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Silvain Godon

Silvain Godon St.Memin, the son of a wine merchant in Paris, was born around 1769 and, having married against his father's consent, was forced to emigrate to the United States in 1807. He arrived in Boston and settled near Philadelphia, where he immediately began collecting minerals. Godon was knowledgeable in the mineralogical theories of HaŁy, having received his training in Paris. He returned to Boston to give a course of lectures on mineralogy in 1808, then went collecting in Massachusetts and Maine. He started a business for the manufacture of yellow pigment, and became active in the American Philosophical and Linnean Societies.

Godon was certainly among the most knowledgeable of the early collectors of American minerals, visiting Franklin Furnace, New Jersey in 1808 with Mahlon Dickerson Canfield (uncle of Frederick Canfield, q.v.). Chronically short of funds, he took whatever jobs he could find as a mineralogist, including the arrangement of the extensive mineralogical collection of the American Philosophical Society in 1809-1810. Thomas Jefferson described him as "an emminent mineralogist ... zealously devoted to the science ... but being scanty in means, he meant to give lectures in the winter which might enable him to pass the summer in mineralogical rambles."

In 1810 Godon decided that he would like to prepare his own two-volume "Treatise on Mineralogy," to be published by Birch & Small in Philadelphia. His intention was to report on the mineralogy of North America, to be based on his own travels as well as the work of "respectable authorities," following the new crystallographic theories of Hauy. To that end he prepared a one-page prospectus (shown at right) which he circulated to prominent naturalists and scientists, including Thomas Jefferson, in hopes of getting a group of subscribers to put $10 each. This effort was apparently unsuccessful, as there is no evidence that such a work was ever begun, much less published.

Godon was unsuccessful as a business man, and by 1812 had landed himself in debtor's prison in Philadelphia. He was forced to auction off his mineral collection and personal effects to satisfy his creditors; his collection was purchased by Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), who outbid the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science for it. Barton's collection, incorporating Godon's with that of Barton's father and elder brother, was purchased for the Academy by Joseph Watson in 1816, joining the Adam Seybert collection there (acquired in 1812) to form the nucleus of the Academy's mineral collection, which would continue to grow through the 19th century.

Godon eventually suffered mental and physical problems resulting from his impoverished condition. He passed a number of years in an insane asylum before dying on October 27, 1840. He left one son, Sylvanus William Godon (1809-1879), who was to have a distinguished career in the Navy. Silvain Godon's second collection (a cabinet said to be of high value) was dispersed at his death, with some specimens going to the American Philosophical Society.


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, 32-34.
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The Mineralogical Record - Silvain Godon Silvain Godon's one-page prospectus (1810) for a Treatise on Mineralogy that was never published. U.S. Library of Congress collection.
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