If there is a single major figure in the history of the dinosaur footprints of the Connecticut River Valley, it is that of Edward Hitchcock. He was the first scientist to examine, categorize, and publish about the tracks, and he considered his work in this area to be his most original contribution to geology. Dr. Robert Herbert’s transcription of Hitchcock’s diary from his 1850 tour of Europe is available in full on the Amherst College web site: https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/hitchcock. The link is at the bottom of that page.
Dr. Herbert was Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art at Yale and later Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Mount Holyoke College, now Emeritus. His published work in art history focuses on Impressionism, but he is interested in geology and its history as a field of study. He has made it his project to transcribe selected Hitchcock materials from the archives of Amherst College, where Hitchcock taught from 1825 almost until his death in 1864, and was for nine years president. Herbert has already published the diaries of Hitchcock’s wife, Orra, and co-curated, with Daria D’Arienzo, an exhibit of Orra’s scientific illustrations. His interest in Edward is more directly scientific. He notes his astonishment that such a prominent figure in 19th century American science has fallen into obscurity. The transcriptions, part of a larger project, are intended to make Hitchcock’s papers available to scholars and to reveal Edward Hitchcock as an important historical figure in American science. Herbert provides context for each section of the diary, helping the reader to make sense of whom Hitchcock met, and why, and explains Hitchcock’s sometimes cryptic notes. The foreword to the transcriptions is by Professor Edward Belt, the Samuel Austin Hitchcock Professor of Geology and Mineralogy, Emeritus, at Amherst College.
Edward Hitchcock was not a big tourist-type traveler. He traveled for professional meetings in the eastern United States and took great pleasure in “geologizing” around Massachusetts, but otherwise preferred to stay close to home in the valley. In 1850, after 25 years teaching at the school and halfway through his reign as its president, he and Orra took a 22-week sojourn to Britain and Europe. Not surprisingly, the Hitchcocks’ trip abroad was shaped around geology and paleontology and, additionally, Edward’s interest in founding an agricultural college. (The information he collected was used to plan what is today the University of Massachusetts.) Thus, on the only extended travel of their lives, he and Orra spent much of their time talking with geologists, meeting prominent people, visiting museums of natural history, and inspecting agricultural schools. They did ordinary sightseeing, too, of castles, cathedrals, art, and scenery. Some of what they saw offended their egalitarian American sensibilities. Hitchcock was disturbed by the abject poverty and brutally sharp class differences evident wherever he went. Having himself grown up under straitened circumstances, he empathized with the children of the “lower orders” and was indignant at seeing them prevented by law and common practice from bettering their lot through education. Perhaps he saw his young self in the faces of those farm boys and laborers.
Hitchcock was born in the small town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1793, the youngest of six children in a somewhat (yet not desperately) poor family. His father, Justin, had been a fifer in a company of Minutemen in 1774 and later defended the government’s side during Shays’ Rebellion. Justin made his living as a hatter, but despite this humble occupation, he held responsible positions in town life, made his own cello, and wrote poetry. Records of Justin’s life are held by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, and he is included in an online exhibit about Shays’ Rebellion: http://shaysrebellion.stcc.edu.
Edward’s mother, Mercy Hoyt Hitchcock, came from a better-established Deerfield family. Her brothers were civic leaders, one serving as representative and later senator in the state legislature. Another brother, Epaphras, nurtured young Edward’s intellect, co-authoring with him a published paper on astronomy (but with no acknowledgment of Edward’s role) when Edward was 14 and encouraging him to apply to college.
Edward and his siblings were among the first students of then-new Deerfield Academy, today a well-known boarding school. He was one of the school’s earliest preceptors (basically a headmaster), earned an MA from Yale, and later in life was, to his great surprise, awarded an honorary degree from Harvard. He had aspired early on to be a Harvard student, but was prevented from attending by a sudden serious illness that damaged his eyesight, thereby scuttling his hope of becoming an astronomer. The slow recuperation period gave Edward much time to think about his life and his belief in God, and turned him away from Uncle Epaphras’s Unitarian convictions and back toward his father’s conservative Congregationalism. He was encouraged in this by the young woman who became his wife, Orra White, a teacher at the Academy. After studying for a while under Benjamin Silliman at Yale, Edward became a minister. He and Orra settled a few miles away from home in the hill town of Conway for a time, but moved back after the death of their firstborn son at age two. In 1825, Hitchcock was offered a teaching position at the recently established Amherst College. He accepted, and spent the rest of his life there as professor of chemistry and natural history.
Hitchcock is revered at the college today for bringing the school into fiscal solvency, building new buildings, and establishing science in the curriculum. Fifteen or twenty years ago, his name rarely appeared in print, aside from a few individual papers. Even in histories of American science, he merited only occasional acknowledgement of his presence at various meetings. Dr. Herbert and a few others are bringing him out of undeserved invisibility by uncovering his role in the professionalization of American science, including his sympathetic stance toward science and Christianity, which Hitchcock saw as entirely compatible. Hitchcock was a pious and humane man who saw it as his job to prepare young men for moral lives, many as missionaries, and he believed it crucial that religious men and women be well grounded in the methods and aims of science. He was an important link between men of science and men of religion who in his day, as in ours, often did not see eye to eye in questions of biblical and scientific authority. The inscription on his gravestone describes him thus:
“A Leader in Science / A Lover of Men / A Friend of God / Ever Illustrating the Cross in Nature and Nature in the Cross”