Thomas Jefferson Papers

John W. Webster to Thomas Jefferson, 10 January [1820]

From John W. Webster

Boston Jany 10th 1819 [1820]


With the greatest respect permit a stranger to address you, knowing as he does the deep interest you have ever felt in the progress of Science in our country. Many years ago as an amusement I began to collect what natural productions came in my way & soon became fond of Mineralogical pursuits; anxious to form an extensive cabinet of Minerals I took with me to Europe a few years since (when I went to pursue medical studies) all the American specimens I had collected.1 these were soon exchanged to great advantage; in Edinburgh the opportunities I had of pursuing a favorite branch of Science increased my love for it. My collection increased rapidly & with my hammer & knapsack I walked over a considerable part of the United Kingdoms; as opportunities offerd I shipped my boxes home & on my return was truly astonished at the number—I found the collection too large to arrange in my own house & it remained for some months packed up—some gentlemen to whom I show’d a few specimens urged me to make a public use of the Collection by giving a course of Lectures, to this after some time I consented—A large room was obtained & cases prepared, in this however I was able to put up but part of the specimens, sufficient however for an elementary course of Lectures—of these Lectures two courses were given last winter & I am now giving a third—In the mean time my professional avocations having increased I find it impossible to devote sufficient time to Mineralogy & also that it will attract me too powerfully if I continue in the practice of Medicine—With no little struggle have I now resolved to give up my darling pursuit as I cannot devote myself to it exclusively, & have given notice that the collection is for sale—Knowing Sir the interest you take in one of our Universities I have ventured to ask your attention to this—Col. Gibbs whose name must be known to you as well as his munificence towards Yale College in the department of mineralogy, has seen that part of my collection which is open.2 he pronounces it second only to that at New Haven—Profr Cleaveland of Brunswick has also seen it, as well as many other mineralogists of eminence in our country & should you wish to learn any particulars respecting it, I will refer to them—also to an advertisement in the papers—

The whole number of specimens is about Twenty Thousand.3 each specimen in the opinion of the gentlemen referred to has been valued at one Dollar—many cost 4, 5, 10 & one 40 Dollars—The specimens are most of them large & finely crystallized—I will dispose of the whole for Ten Thousand Dlls.4 Should no purchaser appear previous to the Spring I shall pack up the specimens & ship them to London where there are frequent sales & the value of minerals known—I hope they may be kept in this country however, as no Institution except Yale College has a good collection & we have the greatest need of characteristic specimens as new substances are daily brought to light in our mountains of great interest to the Naturalist & utility in the Arts—

I remain Sir with the highest consideration Your Obedient Servant

J. W. Webster

RC (ViU: TJP); misdated; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esq Monticello”; franked; postmarked Boston, 15 Jan.; endorsed by TJ as a letter of 10 Jan. 1820 received seventeen days later and so recorded in SJL.

John White Webster (1793–1850), physician and educator, was born in Boston and spent his youth in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1811 and completed a medical degree at that institution four years later. Webster continued his education at Guy’s Hospital in London and subsequently embarked on a scientific journey through Europe, assembling a large collection of minerals in the process. He returned to Boston and briefly practiced medicine before abandoning the profession in 1824 for the position of lecturer of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at Harvard. In 1826 Webster became an adjunct professor. The following year he was promoted to the Erving professorship of chemistry and mineralogy, serving in that capacity until the end of his life. Webster was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Geological Society of London. He was a founder of the Linnaean Society of New England and a corresponding secretary of the American Geological Society. Webster’s publications included an 1821 book on São Miguel, an island in the Azores, A Manual of Chemistry (Boston, 1826), and American editions of European works on chemistry. In 1849 he quarreled with an acquaintance, George Parkman, who had first loaned him money and then discovered that the financially strapped Webster had borrowed a further sum from someone else using the same security. Parkman disappeared after going to meet him, and a janitor discovered what were believed to be his remains in Webster’s laboratory at Harvard. The following year Webster was convicted of murder and hanged (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Clifford Frondel, “The Geological Sciences at Harvard University from 1788 to 1850,” Earth Sciences History 7 [1988]: 15–8; Harvard Catalogue description begins Harvard University Quinquennial Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates, 1636–1925, 1925 description ends , 23, 128, 189, 713; DNA: RG 29, CS, Mass., Boston, 1820, 1850, Cambridge, 1830, 1840; George Bemis, Report of the Case of John W. Webster [1850]; Boston Daily Atlas, 31 Aug. 1850).

In an advertisement headed “Minerals and Fossils,” without naming either himself or a price Webster estimated that the collection “To be disposed of” consisted of from fifteen to twenty thousand specimens, including “all the simple Minerals of Great Britain, and most of those of Sweden, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and of America, together with numerous Geological specimens, embracing a complete suit[e] of Rocks from Fryburg; the series of the Paris, London, and Isle of Wight formations, volcanic substances and numerous petrifactions and organic remains.” Also included was a set of wooden models of crystals. Suggesting that the whole assemblage was “well worthy the attention of some public institution,” Webster directed inquiries to George Gibbs, of New York, Benjamin Silliman, of New Haven, and Frederick Hall, of Middlebury, Vermont (Boston Patriot & Daily Mercantile Advertiser, 28 Oct. 1819 [one word editorially corrected]; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 16 Nov. 1819). Webster sold his collection to Harvard University for $4,000 in 1824 (Frondel, “Geological Sciences at Harvard University,” 17).

1Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

2Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

3Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

4Omitted period at right margin editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • Cleaveland, Parker; as mineralogist search
  • Gibbs, George; as mineralogist search
  • Hall, Frederick; and mineralogy search
  • Harvard University; mineral collection of search
  • mineralogy; collections of minerals search
  • schools and colleges; Harvard University search
  • schools and colleges; Yale University search
  • Silliman, Benjamin; as geologist search
  • Virginia, University of; Faculty and Curriculum; mineral specimens for search
  • Webster, John White; identified search
  • Webster, John White; letter from search
  • Webster, John White; mineral collection of search
  • Yale College (later Yale University); mineral collection of search