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Benjamin Silliman

Born August 8, 1779 (1779-08-08)
Trumbull, Connecticut, USA
Died November 24, 1864 (1864-11-25)
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Residence Flag of the United States.svg USA
Nationality Flag of the United States.svg USA
Fields chemist
Institutions Yale University
Alma mater Yale University
Known for Distillation of petroleum
Notable awards National Academy of Sciences

Benjamin Silliman (8 August 1779 – 24 November 1864) was an American chemist, one of the first American professors of science (at Yale University), and the first to distill petroleum.


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 2,000 invading British troops that burned Fairfield center to the ground. The British forces had taken his father, General Gold Selleck Silliman, prisoner in May of 1779.


He was educated at Yale, receiving an A.B. degree in 1796 and an A.M. 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. In 1805, he traveled to Edinburgh for further study.


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. The mineral sillimanite was named after him in 1850. Upon the founding of the Medical School, he also taught there as one of the founding faculty members. As professor emeritus, he delivered lectures at Yale on geology until 1855; in 1854, he became the first person to fractionate petroleum by distillation.


His first marriage was on 17 September 1809 to Harriet Trumbull, daughter of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., who was the son of Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. of Connecticut, a hero of the American Revolution. Silliman and his wife had four children: one daughter married Professor Oliver P. Hubbard, another married Professor James Dwight Dana; and youngest daughter Julia married Edward Whiting Gilman, brother of Yale graduate and educator Daniel Coit Gilman. His son Benjamin Silliman Jr., also a professor of chemistry at Yale, wrote a report that convinced investors to back George Bissell's seminal search for oil. His second marriage was in 1851 to Mrs. Sarah Isabella (McClellan) Webb, daughter of John McClellan. Silliman died at New Haven and is buried in Grove Street Cemetery.


Silliman deemed slavery an "enormous evil" but also 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. 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.

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.


  • 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, doi:10.2307/364359, PMID 11624721  

External links

See also


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

BENJAMIN SILLIMAN (1779-1864), American chemist and geologist, was born on the 8th of August 1779 at Trumbull (then called North Stratford), Connecticut. Entering Yale College in 1792, he graduated in 1796, became tutor in 1799, and in 1802 was appointed professor of chemistry and mineralogy, a position which he retained till 1853, when by his own desire he retired as professor emeritus. Not only was he a popular and successful teacher of chemistry, mineralogy and geology in the college for half a century, but he also did much to improve and extend its educational resources, especially in regard to its mineralogical collections, the Trumbull Gallery of Pictures, the Medical Institution and the Sheffield Scientific School. Outside Yale he was well known as one of the few men who could hold the attention of a popular audience with a scientific lecture, and on account of his clear and interesting style, as well as of the unwonted splendour of his illustrative experiments, his services were in great request not only in the northern and eastern states but also in those of the south. His original investigations were neither numerous nor important, and his name is best known to scientific men as the founder, and from 1818 to 1838 the sole editor, of the American Journal of Science and Arts - often called Silliman's Journal, - one of the foremost American scientific serials. In 1810 he published A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland, in which he described a visit to Europe undertaken in 1805 in preparation for the duties of his chair. He paid a second visit in 1851, of which he also issued an account, and among his other publications were Elements of Chemistry (1830), and editions of W. Henry's Chemistry with notes (1808), and of R. Bakewell's Geology (1827). He died at New Haven on the 24th of November 1864.

His son, Benjamin Silliman (1816-1885), chemist and mineralogist, was born at New Haven on the 4th of December 1816. After graduating at Yale in 1837 he became assistant to his father, and in 1847 was appointed professor in the school of applied chemistry, which was largely due to his efforts and formed the nucleus of the subsequent Sheffield Scientific School. In 1849 he was appointed professor of medical chemistry and toxicology in the Medical College at Louisville, Kentucky, but relinquished that office in 1854 to succeed his father in the chair of chemistry at Yale. The duties of this professorship, so far as they related to the Academic College, he gave up in 1870, but he retained his connexion with the Medical College till his death, which happened at New Haven on the 14th of January 1885. Much of his time, especially during the last twenty years of his life, was absorbed in making examinations of mines and preparing expert reports on technical processes of chemical manufacture; but he was also able to do a certain amount of original work, publishing papers on the chemistry of various minerals, on meteorites, on photography with the electric arc, the illuminating powers of gas, &c. A course of lectures given by him on agricultural chemistry in the winter of 1845-1846 at New Orleans is believed to have been the first of its kind in the United States. In 1846 he published First Principles of Chemistry and in 1858 First Principles of Physics or Natural Philosophy, both of which had a large circulation. In 1853 he edited a large quarto illustrated volume, The World of Science, Art and Industry, which was followed in 1854 by The Progress of Science and Mechanism. In 1874, when the Tooth anniversary of Priestley's preparation of oxygen was celebrated as the "Centennial of Chemistry" at Northumberland, Pa., where Priestley died, he delivered an historical address on "American Contributions to Chemistry," which contains a full list, with their works, of American chemists up to that date. From 1838 to 1845 he was associated with his father in the editorship of the American Journal of Science, and from 1845 to the end of his life his name appeared on the title page as one of the editors in chief.

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