Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences
In the early years of the republic, Philadelphia was known as “the Athens of America” because of its cosmopolitan egalitarianism and its many learned institutions. But up until the 1790's no one in America knew anything about mineralogy. The first American to receive formal training in that subject was Adam Seybert, a 1794 graduate of the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. With medical degree in hand, he left for Europe in 1794 to continue his studies in Edinburgh, London, Paris and Göttingen. During the next two years he developed in increasing interest in mineralogy, studied under the famous crystallographer René Haüy in Paris, and acquired a substantial study collection of minerals in Göttingen. Upon his return to Philadelphia he found himself to be the leading local authority on minerals. When Benjamin Silliman of Yale brought his college's collection of minerals in a candlebox to Philadelphia to be identified in 1802, he was directed to Seybert, who had meanwhile been enlarging his own mineral collection by field collecting. Eventually it numbered 1,725 specimens, housed in a specially built mahogany cabinet.
In January 1812, six local devotees of natural history met in the apothecary shop of John Speakman to arrange for the establishment of an Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, “to occupy their leisure, in each other's company, on subjects of natural science,” their objective being “the advancement and diffusion of useful, liberal human knowledge.” In anticipation of the formation of the academy, Speakman had already purchased the Seybert mineral collection for $750, and was later reimbursed. Gerard Troost, one of the six founders, had studied crystallography under Haüy in 1807, and had begun his own collection of minerals in 1811, so he was appointed the first curator. Thus the Seybert mineral collection became the core around which the academy's collections developed in the following decades.
The Academy mineral collection grew rapidly. In 1814 a box of minerals was received from the Chemical and Physiological Society of Pittsburgh, and in 1816 the collection of Silvain Godon (ca.1769-1840), a Parisian mineralogist and one of the first American mineral collectors, was acquired. The geologist William Maclure (1763-1840) made a succession of donations, and by 1817 the Academy collection numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 specimens. One hundred specimens were purchased in Freiberg, Saxony in 1820, and the collection of Seybert's son Henry was added in 1825. Other early mineral collections acquired included those of Thomas B. Wilson (1807-1865) and the American Philosophical Society. By the mid 19th century, thanks to its superb collections and extensive library, the Academy was considered to be the best-equipped institution in the country for the study of mineralogy and the other natural sciences.
In 1882 the Academy acquired its most famous and significant mineral collection as a bequest from William Sansom Vaux (1811-1882), one of the Academy's long-standing supporters. Vaux had donated many mineral specimens over the years, but upon his death he presented the Academy with main body of his collection (excluding 25 specimens that went to the family of his brother George Vaux), consisting of 6,391 specimens representing 466 species or groups, plus a $10,000 endowment intended to finance future purchases of specimens. Thus the Academy mineral collection continued to increase for some years thereafter, ranking as the finest such collection in America, and by 1909 had grown to over 30,000 specimens.
William S. Vaux's nephew, George Vaux, Jr. (1863-1927), eventually built a mineral collection to rival that of his late uncle, though he chose not to donate it to the Academy (it went to Bryn Mawr College). Nevertheless, he financed mineral collecting expeditions to Greenland, Bolivia and Tsumeb on behalf of the Academy, led by the Academy's legendary curator, mineralogist Sam Gordon, in the 1920's and 1930's. But interest in mineralogy at the Academy waned following the departure of Gordon (who had received more support from Vaux than from the Academy's own Board of Directors). Mineral exhibits were occasionally mounted, but by the 1950's there was no longer a full-time curator of minerals, as the emphasis of the Academy turned increasingly to the study of plants, insects, birds, fossils and ecological dioramas of stuffed animals. The famous mineral collection was taken off public display and relegated to more or less permanent storage. In 2007 the main body of the mineral collection, including many Vaux specimens but excluding the 1882 bequest and the Seybert collection, was sold to mineral dealers Bryan Lees, Wayne Leicht and Ian Bruce.
ANONYMOUS (1943) America's first mineral collection. Frontiers, June 1943, p.140.
GREENE, J.C., and BURKE, J.G. (1978) The science of minerals in the age of Jefferson. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 68, part 4, pp. 113.
NOLAN, E.J. (1909) A Short History of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, pp. 38.
WILSON, E.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting, 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), pp. 264.
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2022)
Biographical Archive, at www.mineralogicalrecord.com.]
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Number of labels found: 8 | Labels being viewed: 1 to 8
||The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences|
||54 x 111 mm,|
Specimen contributed in 1894 by the Bisbee Mining Company
||37 x 72 mm|
||74 x 77 mm,|
Specimen from the collection of Thomas B. Wilson
||46 x 70 mm,|
Specimen acquired by Samuel Gordon during the 1929-1930 Vaux-sponsored expedition to Llallagua, Bolivia
||47 x 70 mm,|
Specimen acquired during the 1938 Academy expedition to Chile
||37 x 83 mm|
||54 x 83 mm,|
Specimen sold through the Academy's museum shop