Frazer, John Fries, 1812-1872

Alternative names
Birth 1812-07-08
Death 1872-10-12

Biographical notes:

John Fries Frazer was a Philadelphia scientist, who studied under A. D. Bache, Robert Hare, and Henry D. Rogers. He taught chemistry and natural philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania (1844-1872) and was editor of the Franklin Institute's "Journal" (1850-1866).

From the description of Papers, 1834-1871. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122523586

John Fries Frazer was a professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as Vice-Provost from 1855 to 1868 and as acting Provost from 1859 to 1860.

From the description of Lecture notes, 1858-1864. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 213495662

Richard H. Newton received D.D. from Union College in 1881, having been a member of the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1861. His name appears inside the front cover of the original wrappers, dated Jan. 28, 1860. W. W. Newton was R. H. Newton's younger brother. The donor is R. H. Newton's son. R. H. and W. W. Newton were sons of Rev. Richard Newton, Class of 1836, University of Pennsylvania.

J. F. Frazer was professor of chemistry and natural philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, 1844-1872.

William Wilberforce Newton received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylania (A.B., 1865: A.M., 1868; D.D., 1890). His "Notes on Books" discusses Plutarch's Lives.

From the description of Chemistry Lectures by Prof. John Frazer of the University of Pennsylvania, to the Sophomore Class of 1859-1860. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 122382796

John Fries Frazer (1812–1872, APS 1842) was a scientist and educator. In the late 1830s Frazer took part in the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, but Frazer’s contributions to science lay not in his own research but instead stemmed from his tireless and generous promotion and publication of other scientists’ work. He was a faculty member and provost at the University of Pennsylvania, a founder of the National Academy of Sciences, and a leading figure in the early history of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Frazer was the son of the eminent Philadelphia lawyer Robert Frazer and his wife Elizabeth Fries Frazer. Frazer spent most of his childhood in the care of various guardians, including his grandfather John Fries, who enrolled him in a military school in Connecticut. He was also a charge of the Reverend Samuel B. Wylie (1773-1852, APS 1806). Wylie taught the boy the classics and mathematics and, generally, prepared Frazer for his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1830 Frazer earned his A.B. and three years later was awarded a semi-honorary M.A. from the university.

Frazer was a student and laboratory assistant of the scientist and educator Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867, APS 1829). It was during this period that Frazer made his only important original contributions to science; for example, he helped determine the relationship between the aurora borealis and magnetic forces. In his subsequent career as a scientist he would focus not on his own research but instead on the critical evaluation and presentation of other scientists’ work.

However, before Frazer dedicated his professional life to science, he took a short detour into the study and practice of law. Just when Frazer was scheduled to enroll in medical school, he decided instead to study law under William M. Meredith (1799-1873, APS 1837). He was admitted to the bar but practiced law only briefly before returning to science. In 1836 he was chosen as Henry D. Rogers’s (1808-1866, APS 1835) assistant for the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania. The survey ultimately resulted in many important geological discoveries, including the location of anthracite coal deposits in Pennsylvania.

In 1836 Frazer accepted a faculty position at the High School of Philadelphia (now Central High School). Six years later, in 1844, Alexander D. Bache resigned from the University of Pennsylvania. Frazer was selected to fill the vacancy as Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. At the time Frazer was the university’s youngest faculty member and the first professor specifically charged with teaching chemistry. He held the chair and other administrative position at the University of Pennsylvania, including that of vice provost, until his death.

Frazer’s interests extended beyond university life. He was an active member of the American Philosophical Society, elected to membership in 1842, becoming its secretary in 1845, and serving as vice president from 1855 to 1857. He resigned from this position in 1858, “owing to some unhappy differences which then distracted the Society,” as John L. Le Conte (1825-1883, APS 1853) explained in his “Obituary Notice.” Frazer was an early member of the Union League, and he helped found the National Academy of Sciences (1863). Furthermore, he was a leading figure at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He was one of the Institute’s lecturers, and from 1850 to 1866 served as editor of the "Journal of the Franklin Institute". In 1856 and again in 1866, poor health compelled him to take sabbaticals and spend several months in Europe.

Frazer’s main accomplishments lay in his ability to select, evaluate and publicize the work of other scientists from the United States and Europe. He enjoyed the respect and friendship of leading scientists of the day, including the zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873, APS 1843) and the entomologist John L. Le Conte. In 1838, Frazer married Charlotte Jeffers Cave (1815–1881). They had three children; his son Persifor, also known as Persifor, Jr. (1844–1909, APS 1872) became a prominent geologist and chemist who succeeded Frazer as the chair of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. John Fries Frazer died suddenly in 1872 while giving a tour of the physical laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania.

From the guide to the John Fries Frazer papers, 1834-1871, 1834-1871, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Physics--19th century
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