Benjamin Waterhouse was born March 4, 1754, to a Quaker family in Newport, Rhode Island. He apprenticed himself to a surgeon, Dr. John Halliburton, to begin his medical education, then in 1775 went abroad to study medicine in Edinburgh, London and Leiden, including natural history among his subjects. His mineralogical interests were aroused in London, primarily through his contact with the prominent physician and mineral collector John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815).
Waterhouse was awarded his medical degree in 1780 and returned to Rhode Island, after five years of study and travel in Europe, where he received an appointment as Professor of Medicine at the new Harvard Medical School in 1782. He was recommended by John Adams, a strong advocate of the teaching of natural history, and was also a frequent correspondent of Thomas Jefferson. Waterhouse first lectured on natural history at the College of Rhode Island in 1786, but transferred his lectures to Harvard in 1788; these constituted the first formal instruction in mineralogy to be given in the United States.
Although the subject was new, Waterhouse's students took to mineralogy enthusiastically. After the first lecture series had been completed he wrote to Lettsom that "my pupils had picked up a considerable collection of mineral productions from various parts of the country, and I soon perceived that the subject had become popular."
Harvard had beggun accumulating various miscellaneous natural history specimens, probably including some minerals, at a very early date. A fire destroyed all of the original collections in 1764, but by 1784 the college had accumulated "a half peck of minerals" that were being used by Waterhouse in his lectures. Waterhouse was an active field collector, and had been simultaneously building a mineral collection of his own which by 1793 numbered some 500 specimens. In that year Lettsom donated to Harvard "a very valuable and extensive collection of minerals" (nearly 800 specimens), further enriching the stock of specimens available for instructional purposes. An 18-foot mahogany exhibit case was constructed to hold the collection; George Washington came to see it, as did Daniel Webster.
Waterhouse's son, John Fothergill Waterhouse, was by his father's pronouncement "a real mineralogist" and had also built his own mineral collection. Unfortunately the final disposition of both collections is unknown. Waterhouse lost intertest in mineralogy after his son's death in 1817, and devoted the remainder of his career to medicine and writing. He was a staunch supporter on inoculation against small pox, and was the first to practice the procedure in America, using vaccine sent to him by Lettsom. Thomas Jefferson was among those he inoculated in 1801.
Waterhouse died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 2, 1846. The Harvard mineral collection remains the oldest continuously maintained collection in the United States.
FRONDEL, C. (1988) The geological sciences at Harvard University from 1788-1850. Journal of the History of the Earth Sciences Society, 7 (1), 1-22.
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, 113 p.
CASH, P. (2006) Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse: A Life in Medicine and Public Service (1754-1846). Boston Medical Library and Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach.
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting, 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 264 p.
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by Gilbert Stuart (1775), oil on canvas, Redwood Library and Athenaeum, New Port, Rhode Island
by Rembrandt Peale (ca.1833), Countway Library of Medicine