Helps and Opportunities

Scientific Pursuits

By Samuel Smiles

Victorian scientist

“Neither the naked hand, nor the understanding, left to itself, can do much; the work is accomplished by instruments and helps, of which the need is not less for the understanding than the hand.”—Bacon.

“Opportunity has hair in front, behind she is bald; if you seize her by the forelock you may hold her, but, if suffered to escape, not Jupiter himself can catch her again.”—From the Latin.

 

Accident does very little towards the production of any great result in life.  Though sometimes what is called “a happy hit” may be made by a bold venture, the common highway of steady industry and application is the only safe road to travel.  It is said of the landscape painter Wilson, that when he had nearly finished a picture in a tame, correct manner, he would step back from it, his pencil fixed at the end of a long stick, and after gazing earnestly on the work, he would suddenly walk up and by a few bold touches give a brilliant finish to the painting.  But it will not do for every one who would produce an effect, to throw his brush at the canvas in the hope of producing a picture.  The capability of putting in these last vital touches is acquired only by the labor of a life; and the probability is, that the artist who has not carefully trained himself beforehand, in attempting to produce a brilliant effect at a dash, will only produce a blotch.

Sedulous attention and painstaking industry always mark the true worker.  The greatest men are not those who “despise the day of small things,” but those who improve them the most carefully.  Michael Angelo was one day explaining to a visitor at his studio, what he had been doing at a statue since his previous visit.  “I have retouched this part—polished that—softened this feature— brought out that muscle—given some expression to this lip, and more energy to that limb.”  “But these are trifles,” remarked the visitor.  “It may be so,” replied the sculptor, “but recollect that trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”  So it was said of Nicholas Poussin, the painter, that the rule of his conduct was, that “whatever was worth doing at all was worth doing well;” and when asked, late in life, by his friend Vigneul de Marville, by what means he had gained so high a reputation among the painters of Italy, Poussin emphatically answered, “Because I have neglected nothing.”

Although there are discoveries which are said to have been made by accident, if carefully inquired into, it will be found that there has really been very little that was accidental about them.  For the most part, these so-called accidents have only been opportunities, carefully improved by genius.  The fall of the apple at Newton’s feet has often been quoted in proof of the accidental character of some discoveries.  But Newton’s whole mind had already been devoted for years to the laborious and patient investigation of the subject of gravitation; and the circumstance of the apple falling before his eyes was suddenly apprehended only as genius could apprehend it, and served to flash upon him the brilliant discovery then opening to his sight.  In like manner, the brilliantly-colored soap-bubbles blown from a common tobacco pipe--though “trifles light as air” in most eyes—suggested to Dr. Young his beautiful theory of “interferences,” and led to his discovery relating to the diffraction of light.  Although great men are popularly supposed only to deal with great things, men such as Newton and Young were ready to detect the significance of the most familiar and simple facts; their greatness consisting mainly in their wise interpretation of them.

The difference between men consists, in a great measure, in the intelligence of their observation.  The Russian proverb says of the non-observant man, “He goes through the forest and sees no firewood.”  “The wise man’s eyes are in his head,” says Solomon, “but the fool walketh in darkness.”  “Sir,” said Johnson, on one occasion, to a fine gentleman just returned from Italy, “some men will learn more in the Hampstead stage than others in the tour of Europe.”  It is the mind that sees as well as the eye.  Where unthinking gazers observe nothing, men of intelligent vision penetrate into the very fiber of the phenomena presented to them, attentively noting differences, making comparisons, and recognizing their underlying idea.  Many before Galileo had seen a suspended weight swing before their eyes with a measured beat; but he was the first to detect the value of the fact.  One of the vergers in the cathedral at Pisa, after replenishing with oil a lamp which hung from the roof, left it swinging to and fro; and Galileo, then a youth of only eighteen, noting it attentively, conceived the idea of applying it to the measurement of time.  Fifty years of study and labor, however, elapsed, before he completed the invention of his Pendulum,--the importance of which, in the measurement of time and in astronomical calculations, can scarcely be overrated.  In like manner, Galileo, having casually heard that one Lippershey, a Dutch spectacle-maker, had presented to Count Maurice of Nassau an instrument by means of which distant objects appeared nearer to the beholder, addressed himself to the cause of such a phenomenon, which led to the invention of the telescope, and proved the beginning of the modern science of astronomy.  Discoveries such as these could never have been made by a negligent observer, or by a mere passive listener.

While Captain (afterwards Sir Samuel) Brown was occupied in studying the construction of bridges, with the view of contriving one of a cheap description to be thrown across the Tweed, near which he lived, he was walking in his garden one dewy autumn morning, when he saw a tiny spider’s net suspended across his path.  The idea immediately occurred to him, that a bridge of iron ropes or chains might be constructed in like manner, and the result was the invention of his Suspension Bridge.  So James Watt, when consulted about the mode of carrying water by pipes under the Clyde, along the unequal bed of the river, turned his attention one day to the shell of a lobster presented at table; and from that model he invented an iron tube, which, when laid down, was found effectually to answer the purpose.  Sir Isambert Brunel took his first lessons in forming the Thames Tunnel from the tiny shipworm: he saw how the little creature perforated the wood with its well-armed head, first in one direction and then in another, till the archway was complete, and then daubed over the roof and sides with a kind of varnish; and by copying this work exactly on a large scale, Brunel was at length enabled to construct his shield and accomplish his great engineering work.

It is the intelligent eye of the careful observer which gives these apparently trivial phenomena their value.  So trifling a matter as the sight of seaweed floating past his ship, enabled Columbus to quell the mutiny which arose amongst his sailors at not discovering land, and to assure them that the eagerly sought New World was not far off.  There is nothing so small that it should remain forgotten; and no fact, however trivial, but may prove useful in some way or other if carefully interpreted.  Who could have imagined that the famous “chalk cliffs of Albion” had been built up by tiny insects—detected only by the help of the microscope—of the same order of creatures that have gemmed the sea with islands of coral!  And who that contemplates such extraordinary results, arising from infinitely minute operations, will venture to question the power of little things?

It is the close observation of little things which is the secret of success in business, in art, in science, and in every pursuit in life.  Human knowledge is but an accumulation of small facts, made by successive generations of men, the little bits of knowledge and experience carefully treasured up by them growing at length into a mighty pyramid.  Though many of these facts and observations seemed in the first instance to have but slight significance, they are all found to have their eventual uses, and to fit into their proper places.  Even many speculations seemingly remote, turn out to be the basis of results the most obviously practical.  In the case of the conic sections discovered by Apollonius Pergaeus, twenty centuries elapsed before they were made the basis of astronomy—a science which enables the modern navigator to steer his way through unknown seas and traces for him in the heavens an unerring path to his appointed haven.  And had not mathematicians toiled for so long, and, to uninstructed observers, apparently so fruitlessly, over the abstract relations of lines and surfaces, it is probable that but few of our mechanical inventions would have seen the light.

When Franklin made his discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity, it was sneered at, and people asked, “Of what use is it?”  To which his reply was, “What is the use of a child?  It may become a man!”  When Galvani discovered that a frog’s leg twitched when placed in contact with different metals, it could scarcely have been imagined that so apparently insignificant a fact could have led to important results.  Yet therein lay the germ of the Electric Telegraph, which binds the intelligence of continents together, and, probably before many years have elapsed, will “put a girdle round the globe.”  So too, little bits of stone and fossil, dug out of the earth, intelligently interpreted, have issued in the science of geology and the practical operations of mining, in which large capitals are invested and vast numbers of persons profitably employed.

The gigantic machinery employed in pumping our mines, working our mills and manufactures, and driving our steam-ships and locomotives, in like manner depends for its supply of power upon so slight an agency as little drops of water expanded by heat,--that familiar agency called steam, which we see issuing from that common tea-kettle spout, but which, when put up within an ingeniously contrived mechanism, displays a force equal to that of millions of horses, and contains a power to rebuke the waves and set even the hurricane at defiance.  The same power at work within the bowels of the earth has been the cause of those volcanoes and earthquakes which have played so mighty a part in the history of the globe.

It is said that the Marquis of Worcester’s attention was first accidentally directed to the subject of steam power, by the tight cover of a vessel containing hot water having been blown off before his eyes, when confined a prisoner in the Tower.  He published the result of his observations in his ‘Century of Inventions,’ which formed a sort of text-book for inquirers into the powers of steam for a time, until Savary, Newcomen, and others, applying it to practical purposes, brought the steam-engine to the state in which Watt found it when called upon to repair a model of Newcomen’s engine, which belonged to the University of Glasgow.  This accidental circumstance was an opportunity for Watt, which he was not slow to improve; and it was the labor of his life to bring the steam-engine to perfection.

This art of seizing opportunities and turning even accidents to account, bending them to some purpose is a great secret of success.  Dr. Johnson has defined genius to be “a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some particular direction.”  Men who are resolved to find a way for themselves, will always find opportunities enough; and if they do not lie ready to their hand, they will make them.  It is not those who have enjoyed the advantages of colleges, museums, and public galleries, that have accomplished the most for science and art; nor have the greatest mechanics and inventors been trained in mechanics’ institutes.  Necessity, oftener than facility, has been the mother of invention; and the most prolific school of all has been the school of difficulty.  Some of the very best workmen have had the most indifferent tools to work with.  But it is not tools that make the workman, but the trained skill and perseverance of the man himself.  Indeed it is proverbial that the bad workman never yet had a good tool.  Some one asked Opie by what wonderful process he mixed his colors.  “I mix them with my brains, sir,” was his reply.  It is the same with every workman who would excel.  Ferguson made marvelous things—such as his wooden clock, that accurately measured the hours—by means of a common penknife, a tool in everybody’s hand; but then everybody is not a Ferguson.  A pan of water and two thermometers were the tools by which Dr. Black discovered latent heat; and a prism, a lens, and a sheet of pasteboard enabled Newton to unfold the composition of light and the origin of colors.  An eminent foreign savant once called upon Dr. Wollaston, and requested to be shown over his laboratories in which science had been enriched by so many important discoveries, when the doctor took him into a little study, and, pointing to an old tea-tray on the table, containing a few watch-glasses, test papers, a small balance, and a blowpipe, said, “There is all the laboratory that I have!”

Stothard learnt the art of combining colors by closely studying butterflies’ wings:  he would often say that no one knew what he owed to these tiny insects.  A burnt stick and a barn door served Wilkie in lieu of pencil and canvas.  Bewick first practiced drawing on the cottage walls of his native village, which he covered with his sketches in chalk; and Benjamin West made his first brushes out of the cat’s tail.  Ferguson laid himself down in the fields at night in a blanket, and made a map of the heavenly bodies by means of a thread with small beads on it stretched between his eye and the stars.  Franklin first robbed the thundercloud of its lightning by means of a kite made with two cross sticks and a silk handkerchief.  Watt made his first model of the condensing steam-engine out of an old anatomist’s syringe, used to inject the arteries previous to dissection.  Gifford worked his first problems in mathematics, when a cobbler’s apprentice, upon small scraps of leather, which he beat smooth for the purpose; whilst Rittenhouse, the astronomer, first calculated eclipses on his plough handle.

The most ordinary occasions will furnish a man with opportunities or suggestions for improvement, if he be but prompt to take advantage of them.  Professor Lee was attracted to the study of Hebrew by finding a Bible in that tongue in a synagogue, while working as a common carpenter at the repairs of the benches.  He became possessed with a desire to read the book in the original, and, buying a cheap second-hand copy of a Hebrew grammar, he set to work and learnt the language for himself.  As Edmund Stone said to the Duke of Argyle, in answer to his grace’s inquiry how he, a poor gardener’s boy, had contrived to be able to read Newton’s Principia in Latin, “One needs only to know the twenty-four letters of the alphabet in order to learn everything else that one wishes.” Application and perseverance, and the diligent improvement of opportunities, will do the rest.

Sir Walter Scott found opportunities for self-improvement in every pursuit, and turned even accidents to account.  Thus it was in the discharge of his functions as a writer’s apprentice that he first visited the Highlands, and formed those friendships among the surviving heroes of 1745 which served to lay the foundation of a large class of his works.  Later in life, when employed as quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Cavalry, he was accidentally disabled by the kick of a horse, and confined for some time to his house; but Scott was a sworn enemy to idleness, and he forthwith set his mind to work.  In three days he had composed the first canto of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ which he shortly after finished,--his first great original work.

The attention of Dr. Priestley, the discoverer of so many gases, was accidentally drawn to the subject of chemistry through his living in the neighborhood of a brewery.  When visiting the place one day, he noted the peculiar appearances attending the extinction of lighted chips in the gas floating over the fermented liquor.  He was forty years old at the time, and knew nothing of chemistry.  He consulted books to ascertain the cause, but they told him little, for as yet nothing was known on the subject.  Then he began to experiment, with some rude apparatus of his own contrivance.  The curious results of his first experiments led to others, which in his hands shortly became the science of pneumatic chemistry.  About the same time, Scheele was obscurely working in the same direction in a remote Swedish village; and he discovered several new gases, with no more effective apparatus at his command than a few apothecaries’ phials and pigs’ bladders.

Sir Humphry Davy, when an apothecary’s apprentice, performed his first experiments with instruments of the rudest description.  He extemporized the greater part of them himself, out of the motley materials which chance threw in his way,--the pots and pans of the kitchen, and the phials and vessels of his master’s surgery.  It happened that a French ship was wrecked off the Land’s End, and the surgeon escaped, bearing with him his case of instruments, amongst which was an old-fashioned glyster apparatus; this article he presented to Davy, with whom he had become acquainted.  The apothecary’s apprentice received it with great exultation, and forthwith employed it as a part of a pneumatic apparatus which he contrived, afterwards using it to perform the duties of an air-pump in one of his experiments on the nature and sources of heat.

In like manner Professor Faraday, Sir Humphry Davy’s scientific successor, made his first experiments in electricity by means of an old bottle, white he was still a working bookbinder.  And it is a curious fact that Faraday was first attracted to the study of chemistry by hearing one of Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures on the subject at the Royal Institution.  A gentleman, who was a member, calling one day at the shop where Faraday was employed in binding books, found him poring over the article “Electricity” in an Encyclopedia placed in his hands to bind.  The gentleman, having made inquiries, found that the young bookbinder was curious about such subjects, and gave him an order of admission to the Royal Institution, where he attended a course of four lectures delivered by Sir Humphry.  He took notes of them, which he showed to the lecturer, who acknowledged their scientific accuracy, and was surprised when informed of the humble position of the reporter.  Faraday then expressed his desire to devote himself to the prosecution of chemical studies, from which Sir Humphry at first endeavored to dissuade him:  but the young man persisting, he was at length taken into the Royal Institution as an assistant; and eventually the mantle of the brilliant apothecary’s boy fell upon the worthy shoulders of the equally brilliant bookbinder’s apprentice.

The words which Davy entered in his note-book, when about twenty years of age, working in Dr. Beddoes’ laboratory at Bristol, were eminently characteristic of him:  “I have neither riches, nor power, nor birth to recommend me; yet if I live, I trust I shall not be of less service to mankind and my friends, than if I had been born with all these advantages.”  Davy possessed the capability, as Faraday does, of devoting the whole power of his mind to the practical and experimental investigation of a subject in all its bearings; and such a mind will rarely fail, by dint of mere industry and patient thinking, in producing results of the highest order.  Coleridge said of Davy, “There is an energy and elasticity in his mind, which enables him to seize on and analyze all questions, pushing them to their legitimate consequences.  Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of vitality.  Living thoughts spring up like turf under his feet.”  Davy, on his part, said of Coleridge, whose abilities he greatly admired, “With the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart, and enlightened mind, he will be the victim of a want of order, precision, and regularity.”

The great Cuvier was a singularly accurate, careful, and industrious observer.  When a boy, he was attracted to the subject of natural history by the sight of a volume of Buffon which accidentally fell in his way.  He at once proceeded to copy the drawings, and to color them after the descriptions given in the text.  While still at school, one of his teachers made him a present of ‘Linnaeus’s System of Nature;’ and for more than ten years this constituted his library of natural history.  At eighteen he was offered the situation of tutor in a family residing near Fecamp, in Normandy.  Living close to the sea-shore, he was brought face to face with the wonders of marine life.  Strolling along the sands one day, he observed a stranded cuttlefish.  He was attracted by the curious object, took it home to dissect, and thus began the study of the molluscae, in the pursuit of which he achieved so distinguished a reputation.  He had no books to refer to, excepting only the great book of Nature which lay open before him.  The study of the novel and interesting objects which it daily presented to his eyes made a much deeper impression on his mind than any written or engraved descriptions could possibly have done.  Three years thus passed, during which he compared the living species of marine animals with the fossil remains found in the neighborhood, dissected the specimens of marine life that came under his notice, and, by careful observation, prepared the way for a complete reform in the classification of the animal kingdom.  About this time Cuvier became known to the learned Abbe Teissier, who wrote to Jussieu and other friends in Paris on the subject of the young naturalist’s inquiries, in terms of such high commendation, that Cuvier was requested to send some of his papers to the Society of Natural History; and he was shortly after appointed assistant-superintendent at the Jardin des Plantes.  In the letter written by Teissier to Jussieu, introducing the young naturalist to his notice, he said, “You remember that it was I who gave Delambre to the Academy in another branch of science:  this also will be a Delambre.”  We need scarcely add that the prediction of Teissier was more than fulfilled.

It is not accident, then, that helps a man in the world so much as purpose and persistent industry.  To the feeble, the sluggish and purposeless, the happiest accidents avail nothing,--they pass them by, seeing no meaning in them.  But it is astonishing how much can be accomplished if we are prompt to seize and improve the opportunities for action and effort which are constantly presenting themselves.  Watt taught himself chemistry and mechanics while working at his trade of a mathematical-instrument maker, at the same time that he was learning German from a Swiss dyer.  Stephenson taught himself arithmetic and mensuration while working as an engineman during the night shifts; and when he could snatch a few moments in the intervals allowed for meals during the day, he worked his sums with a bit of chalk upon the sides of the colliery wagons.  Dalton’s industry was the habit of his life.  He began from his boyhood, for he taught a little village-school when he was only about twelve years old,--keeping the school in winter, and working upon his father’s farm in summer.  He would sometimes urge himself and companions to study by the stimulus of a bet, though bred a Quaker; and on one occasion, by his satisfactory solution of a problem, he won as much as enabled him to buy a winter’s store of candles.  He continued his meteorological observations until a day or two before he died,--having made and recorded upwards of 200,000 in the course of his life.

With perseverance, the very odds and ends of time may be worked up into results of the greatest value.  An hour in every day withdrawn from frivolous pursuits would, if profitably employed, enable a person of ordinary capacity to go far towards mastering a science.  It would make an ignorant man a well-informed one in less than ten years.  Time should not be allowed to pass without yielding fruits, in the form of something learnt worthy of being known, some good principle cultivated, or some good habit strengthened.  Dr. Mason Good translated Lucretius while riding in his carriage in the streets of London, going the round of his patients.  Dr. Darwin composed nearly all his works in the same way while driving about in his “sulky” from house to house in the country,--writing down his thoughts on little scraps of paper, which he carried about with him for the purpose.  Hale wrote his ‘Contemplations’ while traveling on circuit.  Dr. Burney learnt French and Italian while traveling on horseback from one musical pupil to another in the course of his profession.  Kirke White learnt Greek while walking to and from a lawyer’s office; and we personally know a man of eminent position who learnt Latin and French while going messages as an errand-boy in the streets of Manchester.

Daguesseau, one of the great Chancellors of France, by carefully working up his odd bits of time, wrote a bulky and able volume in the successive intervals of waiting for dinner, and Madame de Genlis composed several of her charming volumes while waiting for the princess to whom she gave her daily lessons.  Elihu Burritt attributed his first success in self-improvement, not to genius, which he disclaimed, but simply to the careful employment of those invaluable fragments of time, called “odd moments.”  While working and earning his living as a blacksmith, he mastered some eighteen ancient and modern languages, and twenty-two European dialects.

What a solemn and striking admonition to youth is that inscribed on the dial at All Souls, Oxford—“Pereunt et imputantur”—the hours perish, and are laid to our charge.  Time is the only little fragment of Eternity that belongs to man; and, like life, it can never be recalled.  “In the dissipation of worldly treasure,” says Jackson of Exeter, “the frugality of the future may balance the extravagance of the past; but who can say, ‘I will take from minutes to-morrow to compensate for those I have lost to-day’?” Melancthon noted down the time lost by him, that he might thereby reanimate his industry, and not lose an hour.  An Italian scholar put over his door an inscription intimating that whosoever remained there should join in his labors.  “We are afraid,” said some visitors to Baxter, “that we break in upon your time.”  “To be sure you do,” replied the disturbed and blunt divine.  Time was the estate out of which these great workers, and all other workers, formed that rich treasury of thoughts and deeds which they have left to their successors.

The mere drudgery undergone by some men in carrying on their undertakings has been something extraordinary, but the drudgery they regarded as the price of success.  Addison amassed as much as three folios of manuscript materials before he began his ‘Spectator.’  Newton wrote his ‘Chronology’ fifteen times over before he was satisfied with it; and Gibbon wrote out his ‘Memoir’ nine times.  Hale studied for many years at the rate of sixteen hours a day, and when wearied with the study of the law, he would recreate himself with philosophy and the study of the mathematics.  Hume wrote thirteen hours a day while preparing his ‘History of England.’  Montesquieu, speaking of one part of his writings, said to a friend, “You will read it in a few hours; but I assure you it has cost me so much labor that it has whitened my hair.”

The practice of writing down thoughts and facts for the purpose of holding them fast and preventing their escape into the dim region of forgetfulness, has been much resorted to by thoughtful and studious men.  Lord Bacon left behind him many manuscripts entitled “Sudden thoughts set down for use.”  Erskine made great extracts from Burke; and Eldon copied Coke upon Littleton twice over with his own hand, so that the book became, as it were, part of his own mind.  The late Dr. Pye Smith, when apprenticed to his father as a bookbinder, was accustomed to make copious memoranda of all the books he read, with extracts and criticisms.  This indomitable industry in collecting materials distinguished him through life, his biographer describing him as “always at work, always in advance, always accumulating.”  These note-books afterwards proved, like Richter’s “quarries,” the great storehouse from which he drew his illustrations.

The same practice characterized the eminent John Hunter, who adopted it for the purpose of supplying the defects of memory; and he was accustomed thus to illustrate the advantages which one derives from putting one’s thoughts in writing:  “It resembles,” he said, “a tradesman taking stock, without which he never knows either what he possesses or in what he is deficient.”  John Hunter--whose observation was so keen that Abernethy was accustomed to speak of him as “the Argus-eyed”—furnished an illustrious example of the power of patient industry.  He received little or no education till he was about twenty years of age, and it was with difficulty that he acquired the arts of reading and writing.  He worked for some years as a common carpenter at Glasgow, after which he joined his brother William, who had settled in London as a lecturer and anatomical demonstrator.  John entered his dissecting-room as an assistant, but soon shot ahead of his brother, partly by virtue of his great natural ability, but mainly by reason of his patient application and indefatigable industry.  He was one of the first in this country to devote himself assiduously to the study of comparative anatomy, and the objects he dissected and collected took the eminent Professor Owen no less than ten years to arrange.  The collection contains some twenty thousand specimens, and is the most precious treasure of the kind that has ever been accumulated by the industry of one man.  Hunter used to spend every morning from sunrise until eight o’clock in his museum; and throughout the day he carried on his extensive private practice, performed his laborious duties as surgeon to St. George’s Hospital and deputy surgeon-general to the army; delivered lectures to students, and superintended a school of practical anatomy at his own house; finding leisure, amidst all, for elaborate experiments on the animal economy, and the composition of various works of great scientific importance.  To find time for this gigantic amount of work, he allowed himself only four hours of sleep at night, and an hour after dinner.  When once asked what method he had adopted to insure success in his undertakings, he replied, “My rule is, deliberately to consider, before I commence, whether the thing be practicable.  If it be not practicable, I do not attempt it.  If it be practicable, I can accomplish it if I give sufficient pains to it; and having begun, I never stop till the thing is done.  To this rule I owe all my success.”

Hunter occupied a great deal of his time in collecting definite facts respecting matters which, before his day, were regarded as exceedingly trivial.  Thus it was supposed by many of his contemporaries that he was only wasting his time and thought in studying so carefully as he did the growth of a deer’s horn.  But Hunter was impressed with the conviction that no accurate knowledge of scientific facts is without its value.  By the study referred to, he learnt how arteries accommodate themselves to circumstances, and enlarge as occasion requires; and the knowledge thus acquired emboldened him, in a case of aneurism in a branch artery, to tie the main trunk where no surgeon before him had dared to tie it, and the life of his patient was saved.  Like many original men, he worked for a long time as it were underground, digging and laying foundations.  He was a solitary and self-reliant genius, holding on his course without the solace of sympathy or approbation,--for but few of his contemporaries perceived the ultimate object of his pursuits.  But like all true workers, he did not fail in securing his best reward—that which depends less upon others than upon one’s self—the approval of conscience, which in a right-minded man invariably follows the honest and energetic performance of duty.

Ambrose Pare, the great French surgeon, was another illustrious instance of close observation, patient application, and indefatigable perseverance.  He was the son of a barber at Laval, in Maine, where he was born in 1509.  His parents were too poor to send him to school, but they placed him as foot-boy with the cure of the village, hoping that under that learned man he might pick up an education for himself.  But the cure kept him so busily employed in grooming his mule and in other menial offices that the boy found no time for learning.  While in his service, it happened that the celebrated lithotomist, Cotot, came to Laval to operate on one of the cure’s ecclesiastical brethren.  Pare was present at the operation, and was so much interested by it that he is said to have from that time formed the determination of devoting himself to the art of surgery.

Leaving the cure’s household service, Pare apprenticed himself to a barber-surgeon named Vialot, under whom he learnt to let blood, draw teeth, and perform the minor operations.  After four years’ experience of this kind, he went to Paris to study at the school of anatomy and surgery, meanwhile maintaining himself by his trade of a barber.  He afterwards succeeded in obtaining an appointment as assistant at the Hotel Dieu, where his conduct was so exemplary, and his progress so marked, that the chief surgeon, Goupil, entrusted him with the charge of the patients whom he could not himself attend to.  After the usual course of instruction, Pare was admitted a master barber-surgeon, and shortly after was appointed to a charge with the French army under Montmorenci in Piedmont.  Pare was not a man to follow in the ordinary ruts of his profession, but brought the resources of an ardent and original mind to bear upon his daily work, diligently thinking out for himself the rationale of diseases and their befitting remedies.  Before his time the wounded suffered much more at the hands of their surgeons than they did at those of their enemies.  To stop bleeding from gunshot wounds, the barbarous expedient was resorted to of dressing them with boiling oil.  Hemorrhage was also stopped by searing the wounds with a red-hot iron; and when amputation was necessary, it was performed with a red-hot knife.  At first Pare treated wounds according to the approved methods; but, fortunately, on one occasion, running short of boiling oil, he substituted a mild and emollient application.  He was in great fear all night lest he should have done wrong in adopting this treatment; but was greatly relieved next morning on finding his patients comparatively comfortable, while those whose wounds had been treated in the usual way were writhing in torment.  Such was the casual origin of one of Pare’s greatest improvements in the treatment of gun-shot wounds; and he proceeded to adopt the emollient treatment in all future cases.  Another still more important improvement was his employment of the ligature in tying arteries to stop hemorrhage, instead of the actual cautery.  Pare, however, met with the usual fate of innovators and reformers.  His practice was denounced by his surgical brethren as dangerous, unprofessional, and empirical; and the older surgeons banded themselves together to resist its adoption.  They reproached him for his want of education, more especially for his ignorance of Latin and Greek; and they assailed him with quotations from ancient writers, which he was unable either to verify or refute.  But the best answer to his assailants was the success of his practice.  The wounded soldiers called out everywhere for Pare, and he was always at their service:  he tended them carefully and affectionately; and he usually took leave of them with the words, “I have dressed you; may God cure you.”

After three years’ active service as army-surgeon, Pare returned to Paris with such a reputation that he was at once appointed surgeon in ordinary to the King.  When Metz was besieged by the Spanish army, under Charles V., the garrison suffered heavy loss, and the number of wounded was very great.  The surgeons were few and incompetent, and probably slew more by their bad treatment than the Spaniards did by the sword.  The Duke of Guise, who commanded the garrison, wrote to the King imploring him to send Pare to his help.  The courageous surgeon at once set out, and, after braving many dangers (to use his own words, “d’estre pendu, estrangle ou mis en pieces”), he succeeded in passing the enemy’s lines, and entered Metz in safety.  The Duke, the generals, and the captains gave him an affectionate welcome; while the soldiers, when they heard of his arrival, cried, “We no longer fear dying of our wounds; our friend is among us.”  In the following year Pare was in like manner with the besieged in the town of Hesdin, which shortly fell before the Duke of Savoy, and he was taken prisoner.  But having succeeded in curing one of the enemy’s chief officers of a serious wound, he was discharged without ransom, and returned in safety to Paris.

The rest of his life was occupied in study, in self-improvement, in piety, and in good deeds.  Urged by some of the most learned among his contemporaries, he placed on record the results of his surgical experience, in twenty-eight books, which were published by him at different times.  His writings are valuable and remarkable chiefly on account of the great number of facts and cases contained in them, and the care with which he avoids giving any directions resting merely upon theory unsupported by observation.  Pare continued, though a Protestant, to hold the office of surgeon in ordinary to the King; and during the Massacre of St. Bartholomew he owed his life to the personal friendship of Charles IX., whom he had on one occasion saved from the dangerous effects of a wound inflicted by a clumsy surgeon in performing the operation of venesection.  Brantome, in his ‘Memoires,’ thus speaks of the King’s rescue of Pare on the night of Saint Bartholomew—“He sent to fetch him, and to remain during the night in his chamber and wardrobe-room, commanding him not to stir, and saying that it was not reasonable that a man who had preserved the lives of so many people should himself be massacred.”  Thus Pare escaped the horrors of that fearful night, which he survived for many years, and was permitted to die in peace, full of age and honors.

Harvey was as indefatigable a laborer as any we have named.  He spent not less than eight long years of investigation and research before he published his views of the circulation of the blood.  He repeated and verified his experiments again and again, probably anticipating the opposition he would have to encounter from the profession on making known his discovery.  The tract in which he at length announced his views, was a most modest one,--but simple, perspicuous, and conclusive.  It was nevertheless received with ridicule, as the utterance of a crack-brained impostor.  For some time, he did not make a single convert, and gained nothing but contumely and abuse.  He had called in question the revered authority of the ancients; and it was even averred that his views were calculated to subvert the authority of the Scriptures and undermine the very foundations of morality and religion.  His little practice fell away, and he was left almost without a friend.  This lasted for some years, until the great truth, held fast by Harvey amidst all his adversity, and which had dropped into many thoughtful minds, gradually ripened by further observation, and after a period of about twenty-five years, it became generally recognized as an established scientific truth.

The difficulties encountered by Dr. Jenner in promulgating and establishing his discovery of vaccination as a preventive of small-pox, were even greater than those of Harvey.  Many, before him, had witnessed the cow-pox, and had heard of the report current among the milkmaids in Gloucestershire, that whoever had taken that disease was secure against small-pox.  It was a trifling, vulgar rumor, supposed to have no significance whatever; and no one had thought it worthy of investigation, until it was accidentally brought under the notice of Jenner.  He was a youth, pursuing his studies at Sodbury, when his attention was arrested by the casual observation made by a country girl who came to his master’s shop for advice.  The small-pox was mentioned, when the girl said, “I can’t take that disease, for I have had cow-pox.”  The observation immediately riveted Jenner’s attention, and he forthwith set about inquiring and making observations on the subject.  His professional friends, to whom he mentioned his views as to the prophylactic virtues of cow-pox, laughed at him, and even threatened to expel him from their society, if he persisted in harassing them with the subject.  In London he was so fortunate as to study under John Hunter, to whom he communicated his views.  The advice of the great anatomist was thoroughly characteristic:  “Don’t think, but TRY; be patient, be accurate.”  Jenner’s courage was supported by the advice, which conveyed to him the true art of philosophical investigation.  He went back to the country to practice his profession and make observations and experiments, which he continued to pursue for a period of twenty years.  His faith in his discovery was so implicit that he vaccinated his own son on three several occasions.  At length he published his views in a quarto of about seventy pages, in which he gave the details of twenty-three cases of successful vaccination of individuals, to whom it was found afterwards impossible to communicate the small-pox either by contagion or inoculation.  It was in 1798 that this treatise was published; though he had been working out his ideas since the year 1775, when they had begun to assume a definite form.

How was the discovery received?  First with indifference, then with active hostility.  Jenner proceeded to London to exhibit to the profession the process of vaccination and its results; but not a single medical man could be induced to make trial of it, and after fruitlessly waiting for nearly three months, he returned to his native village.  He was even caricatured and abused for his attempt to “bestialize” his species by the introduction into their systems of diseased matter from the cow’s udder.  Vaccination was denounced from the pulpit as “diabolical.”  It was averred that vaccinated children became “ox-faced,” that abscesses broke out to “indicate sprouting horns,” and that the countenance was gradually “transmuted into the visage of a cow, the voice into the bellowing of bulls.”  Vaccination, however, was a truth, and notwithstanding the violence of the opposition, belief in it spread slowly.  In one village, where a gentleman tried to introduce the practice, the first persons who permitted themselves to be vaccinated were absolutely pelted and driven into their houses if they appeared out of doors.  Two ladies of title—Lady Ducie and the Countess of Berkeley—to their honor be it remembered—had the courage to vaccinate their children; and the prejudices of the day were at once broken through.  The medical profession gradually came round, and there were several who even sought to rob Dr. Jenner of the merit of the discovery, when its importance came to be recognized.  Jenner’s cause at last triumphed, and he was publicly honored and rewarded.  In his prosperity he was as modest as he had been in his obscurity.  He was invited to settle in London, and told that he might command a practice of 10,000l. a year.  But his answer was, “No!  In the morning of my days I have sought the sequestered and lowly paths of life—the valley, and not the mountain,--and now, in the evening of my days, it is not meet for me to hold myself up as an object for fortune and for fame.”  During Jenner’s own life-time the practice of vaccination became adopted all over the civilized world; and when he died, his title as a Benefactor of his kind was recognized far and wide.  Cuvier has said, “If vaccine were the only discovery of the epoch, it would serve to render it illustrious for ever; yet it knocked twenty times in vain at the doors of the Academies.”

Not less patient, resolute, and persevering was Sir Charles Bell in the prosecution of his discoveries relating to the nervous system.  Previous to his time, the most confused notions prevailed as to the functions of the nerves, and this branch of study was little more advanced than it had been in the times of Democritus and Anaxagoras three thousand years before.  Sir Charles Bell, in the valuable series of papers the publication of which was commenced in 1821, took an entirely original view of the subject, based upon a long series of careful, accurate, and oft-repeated experiments.  Elaborately tracing the development of the nervous system up from the lowest order of animated being, to man—the lord of the animal kingdom,--he displayed it, to use his own words, “as plainly as if it were written in our mother-tongue.”  His discovery consisted in the fact, that the spinal nerves are double in their function, and arise by double roots from the spinal marrow,--volition being conveyed by that part of the nerves springing from the one root, and sensation by the other.  The subject occupied the mind of Sir Charles Bell for a period of forty years, when, in 1840, he laid his last paper before the Royal Society.  As in the cases of Harvey and Jenner, when he had lived down the ridicule and opposition with which his views were first received, and their truth came to be recognized, numerous claims for priority in making the discovery were set up at home and abroad.  Like them, too, he lost practice by the publication of his papers; and he left it on record that, after every step in his discovery, he was obliged to work harder than ever to preserve his reputation as a practitioner.  The great merits of Sir Charles Bell were, however, at length fully recognized; and Cuvier himself, when on his death-bed, finding his face distorted and drawn to one side, pointed out the symptom to his attendants as a proof of the correctness of Sir Charles Bell’s theory.

An equally devoted pursuer of the same branch of science was the late Dr. Marshall Hall, whose name posterity will rank with those of Harvey, Hunter, Jenner, and Bell.  During the whole course of his long and useful life he was a most careful and minute observer; and no fact, however apparently insignificant, escaped his attention.  His important discovery of the diastaltic nervous system, by which his name will long be known amongst scientific men, originated in an exceedingly simple circumstance.  When investigating the pneumonic circulation in the Triton, the decapitated object lay upon the table; and on separating the tail and accidentally pricking the external integument, he observed that it moved with energy, and became contorted into various forms.  He had not touched a muscle or a muscular nerve; what then was the nature of these movements?  The same phenomena had probably been often observed before, but Dr. Hall was the first to apply himself perseveringly to the investigation of their causes; and he exclaimed on the occasion, “I will never rest satisfied until I have found all this out, and made it clear.”  His attention to the subject was almost incessant; and it is estimated that in the course of his life he devoted not less than 25,000 hours to its experimental and chemical investigation.  He was at the same time carrying on an extensive private practice, and officiating as lecturer at St. Thomas’s Hospital and other Medical Schools.  It will scarcely be credited that the paper in which he embodied his discovery was rejected by the Royal Society, and was only accepted after the lapse of seventeen years, when the truth of his views had become acknowledged by scientific men both at home and abroad.

The life of Sir William Herschel affords another remarkable illustration of the force of perseverance in another branch of science.  His father was a poor German musician, who brought up his four sons to the same calling.  William came over to England to seek his fortune, and he joined the band of the Durham Militia, in which he played the oboe.  The regiment was lying at Doncaster, where Dr. Miller first became acquainted with Herschel, having heard him perform a solo on the violin in a surprising manner.  The Doctor entered into conversation with the youth, and was so pleased with him, that he urged him to leave the militia and take up his residence at his house for a time.  Herschel did so, and while at Doncaster was principally occupied in violin-playing at concerts, availing himself of the advantages of Dr. Miller’s library to study at his leisure hours.  A new organ having been built for the parish church of Halifax, an organist was advertised for, on which Herschel applied for the office, and was selected.  Leading the wandering life of an artist, he was next attracted to Bath, where he played in the Pump-room band, and also officiated as organist in the Octagon chapel.  Some recent discoveries in astronomy having arrested his mind, and awakened in him a powerful spirit of curiosity, he sought and obtained from a friend the loan of a two-foot Gregorian telescope.  So fascinated was the poor musician by the science, that he even thought of purchasing a telescope, but the price asked by the London optician was so alarming, that he determined to make one.  Those who know what a reflecting telescope is, and the skill which is required to prepare the concave metallic speculum which forms the most important part of the apparatus, will be able to form some idea of the difficulty of this undertaking.  Nevertheless, Herschel succeeded, after long and painful labor, in completing a five-foot reflector, with which he had the gratification of observing the ring and satellites of Saturn.  Not satisfied with his triumph, he proceeded to make other instruments in succession, of seven, ten, and even twenty feet.  In constructing the seven-foot reflector, he finished no fewer than two hundred specula before he produced one that would bear any power that was applied to it,--a striking instance of the persevering laboriousness of the man.  While gauging the heavens with his instruments, he continued patiently to earn his bread by piping to the fashionable frequenters of the Pump-room.  So eager was he in his astronomical observations, that he would steal away from the room during an interval of the performance, give a little turn at his telescope, and contentedly return to his oboe.  Thus working away, Herschel discovered the Georgium Sidus, the orbit and rate of motion of which he carefully calculated, and sent the result to the Royal Society; when the humble oboe player found himself at once elevated from obscurity to fame.  He was shortly after appointed Astronomer Royal, and by the kindness of George III. was placed in a position of honorable competency for life.  He bore his honors with the same meekness and humility which had distinguished him in the days of his obscurity.  So gentle and patient, and withal so distinguished and successful a follower of science under difficulties, perhaps cannot be found in the entire history of biography.

The career of William Smith, the father of English geology, though perhaps less known, is not less interesting and instructive as an example of patient and laborious effort, and the diligent cultivation of opportunities.  He was born in 1769, the son of a yeoman farmer at Churchill, in Oxfordshire.  His father dying when he was but a child, he received a very sparing education at the village school, and even that was to a considerable extent interfered with by his wandering and somewhat idle habits as a boy.  His mother having married a second time, he was taken in charge by an uncle, also a farmer, by whom he was brought up.  Though the uncle was by no means pleased with the boy’s love of wandering about, collecting “poundstones,” “pundips,” and other stony curiosities which lay scattered about the adjoining land, he yet enabled him to purchase a few of the necessary books wherewith to instruct himself in the rudiments of geometry and surveying; for the boy was already destined for the business of a land-surveyor.  One of his marked characteristics, even as a youth, was the accuracy and keenness of his observation; and what he once clearly saw he never forgot.  He began to draw, attempted to color, and practiced the arts of mensuration and surveying, all without regular instruction; and by his efforts in self-culture, he shortly became so proficient, that he was taken on as assistant to a local surveyor of ability in the neighborhood.  In carrying on his business he was constantly under the necessity of traversing Oxfordshire and the adjoining counties.  One of the first things he seriously pondered over, was the position of the various soils and strata that came under his notice on the lands which he surveyed or traveled over; more especially the position of the red earth in regard to the lias and superincumbent rocks.  The surveys of numerous collieries which he was called upon to make, gave him further experience; and already, when only twenty-three years of age, he contemplated making a model of the strata of the earth.

While engaged in leveling for a proposed canal in Gloucestershire, the idea of a general law occurred to him relating to the strata of that district.  He conceived that the strata lying above the coal were not laid horizontally, but inclined, and in one direction, towards the east; resembling, on a large scale, “the ordinary appearance of superposed slices of bread and butter.”  The correctness of this theory he shortly after confirmed by observations of the strata in two parallel valleys, the “red ground,” “lias,” and “freestone” or “oolite,” being found to come down in an eastern direction, and to sink below the level, yielding place to the next in succession.  He was shortly enabled to verify the truth of his views on a larger scale, having been appointed to examine personally into the management of canals in England and Wales.  During his journeys, which extended from Bath to Newcastle-on-Tyne, returning by Shropshire and Wales, his keen eyes were never idle for a moment.  He rapidly noted the aspect and structure of the country through which he passed with his companions, treasuring up his observations for future use.  His geologic vision was so acute, that though the road along which he passed from York to Newcastle in the post chaise was from five to fifteen miles distant from the hills of chalk and oolite on the east, he was satisfied as to their nature, by their contours and relative position, and their ranges on the surface in relation to the lias and “red ground” occasionally seen on the road.

The general results of his observation seem to have been these.  He noted that the rocky masses of country in the western parts of England generally inclined to the east and south-east; that the red sandstones and marls above the coal measures passed beneath the lias, clay, and limestone, that these again passed beneath the sands, yellow limestones and clays, forming the table-land of the Cotswold Hills, while these in turn passed beneath the great chalk deposits occupying the eastern parts of England.  He further observed, that each layer of clay, sand, and limestone held its own peculiar classes of fossils; and pondering much on these things, he at length came to the then unheard-of conclusion, that each distinct deposit of marine animals, in these several strata, indicated a distinct sea-bottom, and that each layer of clay, sand, chalk, and stone, marked a distinct epoch of time in the history of the earth.

This idea took firm possession of his mind, and he could talk and think of nothing else.  At canal boards, at sheep-shearings, at county meetings, and at agricultural associations, ‘Strata Smith,’ as he came to be called, was always running over with the subject that possessed him.  He had indeed made a great discovery, though he was as yet a man utterly unknown in the scientific world.  He proceeded to project a map of the stratification of England; but was for some time deterred from proceeding with it, being fully occupied in carrying out the works of the Somersetshire coal canal, which engaged him for a period of about six years.  He continued, nevertheless, to be unremitting in his observation of facts; and he became so expert in apprehending the internal structure of a district and detecting the lie of the strata from its external configuration, that he was often consulted respecting the drainage of extensive tracts of land, in which, guided by his geological knowledge, he proved remarkably successful, and acquired an extensive reputation.

One day, when looking over the cabinet collection of fossils belonging to the Rev. Samuel Richardson, at Bath, Smith astonished his friend by suddenly disarranging his classification, and re-arranging the fossils in their stratigraphical order, saying—

“These came from the blue lias, these from the over-lying sand and freestone, these from the fuller’s earth, and these from the Bath building stone.”  A new light flashed upon Mr. Richardson’s mind, and he shortly became a convert to and believer in William Smith’s doctrine.  The geologists of the day were not, however, so easily convinced; and it was scarcely to be tolerated that an unknown land-surveyor should pretend to teach them the science of geology.  But William Smith had an eye and mind to penetrate deep beneath the skin of the earth; he saw its very fiber and skeleton, and, as it were, divined its organization.  His knowledge of the strata in the neighborhood of Bath was so accurate, that one evening, when dining at the house of the Rev. Joseph Townsend, he dictated to Mr.  Richardson the different strata according to their order of succession in descending order, twenty-three in number, commencing with the chalk and descending in continuous series down to the coal, below which the strata were not then sufficiently determined.  To this was added a list of the more remarkable fossils which had been gathered in the several layers of rock.  This was printed and extensively circulated in 1801.

He next determined to trace out the strata through districts as remote from Bath as his means would enable him to reach.  For years he journeyed to and fro, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, riding on the tops of stage coaches, often making up by night-traveling the time he had lost by day, so as not to fail in his ordinary business engagements.  When he was professionally called away to any distance from home—as, for instance, when traveling from Bath to Holkham, in Norfolk, to direct the irrigation and drainage of Mr. Coke’s land in that county—he rode on horseback, making frequent detours from the road to note the geological features of the country which he traversed.

For several years he was thus engaged in his journeys to distant quarters in England and Ireland, to the extent of upwards of ten thousand miles yearly; and it was amidst this incessant and laborious traveling, that he contrived to commit to paper his fast-growing generalizations on what he rightly regarded as a new science.  No observation, howsoever trivial it might appear, was neglected, and no opportunity of collecting fresh facts was overlooked.  Whenever he could, he possessed himself of records of borings, natural and artificial sections, drew them to a constant scale of eight yards to the inch, and colored them up.  Of his keenness of observation take the following illustration.  When making one of his geological excursions about the country near Woburn, as he was drawing near to the foot of the Dunstable chalk hills, he observed to his companion, “If there be any broken ground about the foot of these hills, we may find SHARK’S TEETH;” and they had not proceeded far, before they picked up six from the white bank of a new fence-ditch.  As he afterwards said of himself, “The habit of observation crept on me, gained a settlement in my mind, became a constant associate of my life, and started up in activity at the first thought of a journey; so that I generally went off well prepared with maps, and sometimes with contemplations on its objects, or on those on the road, reduced to writing before it commenced.  My mind was, therefore, like the canvas of a painter, well prepared for the first and best impressions.”

Strata of England and WalesNotwithstanding his courageous and indefatigable industry, many circumstances contributed to prevent the promised publication of William Smith’s ‘Map of the Strata of England and Wales,’ and it was not until 1814 that he was enabled, by the assistance of some friends, to give to the world the fruits of his twenty years’ incessant labor.  To prosecute his inquiries, and collect the extensive series of facts and observations requisite for his purpose, he had to expend the whole of the profits of his professional labors during that period; and he even sold off his small property to provide the means of visiting remoter parts of the island.  Meanwhile he had entered on a quarrying speculation near Bath, which proved unsuccessful, and he was under the necessity of selling his geological collection (which was purchased by the British Museum), his furniture and library, reserving only his papers, maps, and sections, which were useless save to himself.  He bore his losses and misfortunes with exemplary fortitude; and amidst all, he went on working with cheerful courage and untiring patience.  He died at Northampton, in August, 1839, while on his way to attend the meeting of the British Association at Birmingham.

It is difficult to speak in terms of too high praise of the first geological map of England, which we owe to the industry of this courageous man of science.  An accomplished writer says of it, “It was a work so masterly in conception and so correct in general outline, that in principle it served as a basis not only for the production of later maps of the British Islands, but for geological maps of all other parts of the world, wherever they have been undertaken.  In the apartments of the Geological Society Smith’s map may yet be seen—a great historical document, old and worn, calling for renewal of its faded tints.  Let any one conversant with the subject compare it with later works on a similar scale, and he will find that in all essential features it will not suffer by the comparison—the intricate anatomy of the Silurian rocks of Wales and the north of England by Murchison and Sedgwick being the chief additions made to his great generalizations.” {20}  The genius of the Oxfordshire surveyor did not fail to be duly recognized and honored by men of science during his lifetime.  In 1831 the Geological Society of London awarded to him the Wollaston medal, “in consideration of his being a great original discoverer in English geology, and especially for his being the first in this country to discover and to teach the identification of strata, and to determine their succession by means of their imbedded fossils.” William Smith, in his simple, earnest way, gained for himself a name as lasting as the science he loved so well.  To use the words of the writer above quoted, “Till the manner as well as the fact of the first appearance of successive forms of life shall be solved, it is not easy to surmise how any discovery can be made in geology equal in value to that which we owe to the genius of William Smith.”

Hugh Miller was a man of like observant faculties, who studied literature as well as science with zeal and success.  The book in which he has told the story of his life, (‘My Schools and Schoolmasters’), is extremely interesting, and calculated to be eminently useful.  It is the history of the formation of a truly noble character in the humblest condition of life; and inculcates most powerfully the lessons of self-help, self-respect, and self-dependence.  While Hugh was but a child, his father, who was a sailor, was drowned at sea, and he was brought up by his widowed mother.  He had a school training after a sort, but his best teachers were the boys with whom he played, the men amongst whom he worked, the friends and relatives with whom he lived.  He read much and miscellaneously, and picked up odd sorts of knowledge from many quarters,--from workmen, carpenters, fishermen and sailors, and above all, from the old boulders strewed along the shores of the Cromarty Frith.  With a big hammer which had belonged to his great-grandfather, an old buccaneer, the boy went about chipping the stones, and accumulating specimens of mica, porphyry, garnet, and such like.  Sometimes he had a day in the woods, and there, too, the boy’s attention was excited by the peculiar geological curiosities which came in his way.  While searching among the rocks on the beach, he was sometimes asked, in irony, by the farm servants who came to load their carts with sea-weed, whether he “was gettin’ siller in the stanes,” but was so unlucky as never to be able to answer in the affirmative.  When of a suitable age he was apprenticed to the trade of his choice—that of a working stonemason; and he began his labouring career in a quarry looking out upon the Cromarty Frith.  This quarry proved one of his best schools.  The remarkable geological formations which it displayed awakened his curiosity.  The bar of deep-red stone beneath, and the bar of pale-red clay above, were noted by the young quarryman, who even in such unpromising subjects found matter for observation and reflection.  Where other men saw nothing, he detected analogies, differences, and peculiarities, which set him a-thinking.  He simply kept his eyes and his mind open; was sober, diligent, and persevering; and this was the secret of his intellectual growth.

His curiosity was excited and kept alive by the curious organic remains, principally of old and extinct species of fishes, ferns, and ammonites, which were revealed along the coast by the washings of the waves, or were exposed by the stroke of his mason’s hammer.  He never lost sight of the subject; but went on accumulating observations and comparing formations, until at length, many years afterwards, when no longer a working mason, he gave to the world his highly interesting work on the Old Red Sandstone, which at once established his reputation as a scientific geologist.  But this work was the fruit of long years of patient observation and research.  As he modestly states in his autobiography, “the only merit to which I lay claim in the case is that of patient research--a merit in which whoever wills may rival or surpass me; and this humble faculty of patience, when rightly developed, may lead to more extraordinary developments of idea than even genius itself.”

The late John Brown, the eminent English geologist, was, like Miller, a stonemason in his early life, serving an apprenticeship to the trade at Colchester, and afterwards working as a journeyman mason at Norwich.  He began business as a builder on his own account at Colchester, where by frugality and industry he secured a competency.  It was while working at his trade that his attention was first drawn to the study of fossils and shells; and he proceeded to make a collection of them, which afterwards grew into one of the finest in England.  His researches along the coasts of Essex, Kent, and Sussex brought to light some magnificent remains of the elephant and rhinoceros, the most valuable of which were presented by him to the British Museum.  During the last few years of his life he devoted considerable attention to the study of the Foraminifera in chalk, respecting which he made several interesting discoveries.  His life was useful, happy, and honoured; and he died at Stanway, in Essex, in November 1859, at the ripe age of eighty years.

Not long ago, Sir Roderick Murchison discovered at Thurso, in the far north of Scotland, a profound geologist, in the person of a baker there, named Robert Dick.  When Sir Roderick called upon him at the bakehouse in which he baked and earned his bread, Robert Dick delineated to him, by means of flour upon the board, the geographical features and geological phenomena of his native county, pointing out the imperfections in the existing maps, which he had ascertained by travelling over the country in his leisure hours.  On further inquiry, Sir Roderick ascertained that the humble individual before him was not only a capital baker and geologist, but a first-rate botanist.  “I found,” said the President of the Geographical Society, “to my great humiliation that the baker knew infinitely more of botanical science, ay, ten times more, than I did; and that there were only some twenty or thirty specimens of flowers which he had not collected.  Some he had obtained as presents, some he had purchased, but the greater portion had been accumulated by his industry, in his native county of Caithness; and the specimens were all arranged in the most beautiful order, with their scientific names affixed.”

Roderick MurchisonSir Roderick Murchison himself is an illustrious follower of these and kindred branches of science.  A writer in the ‘Quarterly Review’ cites him as a “singular instance of a man who, having passed the early part of his life as a soldier, never having had the advantage, or disadvantage as the case might have been, of a scientific training, instead of remaining a fox-hunting country gentleman, has succeeded by his own native vigour and sagacity, untiring industry and zeal, in making for himself a scientific reputation that is as wide as it is likely to be lasting.  He took first of all an unexplored and difficult district at home, and, by the labour of many years, examined its rock-formations, classed them in natural groups, assigned to each its characteristic assemblage of fossils, and was the first to decipher two great chapters in the world’s geological history, which must always henceforth carry his name on their title-page.  Not only so, but he applied the knowledge thus acquired to the dissection of large districts, both at home and abroad, so as to become the geological discoverer of great countries which had formerly been ‘terrae incognitae.’”  But Sir Roderick Murchison is not merely a geologist.  His indefatigable labours in many branches of knowledge have contributed to render him among the most accomplished and complete of scientific men.

 


       

 

Original text by Samuel Smiles, edited and revised by D J McAdam © 2006.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.


 

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