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George Gibbs

George Gibbs III was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on January 7, 1776, the son of Mary Channing and George Gibbs, Jr., a wealthy merchant. Wishing that young George learn the mercantile business, his father sent him on a business trip to Canton, China, in 1796. On his return he passed through the academic centers of Europe, acquiring a strong interest in mineralogy. He studied in Paris, and especially in Lausanne under the well-known mineralogist Heinrich Struve.

Count Gregorii Razumovsky (1759-1837) was a Russian nobleman who had been living in Lausanne. He wrote a few minor papers on mineralogy and geology in Europe, and had formed a superb mineral collection. During the time of Gibbs' tutelage there, Struve no doubt introduced them to each other and Gibbs learned that Razumovsky would soon be returning to Russia, and wished first to sell his extensive collection. Razumovsky's minerals were predominantly from Russian localities, but he had also obtained many from Western Europe, over 6,000 specimens all together. Cost was no impediment to the wealthy Gibbs, and they closed the deal without delay.

Emboldened and excited by his magnificent new acquisition, Gibbs sought out other leads, and learned in 1804 that the enormous and excellent mineral collection of the late Jean Gigot d'Orcy (1733-1793), a victim of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, was to be auctioned off in Paris. Gibbs successfully acquired this second great collection as well, over 4,000 specimens.

Ownership of these extraordinary collections opened doors for Gibbs in Paris, where he soon became friends with the leading mineralogists and collectors. François Gillet de Laumont (1747-1834), J. F. d'Aubuisson, the expatriate Count de Bournon (1751-1825) and others developed warm and mutually helpful relationships with him which were to endure for many years after his return to America.

In the meantime Gibbs continued to acquire minerals, including "many rare and costly minerals" from the Count de Bournon, volcanic minerals from Italy and Germany, and many minerals "obtained by purchase or otherwise, here and there, from Saxony, Dauphine, etc." By 1805 these acquisitions had become so massive as to hinder Gibbs' freedom of movement, so he elected to oversee their safe transport back to Newport for secure storage before resuming his European travels. While at home he was appointed aide-de-camp by the Governor of Rhode Island, receiving the honorary military title of coronel. He was addressed as Coronel Gibbs for the rest of his life, and even donned a coronel's uniform when having his portrait painted.

After arriving back in America Gibbs stored his treasures in crates in a warehouse near the Gibbs mansion in Newport. An inquisitive Benjamin Silliman, professor at Yale, prevailed upon Gibbs' sister to allow him to open a few of the crates in Gibbs' absence and get some idea of the quality of the specimens. He was duly impressed by what he saw, and upon Gibbs' return in 1807 the two became fast friends.

In 1811 Gibbs agreed to put some of his collection on exhibit at Yale, much to Silliman's joy. "It was a delightful recreation," Silliman later wrote, "to lift the covers and unroll the specimens which had been so long secluded from view, and when we turned out something superb we could hardly restrain our admiration." Despite the outbreak of the War of 1812, the exhibit of 10,000 specimens was opened to the public and soon became a popular tourist attraction, bringing national fame and new students to the college. Gibbs' collection was acknowledged by all as the best ever assembled in America.

Gibbs eventually sold his entire 20,000-specimen collection to Yale in 1825, for $20,000. He continued to patronize the science, to assist students and researchers, and to support the activities of the local societies for many years. He died August 6, 1833, admired by all as a man of culture, generosity and hospitality. His collections are still preserved at Yale, although most specimens are no longer individually identifiable as having been his.

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