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Samuel Latham Mitchill

MITCHILL, Samuel Latham, scientist, born in North Hempstead, L. I., 20 August, 1764; died in New York city, 7 September, 1831. He studied medicine under his maternal uncle, Samuel Latham, in his native town and with Samuel Bard in New York city, and was graduated at the University of Edinburgh in 1786. On his return to New York he devoted part of his time to the study of law under Robert Yates, and was appointed in 1788 one of the commissioners to treat with the Iroquois Indians for the purchase of their land in western New York, being present at the council held at Fort Stanwix. In 1790 he was elected to the New York legislature. In 1792 he was appointed professor of natural history, chemistry, and agriculture, and other arts depending thereon in Columbia, and while holding this chair he introduced the chemical nomenclature of Lavoisier, but with a dissent from some of the principles of that chemist. This action led to a controversy with Joseph Priestley, which was conducted with such courtesy that it ended in the warm personal friendship of the two. During the winter of 1793-'4 he was associated with Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and Simeon De Witt in the establishment of the Society for the promotion of agriculture, manufactures, and useful arts. Under its auspices he made a mineralogical survey of the state of New York, and his report in 1796 gained for him a wide reputation in Europe as well as in the United States. in 1797 he was again sent to the legislature from New York city, and there advocated, in the face of much ridicule and opposition, the act of 1798 that conferred on Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the exclusive right to navigate the waters of New York by steam. Subsequently, in 1807, he was a passenger on the first passage made in the " Clermont" by Robert Fulton (q. v.). He retired from his professorship at Columbia in 1801, having been elected as a Democrat to congress, and served from 1 December, 1801, till 22 November, 1804. Professor Mitchill was then appointed to fill the vacancy in the United States senate from New York caused by the resignation of John Armstrong, and held that place until 3 March, 1809, after which he again served in congress till 3 March, 1813. In 1807, on the organization of the College of physicians and surgeons in New York city, he was appointed its first professor of chemistry. This chair he declined, owing to his political duties, but in 1808 he accepted that of natural history, which he retained until 1820, when, on the reorganization of the college, he became professor of materia medica and botany. This he held until 1826, when the entire faculty resigned in a body, and Professor Mitchill was vice-president of the medical department of Queen's (now Rutgers) college during 1826-'30. He was for twenty years a physician of the New York hospital, and in 1818 became surgeon-general of the militia raider Governor De Witt Clinton. Dr. Mitchill was president of the County medical society in 1807, and in 1817 was one of the founders of the Lyceum of natural history of the city of New York, becoming its first president, and holding that place until 1823. He was also a member of learned societies at home and abroad. His public addresses were frequent and numerous. The most important of his discourses was that on the celebration of the completion of the Erie canal in 1825. In 1797 he began the publication of the quarterly "New York Medical Repository," in connection with Dr. Edward Miller and Dr. Elihu H. Smith, and he was its chief editor for more than sixteen years. His writings were numerous. Those on science, especially, were very valuable, owing to their presentation of facts then neglected in the United States, and his researches on fishes received the approbation of Cuvier. The latter, as well as most of his papers on natural history, were published through the "Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History." His "Address to the Fredes or People of the United States" (New York, 1804), in which he proposed the name of Fredonia as a new and more appropriate name for the United States, became the subject of serious debate before the New York historical society and elsewhere. The universality of his knowledge has been ably described by Dr. John W. Francis, who says: "Ancient and modern languages were unlocked to him, and a wide range of physical science the pabulum of his intellectual repast. He was now engaged with the anatomy of the egg, and now deciphering a Babylonian brick ; now involved in the nature of meteoric stones; now in the different species of brassica; now in the evaporization of fresh water; now in that of salt; now scrutinizing the geology of Niagara: now anatomizing the tortoise; now offering suggestions to Garnet, of New Jersey, the correspondent of Mark Akenside, on the angle of the windmill; and now concurring with Nichaux on the beauty of the black walnut as ornamental for parlor furniture; now with his conchological friend, Samuel Akerly, in the investigation of bivalves; and now with the learned Jewish rabbi, Gershom Seixas, in exegetical disquisitions on Kennicott's Hebrew Bible. Now he might be waited upon by the indigent philosopher, Christopher Colles, to countenance his measures for the introduction of the Bronx river into the city; and now a committee of soap-boilers might seek after him to defend the in-noxious influence of their vocation in a crowded population. For his services in this cause of the chandlers, Chancellor Livingston assured him, doubtless facetiously, by letter, that he deserved a monument of hard soap ; while Mitchill, in return, complimented Livingston for his introduction of the merino sheep, as chief of the Argonauts. In the morning he might be found composing songs for the nursery; at noon dietetically experimenting and writing on fishes, or unfolding to admiration a new theory on terrene formations; and at evening addressing his fair readers on the healthful influence of the alkalies and the depurative virtues of whitewashing." Drake made Mitchill the subject of a poem, "To the Surgeon-General of the State of New York," while Halleck introduced him in another of "The Croakers," also in " Fanny"; and elsewhere referred to him in prose "as not only distinguished in his profession, but as an author of popular works connected with medicine and science, and also as an active and useful leader in the social, literary, and scientific institutions of the city. Dr. Mitchill, moreover, had won the name of a philosopher by his frequent discoveries, snore or less important, in geology and other conjectural sciences." Mitchill was called the "Nestor of American science." See "Some of the Memorable Events and Occurrences in the Life of Samuel L. Mitchill, of New York, from the Year 1786 to 1827," by himself and Dr. Francis, contained in Gross's "American Medical Biography."

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