.
Union troops passed through and occupied the small college during the Civil War and, after the War, a general inventory of the collection indicated that about one fourth of it had disappeared along with the Union troops. No doubt gifts for the wife, girl-friend and kids. In 1896, if justice could ever be done, the US House of Representatives paid $25,000 to the college in restitution for the acts of depredation, including the looting of the Vanuxem collection, by Union soldiers. Who said that America doesn't believe in reparations?
But, as luck would have it, the study of geology wasn't the focus of Stewart College in the late 19th-early 20th century. When the college moved to Memphis in 1925, the collection was hurriedly boxed up and moved, with many of Vanuxem's original identifications in formal brown penstroke lost. It was not until 1975 that geology was again taught at Rhodes. Some striking traces of the great collection remain but not in a way that would have pleased Vanuxem.
Keating's story can be told much more quickly. He was born in Delaware in 1799, with his middle name (Hypolitus) reminding us that he was an early 19th century man. Like Vanuxem, he was a student of Abbe Hauy in Paris, and was chair of mineralogy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania from 1822-27. He co-founded the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, to this day one of the premier institutes in America to advance the study of science. Of the many noteworthy items in the possession of that Institute today is a pair of Shaquille O'Neal's size 22 shoes. Most of Vanuxem's lost collection could probably fit in them.
This was to be an essay on the discovery of a new mineral, but once again I got carried away with the human dimensions of the story. Let's go to the next essay to learn about the mineral.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long