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Samuel Latham Mitchill

Samuel Latham Mitchill, among the greatest promoters of science in the new republic, was born in New Hempstead, New York on August 20, 1764, the son of Quaker parents Mary Latham and Robert Mitchill. He studied medicine and natural history at Edinburgh, returning to New York in 1780 with what was probably the first substantial European collection of identified mineral specimens to be brought into the United States. During the course of succeeding years, Mitchill added greatly to it, ultimately donating it to the New York Lyceum of Natural History in 1826, an institution which he himself had founded nine years earlier.

Mitchill was a gregarious and enthusiastic man, fond of field collecting and egalitarian in his friendships. He served for years as editor of the Medical Repository, held the post of professor of chemistry, natural history and materia medica in New York, and served as a legislator and congressman. He helped organize the short-lived American Mineralogical Society in 1797. Through the Medical Repository he reported on new mineral discoveries throughout the country, including the 1803 discovery of gold in North Carolina (taking pains to acquire a specimen for his collection). Other American mineralogists and collectors also used the journal as a clearinghouse for information.

Mitchill's teaching at the college of New York focused to some extent on mineralogy. "By bringing thus the elements of minerals before you," he told his students, "you learn the geologic alphabet and become able to combine them so as to understand compound rocks." He used specimens from his own collection for illustration. Tourmalines from Ceylon, garnet from Norway, brucite from New Jersey, a mass of native iron (probably a meteorite) found near the headwaters of the Red River in Louisiana Territory ... these and many others held the interest of his students throughout his courses. Nevertheless, his personal collection, though large, was not considered to be especially well organized, and his detailed understanding of contemporary systems of mineral classification is doubted. Rather than analyze specimens himself, he preferred to pass them along for identification to his friends, such as Archibald Bruce. Nevertheless, his more general contributions were notable, and many mineralogists and geologists of the next generation owed their inspiration to him.

Mitchill died on September 7, 1831. Despite his efforts to find a suitable repository for his collection in the New York Lyceum, it has not survived. The Lyceum was destroyed by fire in 1866.

WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 241 pp.
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The Mineralogical Record - Samuel Latham Mitchill
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