Chapter 2: Weather, Stars, and Living Nature

1. Introduction

The observational sciences of natural history, geophysics, and astronomy characterized the sciences practiced in America until the 1870s.[1] Taking natural history and geophysics to comprise geography, “For this brief period geography was the queen of the sciences and astronomy the handmaiden to geography.” [2]

A new, unsettled, largely unexplored nation needed to be mapped, inventoried and catalogued, its coasts, rivers and mountain ranges surveyed, its animal, mineral, and vegetable resources located and identified. Because geography was useful, it fit perfectly the strong American emphasis on utility. Not pursuit of mere theory, but pursuit of those facts and relations pertaining to its own circumstances would enable the new nation to make the best and most efficient use of its resources.

Natural history, accessible to the interested amateur or scientific novice, comprised one of the most popular and attractive areas of scientific activity in the nineteenth century; it remains one of a handful of scientific activities still open to the amateur today. Because of its accessibility to all, natural history fit the egalitarian ideal of democracy, which American citizens extended to include the sciences, on the grounds that no human activity should be closed to the common person. Any and all could [and should] take part in one of the most important early activities of the New Republic, the compilation of an encyclopedic Geography of the United States.

During the nineteenth century, enormous numbers of observations were made about Nature, all over the globe, by adventuresome practitioners of the science. During that century, too, the biological sciences began to fragment and specialize, into zoology and botany, and then into herpetology, entomology, mycology, and a host of specialized and professionalized subfields. Nonetheless, many people continued to observe and write natural histories, apart from the increasingly separate professional scientific community.

Not surprisingly, activity in the sciences at Williams also concentrated on geography and astronomy. Despite, or perhaps because of, its geographical location, Williams made three notable contributions to the observational natural sciences: one of the earliest, long term systematic series of meteorological observations, made by Chester Dewey from 1811 to 1827; the creation of the Hopkins Observatory [1838], the oldest college observatory extant and in use in the United States; the Lyceum of Natural History, 1835-1873[3], founded and managed by undergraduate students.

2. Early Meteorological Observations

Williams College displayed its pioneering spirit in an early study of meteorology. Systematic observations began in 1811; interrupted several times since, they have recently resumed in the Hopkins Memorial Forest. Only four other American colleges made meteorological observations as early: Harvard, in 1790; Bowdoin in 1807, and Middlebury and Yale, also in 1811[4]

Professor Chester Dewey ’06 (1784-1867) was directly responsible for the commencement of meteorological observation. A Berkshire County native (Sheffield, Mass.), Dewey graduated from Williams in 1806 and then spent two years studying for the Congregational ministry. After earning his license to preach in 1807, Dewey returned to Williams in 1808 in the role of tutor. In 1810, he was promoted to Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.[5] In December, 1812, Dewey went to Yale to learn about chemistry from Benjamin Silliman, much as Silliman, in a similar position, had gone to Philadelphia 10 years earlier to learn chemistry from Robert Hare. At Yale, Dewey obtained chemical apparatus for the college, its first, and on his return in 1813, established a chemical laboratory.[6]

Figure 3: Chester Dewey: First science tutor: 1808-1810;Professor 1810-1826

A succinct summary of Dewey’s character is given in the following:

“In the lecture room, Dr. Dewey was exact and brief in his statements of principles; clear and full in his illustration of difficulties; sympathetic with the dull in intellect; and patient with the wayward and inattentive. As a colleague, he was uniformly unselfish and courteous”[7]

Dewey’s most important contributions in the field of meteorology were his regular and detailed observations. He recorded the temperature three times a day, at 7 a.m., 2 p.m., and 9 p.m. What makes his records valuable is that he did not merely note the temperature, but also recorded the character of the day, including in his records the amount of precipitation, wind direction, and other observations of interest, such as the arrival of the bluebirds or robins in the spring. Dewey also recorded auroras and sunspots and even went to the trouble to record the temperatures of the springs that were located on what is now called Spring Street. It is interesting to note Dewey’s insistence on recording the phases of the moon; it is not clear whether in so doing he was testing or affirming a popular belief of the period that weather abnormalities could be blamed on lunar irregularities.

It is also not clear exactly where on campus Dewey took his temperature readings. One report had Dewey making observations from the spring on Spring Street, the rationale being that Dewey would have to make several trips to the spring each day to collect water and upon each trip he would make a reading. Dewey himself suggested a different scenario, “…The observations were made with a thermometer suspended about six feet from the ground upon the north side of a house and protected from the direct rays of the sun.”[8] If this was the case, then presumably the observations were taken from Dewey’s own house, located where East College now stands–the original East College having sustained heavy fire damage in 1841, and having been thoroughly rebuilt.

To measure temperatures Dewey probably used a simple mercury thermometer of the type common at that time. Heat expands mercury within a glass tube, thus forcing the top surface of a column of mercury to rise to a higher degree on the scale of the thermometer, which would be marked in degrees Fahrenheit. In 1813 the College procured ten pounds of mercury, a quantity which amounts to a bit less than a pint.[9] Although why the College bought the mercury is unclear, the element was often used in barometers to measure air pressure, and in apparatus to demonstrate Boyle’s Law in courses of Natural Philosophy. The mercury might also have been for Prof. Dewey’s newly established chemistry laboratory, which occupied a small building in East College Yard.[10]

At least some of Dewey’s observations were published by Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Yale, and editor of the prestigious American Journal of Science, the most significant American scientific journal of the period, and the closest the United States had to a professional one. Dewey’s example continued to influence the College environment; for at least a dozen years after his departure, a Meteorological Association flourished on campus, most probably closely connected with the Lyceum of Natural History.[11] Following Dewey’s lead in bringing chemistry to greater prominence on campus, in 1834 the College established a Professorship of Chemistry, first occupied by Mr. Edward Lasell ’28, who held the chair from 1834-35 until 1851-52.[12]

3. Astronomy and the Hopkins Observatory

Like the terrestrial observations of nature made as a means of understanding God, celestial observation, or astronomy, gained early and enthusiastic support from both students and administration. The college ordered its first astronomical instrument in September 1802, nine years after its founding.[13] Although the acquisition seems to have been considered somewhat urgent, the goal being “…to procure a telescope for the college apparatus…”[14], it nonetheless took four years for the purchase to be made. The List of Articles Belonging to Williams College lists an expenditure of $330 in 1806 for a “three foot reflecting telescope, with two eye pieces”.[15]

Presumably the usefulness of this instrument was limited by the relatively primitive technology of telescope manufacture. Early nineteenth century reflecting telescopes “were still mainly the products of artisans working in small workshops. Their size was restricted by the metallurgical techniques of the day, the ability to cast glass, and the power of the available driving mechanism…They could be used with some precision, but the size of the field and their magnifying power were not very impressive. Although reflecting telescopes had the advantage of avoiding chromatic aberration, they were restricted in size by the difficulty of making large mirrors from speculum metal, an alloy of copper and tin.”[16]

Still, the addition of this relatively expensive instrument to the science department demonstrated the Williams community’s commitment to the study of the heavens. Such interest may have been grounded in part by two occasions which heightened public awareness of astronomy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first, the transits of Venus, in 1761 and 1769, led to explorations that represented 18th century anticipations of the first international geophysical year in 1957. Nations all over the world competed with each other to send out expeditions to observe the transits, and to gather geographical information of potential economic value.[17] The 1769 transit was quite impressive; people traveled long distances to observe it from favorable sites. The Massachusetts Bay Colony voted both money and a sloop to John Winthrop IV, Harvard Professor of Natural Philosophy, so that he could mount an observing expedition to Newfoundland. The second occasion to excite public interest in astronomy was Giuseppe Piazzi’s discovery of a new planet on the first day of the nineteenth century, January 1, 1801. The new planet turned out later to be what we know as the first asteroid, Ceres; astronomers discovered 4 more asteroids in the next 5 years and then none more until the 1840s.[18]

Quite apart from heavenly events, there existed a strong terrestrial reason for astronomical observation. As the young nation spread and settled in increasingly far-flung areas, a growing need developed to survey ever larger regions. Astronomical methods and instruments were essential to that purpose, as they could establish precise measurements of latitude, longitude, and time. Given Amos Eaton’s[19] experience and Chester Dewey’s interest in surveying, it is logical to assume that some such work was being done at Williams.

Further indication of Williams’ interest in astronomy is found in the List of Articles Belonging to Williams College, which has an entry for a planetarium, purchased in 1805 at the cost of [[sterling]]16.16. Planetaria were popular demonstration models of the solar system; a crank turned a series of geared mechanisms, like clockwork, which moved balls representing planets and satellites around their respective primaries. Appropriately for an age of celestial clockwork, David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia, astronomer and first master of the U.S. Mint, had on his own built two such planetaria or orreries, for which he had become well known. Although early 19th century models of the solar system represented all the planets and satellites then known, they were far from accurate: “the scale was much distorted; the sun was far too small.”[20] Unsophisticated as the telescope and planetarium may have been, they, along with Gassendi’s greatly outdated Institutio Astronomica provided students and professors with an early opportunity to study the stars.[21]

For nearly 30 years thereafter, little record exists of any significant developments in the College’s support of astronomy. Then, in August 1834, the minutes of the Board of Trustees “Report for Standing Committee” notes that:

“The sum of four thousand dollars has been raised by subscription by the Alumni of the college and other liberal patrons of the institution, to be applied to the purchase of Philosophical and Chemical apparatus for the use of the institution, and that it will be necessary to send an Agent to Europe to purchase the same, recommended to the Board that Professor Albert Hopkins have permission to be absent for that purpose from the 1st day of September next to the first day of May following and that during that time he be allowed his salary as usual he paying all his expenses during his absence”.[22]

Thus, in 1834, Albert Hopkins became the first Williams professor to visit Europe with an institutional mission. In 1872, President Paul Chadbourne ’48 described the purpose of Professor Hopkins’ trip to Europe as a chance “…to visit the men of science, observe the new methods and means for philosophical investigation, and to secure for the college the needful apparatus for scientific study.”[23] Albert returned punctually in May, 1835, bringing with him a Molyneaux and Cope sidereal clock, a Troughton and Simms transit instrument, and a Herschelian reflector telescope of 10 ft. focus. These purchases were to be used in his next project, the building of an observatory at Williams.

In the autumn of 1836 the quarrying of stone for the observatory was started, construction began in the spring and the exterior was finished by the fall of 1837; by spring 1838 the observatory was almost complete. The steady progress of the observatory can be attributed to Professor Hopkins, since “…if the work lagged, it is said that the professor himself worked at stone cutting with his own hands”[24]. Professor Hopkins also made the observatory possible by financially supporting it. He raised some $400 in Boston for the observatory and also contributed to it from his own pocket.[25] Records indicate that the observatory costs were $2,075; the trustees contributed $1,200, friends $400, and Professor Hopkins $475.[26]

Figure 4: Hopkins Observatory – established 1838

On June 12, 1838, the newly completed Hopkins Observatory of Williams College was dedicated. Made from native stone in the form of a central rotunda with two wings, it is topped with a revolving dome. Outside, it measures 48 feet long, with 14 foot wide wings. The exterior of the central rotunda is octagonal, while inside, it has a vaulted ceiling which is painted blue with gold stars in forms of the constellations and celestial spheres. The designs on the ceiling are “…a unique and original idea and reminds one of what is now projected on the inside of a modern planetarium dome.”[27] The west wing holds the Troughton and Simms transit instrument; the east the Molyneaux and Cope sidereal clock and Repsold transit. The Herschelian reflector originally under the revolving dome was replaced in 1852 by a seven inch refractor donated by Amos Lawrence of Boston, mounted by Phelps of Troy, NY. with object glass by Alvan Clark, Sr.[28] David Rittenhouse, the College of William and Mary, William Cranch Bond, Yale College, the University of North Carolina, and Wesleyan University had all previously established their own observatories; still, some early observers, like C. André and A. Angot, believed that “Le premier établissement des États-Unis qui mérita réellement le nom observatoire, [est] celui du collège Williams…”[29]

A woodcut of the observatory formed the cover design of the 1838-39 College Catalogue. In the Catalogue, Professor Albert Hopkins, on the abolition of the Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, took on the new title of Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy. Mr. John Tatlock, previously a tutor, filled the newly created Professorship of Mathematics. Rather modestly the Catalogue stated that “The Lectures in Astronomy, are accompanied by celestial observations and instruction in the use of instruments. An Observatory has been completed this past season, supplying important facilities for these purposes.”[30]

The College Catalogue of 1842-43 expanded on its statement about the observatory by noting that “…a magnetic observatory for ascertaining and exhibiting the laws of Terrestrial Magnetism has just been completed.”[31] Williams students could now make observations of terrestrial magnetism although their observations were never published. Once again, Albert Hopkins had played a major role in expanding Williams’ observational capabilities. On being reimbursed by the Trustees for his expenditures to construct the Hopkins Observatory, he constructed and gave to the College the Magnetic Observatory and the grounds it occupied.[32]

The addition of the Hopkins Observatory to the Williams College campus also fit a pedagogical ideology of Williams at that time. By playing such an active role in the completion of the Hopkins Observatory, Professor Hopkins demonstrated his belief that a student’s best education about the scientific world comes from first hand experience of nature. President Mark Hopkins acknowledged that ideal in his semi-centennial speech of 1843: “The idea is that the teacher is to make nature the principal, and, as far as possible, is to let her do her own teaching. In pursuance of this idea, the Magnetic Observatory has been built, very efficient Meteorological and Natural History Associations have been formed, and scientific expeditions and pedestrian tours have been several times undertaken.”[33]

4. The Lyceum of Natural History

The Natural History Association Dr. Hopkins refers to was the most significant institution of science at Williams during the 19th century, the more so because it was created and maintained by students. To it, like the Observatory, Albert Hopkins also continually contributed, becoming in 1835, “…an honorary member…” of the Lyceum of Natural History , and thereafter maintaining “his life-long interest in the affairs of the society.”[34]

In April 1835, eight students founded the first secret society at Williams, which was given the Greek-letter name “Phi Beta Theta”. [35] In October, “Phi Beta Theta” became “The Williams College Lyceum of Natural History”, and within two years “…gave up its secrets…”[36] and abolished the secrecy pledge. It had as its purpose, ‘the study of the natural sciences, and the prosecution of antiquarian researches.'[37]

Natural History at Williams had enjoyed sustained interest since the well attended elective course of lectures given in March 1817 by Amos Eaton, ’99. Eaton, a magnetic and gifted lecturer, galvanized the campus at the time. He went on to a distinguished career as a botanist, and as a geologist at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, and was one of pre-Civil War America’s eminent and more colorful scientists. Natural History and Lyceums were rapidly growing in prominence. In 1819, the New York Lyceum of Natural History was established; in the 1820s Josiah Holbrook touched off the “Lyceum” movement in New England, a movement similar to the Mechanics’ Institutes for craftsmen’s and workers’ self education then spreading in England.

Figure 5: Lyceum Members – 1877

The Lyceum at Williams College “…was almost certainly the first society of its kind to be organized in this country and was surely the most fruitful.”[38] Over time, the Lyceum increased its membership. “At its founding in 1835, the society limited its membership to thirty, but in 1841 the constitutional provision was raised to thirty-five, and in 1846, in order to satisfy student interest, the ceiling was lifted altogether, paving the way for a membership that ranged between forty and fifty during the next twenty-five years.”[39] All students of natural history at Williams had interests in the Lyceum, “…with the result that many of them became eminent scientists.”[40] The college’s interest in science coincided with its students’, and the society’s “…nod of compliance with the official view of nature held by the college was freely given: for its motto it chose Nature, the book of God.”[41]

Originally, East College was the site of the Lyceum’s “conferences and disputations”, but the building burned to the ground October 17, 1841, and the Lyceum’s library and specimen collection were ruined.[42] The Lyceum moved its meetings to a room in South College, where members met once every two weeks to listen “…to reports from the committees on the various branches of Natural History”[43] as well as to “visiting lecturers.”[44] “Certain meetings were set aside, especially after vacations, for the receipt of specimens from members, and for reading any descriptions which could be given to these specimens.”[45]

The Lyceum organized a botany class in 1836 and laid foundations for a science library in 1839, published a catalogue of its specimens in 1852, and engaged in many successful expeditions, both large and small, and usually with a Professor or two along. [46] The first of these expeditions was to Nova Scotia in 1835, for which Ebenezer Emmons and Albert Hopkins are given “credit for inspiring the first student expedition in the annals of American Science…”[47] Twenty young men participated, “mostly undergraduates-those who were instructors in the College-some few old College friends, and one or two young men of liberal curiosity who were anxious to join us.”[48] The trip, led by Hopkins and Emmons, took place in the fall vacation of 1835. The participants sought to “…observe the high tides in the Bay of Fundy, and to bring back what they could of scientific interest, of botanical and geological and mineralogical specimens.”[49]

In spring 1840, students in the Lyceum took advantage of their own immediate surroundings and traveled “…through this county and the eastern part of the State of New York.”[50] In the expedition, “Berkshire County was explored, its iron and marble deposits studied, and the local collection increased.”[51] Each night the students held a religious meeting, further emphasizing the close relation of natural history to God.

Several more expeditions were planned but failed to materialize, including one through the Connecticut Valley and another through the Pennsylvania Coal Regions. Seventeen years would elapse before the next major LNH expedition, to Florida, occurred in 1857.[52]

Figure 6: 1857 Lyceum Expedition to Florida

Although Albert Hopkins was an honorary member of the Lyceum and helped to organize and even lead the society’s first expeditions, it is important to realize the significance of the student members as the creators of the Lyceum. It is remarkable that the society was “…developed almost entirely by the efforts of the students themselves,” which “…embodied the spirit of diligent work.”[53] Both Mark Hopkins and Albert Hopkins supported the Lyceum. The two brothers’ interest sprang principally from religious motives and natural theology, unlike their younger and perhaps more worldly undergraduate students who believed that “…nature was not a great book to be contemplated, but a limitless expanse in which to roam, dig, and gather curiosities.”[54] Students at Williams used the society “…as a vital supplement to the curriculum, [and they] learned to look at nature in far broader terms than those conceived by the college.”[55] What Williams undergraduates did not share with the faculty, however, was their version of “Nature, [as] conceived by the college as an instrument of religious orthodoxy.” Instead “they left to an earlier generation the communion with God which was possible” once the summit was reached after a hike up Mt. Greylock.[56] “Nature, conceived by the college as an instrument of religious orthodoxy, landscape gardening club and curriculum with a modicum of natural science, became in the hands of the students, something much more worldly.”[57]

If President Hopkins and his faculty followed the view that natural science be not divorced from their firm beliefs in religion, the undergraduates eventually took science to mean something more. To them, science eventually became a more secular pursuit, not foremost a major means of communing with God. Because of the College’s positive attitude to experiencing the benefits of Nature systematically and at first hand, the curriculum responded to new scientific discoveries by steadily incorporating them, if at a generally cautious, slow, and incremental pace.

Perhaps reflecting the good relations between the student society and the college, for more than ten years after 1860, the college catalogue suggested that “those students desiring to pursue the study of Natural History beyond what is offered by the courses of the college…join the Lyceum of Natural History.”[58] The Lyceum further fostered the growth of science by sponsoring four more scientific expeditions between 1855 and 1870 for the purpose of collecting specimens, establishing an impressive scientific library, and presenting a series of papers delivered by students, faculty, and notable naturalists of the day.

Figure 7: Nathan Jackson

The bulk of the Lyceum’s activity and collections moved to the new Jackson Hall, paid for by Nathan Jackson’s donation of $3,000, and dedicated August 14, 1855. The regular meetings of the LNH were characterized by the reading and discussion of books and the presentation of plant and animal specimens for the society’s cabinets. In 1858, the Williams Quarterly described the collecting of specimens as the only true foundation for a young man’s scientific training.[59] Later in life, it averred, the student would finally do experimentation on the specimens gathered by younger men. The student author had caught perfectly the Baconian methodology which so dominated and animated the practice of natural history: enormously extensive data collection, accompanied by strong resistance to the temptation to make hasty generalizations.

Exchanges were sometimes made between the LNH and other institutions. For example, in a meeting during the summer of 1864, the curator announced the receptions of 25 mineral specimens as well as the return of corals and shells from the Troy Polytechnic Institution.[60] Additionally, the LNH expeditions included students from other colleges, such as Bowdoin. Such liberal exchanges aided the spread of scientific knowledge and cultivated interaction among young scientists to be

Figure 8: Jackson Hall – 1855 Home of the Lyceum of Natural History

The Lyceum sponsored scientific expeditions to exotic habitats in the belief that “every department of education becomes more valuable when put into practice…Their work [the college expeditions is on the character of the members, bringing them into contact with nature under new aspects, giving them a taste of real work–the pleasant and disagreeable phases of the Naturalist’s life.”[61] Faculty members of the college hoped that the study of specimens in their own natural environment would lead the students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions about scientific issues.

In 1854, Professor Paul Ansel Chadbourne took James Orton ’55 to Newfoundland, to make a geological survey for Cyrus Field. Much of the activity centered on the observation of the environment, with considerable care given to noting the classification of indigenous species and their behaviors. They were dependent upon their Indian guides for their survival. Orton, noticing that their guides could not swim despite the area being surrounded by water and dotted with ponds, postulated that this was the result of the extremely cold water temperatures. Such logical inferential scientific thinking is exactly what faculty in general hoped that students would get out from the expeditions the LNH mounted. Chadbourne’s account also reflects some of the disagreeable aspects of the naturalist’s work. Concerning the daily routine he wrote, “The record of one day’s work would be the record of many with slight variations.”[62] Thus, in addition to logical inference, students and faculty alike were exposed to a valuable lesson about life.

Three years later, in 1857, the LNH planned its second major expedition, this time for the Florida coast.[63] The internationally eminent naturalist Louis Agassiz helped support the expedition.[64] In December, 1856, The Williams Quarterly used these words to describe the planned excursion, “. . to the western coast of Florida, for the purpose of studying the natural history of the country and of making collections. The shore is known to abound with numerous and beautiful varieties of shells. The country is rich in botanical specimens and beautiful varieties of shells.”[65] The trip, which lasted from February 19 to April 26, was characterized by the collection of various species of fish, sea-birds, shells, and coral. Students acknowledged the repetitive, tedious nature of some of their activities, such as thermometric observations of the air and water. One student remarked that it was very easy and pleasant to collect specimens, but that saving and packing them was not always agreeable. Nevertheless, of the 15 students on the trip, 7 went on to careers in science.[66]

In 1859, Professor Chadbourne happened upon an advertisement for J.W. Dodge’s “Excursion to the North”, an excellent opportunity for people who wanted to supply their cabinets with interesting collections. Dodge’s advertisement constitutes indirect testimony to a growing public interest in science, and a desire by some, like the entrepreneurial Dodge, to help satisfy that interest. After some consideration, the LNH voted to take part in Dodge’s excursion, perhaps also because of a total solar eclipse predicted to be visible at the northern point of Labrador during the summer of 1860. On February 22, Professor Chadbourne sent out letters petitioning for funds. He cited the success of previous expeditions and the cause of science itself as reasons to donate. The letter pointed out that the LNH is “neither a private nor a wealthy society”. On June 27, several professors, eleven Williams students, and five students from other schools left for Greenland and Labrador.

Many more specimens were taken on this trip than on others. Student accounts seem to indicate that much of their time was spent in the shooting and packing of local animals, especially birds. E.P. Hopkins, a student, complained of the number of shootings required simply because of poor packing of previous days’ collections. In two weeks, they collected over 30 bird skins, not including the many that rotted. Another student told an amusing story of how he was attacked by a flock of terns after having taken a baby from the nest.[67] Other than a few exciting moments, however, much of the students’ time was spent shooting birds, dredging the sea floor, and noting the topography and vegetation of the area. In addition to bird specimens, they returned with starfish and sedimentary rocks containing fossils. Students also learned the local names of many species in a resourceful way. By using a sign language which had already proved successful in trading for local products, and by imitating the sounds that the animals made, they were able to communicate with their Eskimo guides about the animals.

In 1867, the LNH sponsored its final and most scientifically advanced trip, to the tropics of South America. This expedition witnessed an increase in the number of experts that accompanied the students. Professor James Orton of Rochester University, a well known naturalist and former student of Chadbourne’s, took charge when Prof. Albert Hopkins could not after all accompany the expedition. Colonel P. Staunton, Vice Chancellor of Ingham University, Leroy, N.Y., the group’s artist, was among the distinguished group. Upon returning, the group obtained the services of Asa Gray of Harvard, America’s foremost botanist, in order to identify many of the plant specimens.

This may explain why the trip’s records are so much more detailed, complete with sketches, than those of previous expeditions. For example, an entire page was dedicated to the description of the Calabas, or crockery-tree, including its size, appearance, and resemblance to the apple tree, as well as the many practical uses of its ligneous-shelled fruit.

The naturalists were also intrigued by many of the animals of South America. Not only did they intend to obtain specimens for their cabinets, but they also hoped to observe the behavior of the creatures in the wild. Upon wounding one of a particular species of monkey, they noticed that its mournful cry was echoed in the trees by its companions. After observing these monkeys, they determined that there was little validity to the rumor that the animals had bridge-building capabilities. As had been the case in Labrador, collection of plant, animal, and insect species relied heavily upon the knowledge of the local inhabitants.

Figure 9: Stereopticon of Lyceum Collection in Jackson Hall

A sizable portion of the student body left Williamstown to go on LNH expeditions, which may reflect that they were actively encouraged to go.[68] One student, J. C. Olmsted, wrote to his father in January, 1860, that the faculty were willing to excuse any student wanting to go on an LNH trip, providing that he would make up the work and could get permission from his parents.[69] Faculty support stemmed from the success of these trips in obtaining specimens and fostering students’ curiosity and will to learn for themselves.

The trip to South America in 1867 marked the high point of the LNH’s program of expeditions. “The expeditions…were really pioneer undertakings in every sense; they had the lure of the unknown, the expectation of valuable discoveries, and a certainty of adventure.”[70] The four major excursions benefited the LNH by strengthening both its collections and the students’ interest in science. Each trip used lessons learned from previous trips. The South American trip was by far the most professional. The students themselves put together an extremely well written and detailed account of their experiences during the expedition. In its introduction the authors noted of the interest that these trips generated and people’s curiosity about the strange and unknown:

“The desire of many that a complete narrative of the expedition from our college should be given in a permanent form and our wish that others might share with us the pleasure we experienced in viewing a tropical Nature in those equatorial regions where she presents herself in forms so strange and grand, coupled with the fact that so little has been written upon these interesting portions of the continent to which sections of our work is principally devoted, are the only considerations that could have led us to undertake the preparation of the present volume.”[71]

Figure 10: Lyceum Members 1885

The authors also indicate awareness of the importance of their work as a scientific report. Earlier trips had been focused upon collection of masses of specimens to fill the Lyceum’s cabinets in Jackson Hall, and the emphasis on observation and collection of specimens was indicative of the centrality of taxonomy and inventory in pre-Civil War natural history. In the middle third of the 1800s, Americans were moving from being collectors for European scientists to becoming scientists in their own right. Between 1848 and 1876, science in American came of age, becoming increasingly professional and interdependent, and beginning to foster its own experiments, generalizations, and laws.[72] The excursions of the LNH played a part in that increasing independence and professionalization, by bringing together professors and students from several schools, generating new lines of communication, and stimulating further interest throughout the country.[73]

5. Summing up: The First 100 Years

On reflection, Dewey’s observations, Hopkins’ observatory, and the students’ Lyceum of Natural History mark the College’s unique contributions to higher education and achievement in the sciences in the United States during William’s first hundred years.

Whatever the aspirations of its students, the College never wavered in its commitment to the study of nature as an essential part of what constituted an educated person. Higher education, a rare opportunity for young men in the 18th and 19th centuries, was a means of self enlightenment, of disciplining one’s mind to address its own strengths and weaknesses, and of preparing oneself for a world of commerce or agriculture. Today, its goals have not changed much, but have expanded to include more people from diverse backgrounds with diverse talents, in preparation for a wider range of futures than were imagined by those first few scholars. Looking back over the first 100 years of Williams existence, it can be said that the sciences played a significant role in the curriculum of the college, more significant than what it would be in many of the next 100 years, despite the advent of Big Science. At the Centennial in October, 1893, the sciences had much to celebrate. In particular, the Thompson Laboratories served to punctuate the end of an old era, and the beginning of a new, fittingly timed to herald the College’s entry into science’s “modern times.”


[1] Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth Century America: A Documentary History, (New York, Hill and Wang, 1964) p. 60. Natural history can be thought of as geology, zoology, and botany; geophysics as terrestrial magnetism and meteorology. | Back |
[2] Ibid., p. 60 | Back |
[3] The Lyceum lasted into the 1890s, but records of systematic organized activity give little picture of its doings after 1873. | Back |
[4]Willis I. Milham, The History of Meteorology in Williams College, (Williamstown, Williams College, 1936), p. 7. | Back |
[5] ] Willis I. Milham, The History of Astronomy in Williams College and the Founding of the Hopkins Observatory, (Williamstown, Williams College, 1937), p. 4. The professorship, created Sept. 2, 1806, was Williams’ first in science. | Back |
[6] Calvin Durfee, A History of Williams College, (Boston, A. Williams and Company, 1860) pp. 357-358. | Back |
[7] Quoted in Milham, The History of Astronomy, p.6. | Back |
[8] Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume IV, part II; cited in Milham, The History of Meteorology, p. 4. | Back |
[9] “List of the Articles Belonging to the Apparatus of Williams College,” 1804 et seq.; mss, Williamsiana, Williams College. 1813. | Back |
[10] Durfee, op. cit., pp. 22, 357-358. | Back |
[11] Letter of Francis H. Dewey to Caroline H. Dewey, July 1, 1839, in Dewey, Jane Kenah, ed., From My End of the Log (Worcester, MA: Commonwealth Press, 1982) , 42-43. | Back |
[12] Williams College Catalogue, 1880, p. 11, “Officers of Instruction.” | Back |
[13] Minutes of the Trustees of Williams College, September 1, 1802. | Back |
[14] Ibid. | Back |
[15] “List of the Articles Belonging to the Apparatus of Williams College,” 1804 et seq.; mss, Williamsiana, Williams College. 1806. | Back |
[16] L. Pearce Williams, op. cit., p. 63, picture 95. | Back |
[17] See Harry Woolf, The Transits of Venus, (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1959). | Back |
[18] ] Milham suggests that a brilliant swarm of Leonids in 1833, and the anticipated return of Halley’s comet in 1835 were additional notable stimuli. Observatories, p. 4. | Back |
[19] Amos Eaton ’99 (1776-1842), botanist and geologist, studied medicine and then became an attorney in 1802. While in prison from 1811 until pardoned in 1815, he inspired young John Torrey, the jailer’s son, to an extraordinary professional career in botany, which, with Asa Gray’s, marked the beginning of modern professional botany in the United States. Eaton’s charisma worked similar wonders at Williams, where, in March 1817 his course [voluntarily attended] of lectures on mineralogy, geology, and botany provided a spur to the development of natural history at Williams for many years afterwards. Ebenezer Emmons ’20, for example, was his student. Eaton had begun giving popular lectures in botany in 1810, and in 1816 studied chemistry, geology, and mineralogy with Silliman; he published his successful A Manual of Botany in 1817, which reached its 8th edition in 1840. From 1824, Eaton was a senior professor at the Rensselaer Institute [now RPI] in Troy, N.Y. | Back |
[20] L. Pearce Williams, op. cit. | Back |
[21] Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), a French natural philosopher, was a contemporary of Galileo and Descartes; his philosophy may have seemed new when introduced as a text at Harvard in the 1680s; its use at Williams in 1805 reveals how far behind contemporary science the college was at its start, and how rapidly it modernized. | Back |
[22] Willis I. Milham, Early American Observatories, (Williamstown, Williams College, 1938), p. 40. | Back |
[23] P. A. Chadbourne, The Hope of the Righteous, (N.Y., G. Putnam’s Sons, 1877) p. 18. | Back |
[24] Milham, Observatories, p. 40. See also Chadbourne, op. cit., p. 18. | Back |

[25] Spring, op. cit., p. 164. | Back |
[26] Milham, Observatories, p. 40. | Back |
[27] Ibid., p. 42. | Back |
[28] Ibid,. p. 42 and Milham, History of Astronomy, p. 12. | Back |
[29] “The first establishment of the United States that truly merited the name ‘observatory’ [is] that of Williams College.” Cited in Milham, Observatories, pp. 50-51: André, C. and Angot, A., L’Astronomie Pratique et les Observatoires en Europe et en Amérique. | Back |
[30] Williams College Catalogue, 1838-39, p. 19. | Back |
[31] Williams College Catalogue, 1842-43, p. 18. Terrestrial Magnetism involved measurements of the strength and direction of the earth’s magnetic field; both for the practical value of the compass in navigation and exploration, and for the theoretical value of understanding the earth’s structure. Every Western country had established one or more such observatories. The hoped for generalizations, or laws, however, never materialized. | Back |
[32] Durfee, op cit, p. 249. | Back |
[33] Mark Hopkins, An Address delivered before the Society of Alumni of Williams College, at the Celebration of the Semi-Centennial Anniversary, August 16, 1843. (Boston, T.R. Marvin Press, 1843), pp. 30-31. | Back |
[34] Frederick Rudolph, Mark Hopkins and the Log: Williams College, 1836-1872, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1956), p. 145. | Back |
[35] According to Durfee, op. cit., p. 281 the society was founded “on the ruins of” an earlier ‘Linnean Society,’ taking its initials from “Physis Biblos Theo,” which can be translated as “Nature, the Book of God,” the motto later adopted by the successor Lyceum. Nature as a book, however, was probably not written in number, as it had been for Galileo. | Back |
[36] John Adams Lowe, The Gulielmensian, vol. 53 (Williamstown, Class of 1910, 1910) p. 39. | Back |
[37] Durfee, op. cit., p. 281. | Back |
[38] Smallwood, William Martin and Mabel S.C., Natural History and the American Mind, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1941) p.309. | Back |
[39] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.147. | Back |
[40] Smallwood, op. cit, p.309. | Back |
[41] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.144. Ironically, however, the motto was no more than the full name of its precursor secret society. | Back |
[42] Lowe, op. cit., p.40. | Back |
[43] D. A. Wells and S. H. Davis, Sketches of Williams College, (Williamstown, Mass., [Springfield, Mass., H.S. Taylor, Printer], 1847) p.68. | Back |
[44] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.146. | Back |
[45] Smallwood, op. cit, p.309. | Back |
[46] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.146. | Back |
[47] Ibid., p. 150. | Back |
[48] Perry, op cit., p.566. | Back |
[49] Perry, op. cit., p. 570. | Back |
[50] D. A. Wells and S. H. Davis, op cit., p.68. | Back |
[51] Lowe, op. cit., p.41. | Back |
[52] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.151. | Back |
[53] Lowe, op. cit., p. 39-40. | Back |
[54] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p.154. | Back |
[55] Ibid., p. 154. | Back |
[56] Ibid., p. 143. | Back |
[57] Ibid., p. 143. | Back |
[58] W. M. Smallwood, “The Williams Lyceum of Natural History 1835-1888,” New England Quarterly, Sept. 1937, p. 557. | Back |
[59] Williams Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4 (June,1858), p. 342. | Back |
[60] Now known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institution, or RPI. | Back |
[61] “The Greenland Expedition,” The Williams Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2 (Nov. 1860), pp.75-76. | Back |
[62] P.A. Chadbourne, “Wanderings in Newfoundland: Chapter Four”, The Williams Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 3 (March 1856), p. 215. | Back |
[63] Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, Chapter 9, “Nature is Practical: The Lyceum of Natural History,” 144-155, has an excellent treatment of the LNH and its expeditions, including this one to Florida. | Back |
[64] Frederick Rudolph, ed., Perspectives: A Williams Anthology (Williamstown, Mass., Williams College, 1983) page 115. | Back |
[65] Williams Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 3 (December 1856), p. 191. | Back |
[66] Rudolph, Perspectives, p. 152. [see the student account of the Florida expedition therein] Prof. Rudolph found that every Williams alumnus from ’36 to ’72, listed as a scientist in the Dictionary of American Biography, had also been a member of the Lyceum of Natural History. | Back |
[67] “The Greenland Expedition,” The Williams Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2 (Nov. 1860), p. 81. | Back |
[68] 11 out of 233 students in 1860–the equivalent of about 100 students in the 1990’s. | Back |
[69] Letter of James Crosby Olmsted to John Olmsted, Jan. 14, 1860. (Williamsiana, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.) | Back |
[70] Smallwood, “Lyceum,” p. 556. | Back |
[71] H.M. (’69) and P.V.N. (’68) Myers, Life and Nature under the Tropics, Rev. ed. (New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1871), Preface, p. vii. | Back |
[72] See R.V. Bruce, op. cit.; N. Reingold, op. cit. | Back |
[73] That very progress and maturation had negative effects as well — at the same time, “the professionalization of scientific study and the broadening of the Williams curriculum destroyed the Lyceum.” See Rudolph, Mark Hopkins, p. 155 (also Perspectives, p. 163). | Back |

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