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Lardner Vanuxem

Lardner Vanuxem, early Pennsylvania mineralogist and geologist, was born in Philadelphia on July 23, 1792, the son of Rebecca Clark and James Vanuxem, a French immigrant and emminent Philadelphia shipping merchant. Vanuxem graduated from the Ecole des Mines in Paris in 1819, and then returned to the United States where he assumed the chair of Chemistry and Mineralogy in South Carolina College. After retiring in 1826, he devoted the following two years to studying the geology of New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and New York, and published his results in a report to the New York legislature. Lardner married Mary Ann Newbold in 1831, and they had seven children. He died at the age of 56, on January 25, 1848, in Bristol, Pennsylvania. His cabinet of minerals and fossils was claimed to be the largest, finest and most systematically arranged private collection in the United States. After his death it was purchased by William May Stewart; it was severely damaged during the Civil War, and the remnants were donated to the Southwestern Presbyterian University (Stewart College) at Clarksville, Tennessee (later renamed Rhodes College and moved to Memphis, where the specimens remain today). Following is the text of a 2001 article on the collection.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral Remnants of the Vanuxem Collection by Martha Hunter Shepard '66, Rhodes, The Magazine of Rhodes College (Summer, 2001).

Deep in Rhodes Tower, in geology instructor Carol Ekstrom's office, are four large 19th-century mahogany cabinets. Stained dark with age and use, they contain the remnants of the college's once-heralded Vanuxem Collection of minerals and fossils. The collection came with the college when it moved to Memphis in 1925 from Clarksville, Tennessee. It was a gift of William M. Stewart, professor "in the chair of geology," who became president in 1853. The college was named for him two years later. There were originally 18,000 specimens in the Vanuxem collection, mainly fossils from the Lower Paleozoic era (420 million years old) in New York state. Today, Ekstrom estimates approximately 1,000 mineral and 1,000 fossil specimens remain.

Lardner Vanuxem (1792-1848) was a prominent geologist in the first half of the 19th century. A Pennsylvanian, he studied at l'École des Mines de Paris under mineralist René-Just Haüy (1743-1822), the priest who was also the father of crystallography, and Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847), a geologist and chemist who later directed the Sèvres porcelain factory. Vanuxem graduated from l'École des Mines in 1819.

Vanuxem taught university courses, and consulted and directed geological surveys mainly in the Northeast, South and Mexico. He was invited to be the state geologist when the Geological Survey of New York got underway in 1836, which is where he made his reputation (see Geology of New York, Part III, Comprising the Survey of the Third Geological District, 1842).

Vanuxem amassed a large mineral and fossil collection on his travels. When he died in 1848 his collection consisted of some 6,000 minerals and 12,000 fossils. "His cabinet of minerals and fossils was claimed to be the largest, finest and most systematically arranged private collection in the United States," according to Canfield's "The Final Disposition of Some of American Collections of Minerals" in 1923. According to Ekstrom, Vanuxem saw the need for a uniform system of nomenclature in the United States which led him to form a collaborative group that in 1847 became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Vanuxem was an intensely religious man," says Ekstrom. "Raised in the Presbyterian Church, he abstained from alcohol and tobacco and was a strong advocate of human rights. He even advocated women's equality."

After Vanuxem's death the Smithsonian expressed interest in the collection, Brown University offered $4,000 for it, but William May Stewart purchased it for $10,000. And that wasn't all. In 1855 Stewart gave $20,000 for the construction of the Stewart Cabinet Building to house the Vanuxem Collection. Federal troops occupied the Clarksville campus during the Civil War. Unfortunately, one-fourth of the Tertiary Period fossils left the building when the soldiers did. In the early 1870s Stewart donated the remaining Vanuxem collection to the college, along with his 1,100-volume library of geology, mineralogy and zoology books.

In 1896 the U.S. House of Representatives paid $25,000 in restitution to the college for wartime damage. It was for the wholesale destruction of the library, furniture, scientific apparatus and the mineralogical and geological cabinets. The 1874-75 catalogue of Stewart College states: "Our collection of specimens in the departments of Mineralogy and Geology is unusually fine. It is the lifework of Prof. Wm. M. Stewart, and was developed from the nucleus of Vanuxem's collection, who was long State Geologist of Pennsylvania. Minerals and fossils have been gathered from all parts of the world, and the donor has spared neither pains nor expense to secure a choice collection of 'hand specimens.'"

In a fine and careful brown penstroke, Vanuxem had labeled samples from his collection, says Ekstrom. Stewart later labeled others in pencil with a bold, round, less formal stroke. "The remains of the Vanuxem Collection were wrapped, apparently hastily, as many of the identification tags were not included, in 1925 newspaper and moved to Memphis when the college relocated," according to Ekstrom. "Geology was not taught again at the college until 1975, so the specimens were stored in various locations in the Kennedy science building and later in the Frazier Jelke science building. One unopened wooden box from Clarksville was even found under a sink in 1976."

Some specimens from the Vanuxem collection are on display in the Rhodes Tower and Frazier Jelke lobbies. But what is more important is that today's students, some 150 years later, benefit from it: Ekstrom still employs some of the remaining collection to teach her geology courses.


Barr, Index to Biographical Fragments (1973).
Canfield, Final Disposition of Some American Collections of Minerals (1923).
Dictionary of American Biography.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Elliott, Biographical Index (1990: 235).
Elliott, Biographical Dictionary (1979).
Gordon, History of Mineralogy in Pennsylvania (1919).
Ireland, Index to Scientists (1962). National Cyclopedia of American Biography: 8.
Pelletier, Prominent Scientists (1994).
Who Was Who in America: Historical volume.
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