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Benjamin Silliman (8 August 177924 November 1864) was an Americanmarker chemist, one of the first American professors of science (at Yale Universitymarker), and the first to distill petroleum.

Early life

Silliman was born in a tavern in North Stratford, now Trumbull, Connecticutmarker, a few months after his mother, Mary (Fish) Silliman (widow of John Noyes), fled for her life from their Fairfield, Connecticutmarker home to escape 2,000 invading British troops that burned Fairfield center to the ground. The British forces had taken his father, General Gold Selleck Silliman, prisoner in May of 1779.


He was educated at Yalemarker, receiving an A.B. degree in 1796 and an A.M. in 1799. He studied law with Simeon Baldwin from 1798 to 1799 and became a tutor at Yale from 1799 to 1802. He was admitted to the bar in 1802. President Timothy Dwight IV of Yale proposed that he equip himself to teach in chemistry and natural history and accept a new professorship at the university. Silliman studied chemistry with Professor James Woodhouse at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker in Philadelphiamarker and delivered his first lectures in chemistry at Yale in 1804. In 1805, he traveled to Edinburghmarker for further study.


Returning to New Havenmarker, he studied its geology, and made a chemical analysis of the meteorite that fell near Weston, Connecticut, publishing the first scientific account of any American meteorite. He lectured publicly at New Haven in 1808 and came to discover many of the constituent elements of many minerals. The mineral sillimanite was named after him in 1850. Upon the founding of the Medical School, he also taught there as one of the founding faculty members. As professor emeritus, he delivered lectures at Yale on geology until 1855; in 1854, he became the first person to fractionate petroleum by distillation.


His first marriage was on 17 September 1809 to Harriet Trumbull, daughter of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., who was the son of Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. of Connecticut, a hero of the American Revolution. Silliman and his wife had four children: one daughter married Professor Oliver P. Hubbard, another married Professor James Dwight Dana; and youngest daughter Julia married Edward Whiting Gilman, brother of Yale graduate and educator Daniel Coit Gilman. His son Benjamin Silliman Jr., also a professor of chemistry at Yale, wrote a report that convinced investors to back George Bissell's seminal search for oil. His second marriage was in 1851 to Mrs. Sarah Isabella (McClellan) Webb, daughter of John McClellan. Silliman died at New Haven and is buried in Grove Street Cemeterymarker.


Silliman deemed slavery an "enormous evil" but also favored colonization of free African Americans in Liberia, serving as a board member of the Connecticut colonization society between 1828 and 1835. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He founded and edited the American Journal of Science, and was appointed one of the corporate members of the National Academy of Sciencesmarker by the United States Congress.

A statue of Silliman in front of Yale's Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.
Silliman Collegemarker, one of Yale's residential colleges, is named for him, as is the mineral Sillimanite.


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