Brewer, William Henry, 1828-1910

Alternative names
Birth 1828-09-14
Death 1910-11-02

Biographical notes:

Brewer went to Yale in 1848 to study soil analysis with J.P. Norton. He left to teach for two years, retuned and got his Ph. D. from the Sheffield Scientific School in 1852. After Yale he went to study in Heidelberg, Munich and Paris. In 1858 he was made professor of chemistry and geology at Washington College in Pennsylvania. From 1860-1864 Brewer was first assistant on the Geological Survey of California and undertook extensive botanical surveys of areas that were still largely unexplored. In 1864 he became professor of agriculture at Yale's Sheffield Scientific School until 1903 when he was made professor emeritus.

From the description of Papers of William Henry Brewer, 1860-1864 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 40290648

William Henry Brewer was the first Chair of Agriculture at the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale University. He was a botanical explorer who held the post of Principal Assistant in charge of Botany on the Geological Survey of California, 1860-1864.

From the description of William Henry Brewer papers 1860-1910. (New York Botanical Garden). WorldCat record id: 44400642

William Brewer completed botanical field work in California in the vicinity of Mount Shasta and Yosemite Valley from 1862 - 1865.

Smithsonian Institution Archives Field Book Project: Person : Description : rid_162_pid_EACP159

Taught chemistry at Ithaca Academy, 1850-1851, 1852; Ph.D. from Yale, 1852; taught at Ovid Academy, 1852-1855; professor of natural science at Washington and Jefferson College, 1858-1860; first assistant to California State Geological Survey, 1860-1864; professor of agriculture at Yale Sheffield Scientific School, 1864-1903; helped organize and run the Connecticut State Experiment Station; member of the U. S. Forestry Commission, and served on other government commissions in subsequent years, 1895-1897; professor of forestry at Yale 1900-1903.

From the description of William Henry Brewer papers, 1830-1927 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702204754

Assistant to J.D. Whitney during the "Harvard expedition" in Colorado 1869.

From the description of Report, 1869. (Denver Public Library). WorldCat record id: 13738939

Principal Assistant, in charge of the Botanical Dept., for the California State Geological Survey.

From the description of William Henry Brewer correspondence : ALS, 1861 Apr. (California Historical Society). WorldCat record id: 122332367

Professor of agricultural education.

Brewer was a pioneer in the field of agricultural education. He taught at the Ithaca Academy, Seneca Collegiate Institute at Ovid, Washington College in Pennsylvania, and Yale University.

From the description of William Henry Brewer papers, 1852-1909. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 64074212

Taught chemistry at Ithaca Academy, 1850-1851, 1852; Ph.D. from Yale, 1852; taught at Ovid Academy, 1852-1855; professor of natural science at Washington and Jefferson College, 1858-1860; first assistant to California State Geological Survey, 1860-1864; professor of agriculture at Yale Sheffield Scientific School, 1864-1903; helped organize and run the Connecticut State Experiment Station; member of the U. S. Forestry Commission, and served on other government commissions in subsequent years, 1895-1897; professor of forestry at Yale 1900-1903.

William Henry Brewer was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, September 14, 1828, the son of Henry Brewer and Rebecca (DuBois) Brewer. Henry Brewer was of Dutch ancestry, having descended from Adam Brouwer Berkhoven, who settled in New Amsterdam in 1642. Rebecca (DuBois) Brewer was a descendant of Louis DuBois, an immigrant who settled in the Huguenot colony in Ulster County, New York in 1660 and who was one of the founders of the town of New Paltz, New York. In 1830 Henry Brewer moved his family to a farm in Enfield, New York, six miles from Ithaca. William Henry Brewer received his formal education in the local district schools and at Ithaca Academy where he developed an interest in chemistry, botany, and geology. In 1848 Brewer entered the Yale Analytical Laboratory as a student. He spent the next two years there studying under Professors John Pitkin Norton and Benjamin Silliman, Jr. While at Yale, Brewer was elected to membership in the Berzelius Society.

From December 1850 to March 1851 Brewer taught chemistry at Ithaca Academy. He left that position to take charge of the newly opened Oakwood Agricultural Institute, Lancaster, Erie County, New York in April 1851. Brewer hoped to be able to implement some of his ideas about agricultural education at Oakwood, but the school was so poorly equipped and attended that he resigned after one year. From April to July 1852 Brewer again taught at Ithaca Academy while preparing for examinations for a Ph.B from Yale. Yale had decided to award the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy to former students from the Analytical Laboratory who could pass a set of examinations to be given in July 1852. Brewer was one of six men who received the first degrees from what was to become the Sheffield Scientific School. After winning his degree Brewer taught physiology, natural philosophy, and agricultural chemistry at Ovid Academy, Ovid, New York from September 1852 to August 1855.

On September 15, 1855 Brewer sailed for Germany. He spent the next two years studying chemistry, first in Heidelberg under Professor Bunsen, and then in Munich under Professor Liebig. During the summer of 1856 he walked 600 miles through Switzerland collecting botanical specimens and during the summer of 1857 he spent a month botanizing in the Tyrol. Upon his return to the United States in September 1857, Brewer accepted a position as co-director with John White Chickering of the Seneca Collegiate Institute (formerly Ovid Academy). On August 14, 1858 Brewer married Angelina Jameson whom he had met before leaving for Europe. In 1858 Brewer became professor of natural science at Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College), Washington, Pennsylvania. At the same time he held nominal professorships at the New York State Agricultural College at Ovid and at People's College, Havana, New York. On June 5, 1860 Brewer's wife died of complications following the birth of their son, Edward Jameson Brewer. Her death was followed by the death of their son July 12, 1860.

Soon after the death of his wife, Brewer accepted a position as first assistant to Josiah D. Whitney who was in charge of the California State Geological Survey. For the next four years, (from November 14, 1860 to November 14, 1864) Brewer was in charge of the Survey's field parties. The members of the Survey team mapped much of California and climbed and named many of the peaks in the Sierra Nevada. Brewer collected over 2000 botanical specimens. In 1863 Clarence King, who was later to become the first chief of the United States Geological Survey, joined Brewer's party and received much of his early training from Brewer. On April 1, 1863 Brewer became professor of natural science in the College of California (now the University of California at Berkeley). After one year Brewer resigned his professorship and his position in the Survey in order to return to Sheffield Scientific School where he had been offered the chair of Norton Professor of Agriculture.

Before assuming his duties at Yale, Brewer spent the early part of 1865 working on his California botanical specimens with Asa Gray and Sereno Watson in Cambridge. The result of this work was later published in 1876 by Brewer and Watson under the title "Polypetalae" in Volume 1 of the Geological Survey of California . Brewer took an active interest in the development of Sheffield Scientific School and eventually became a member of its Governing Board. In 1868 he married Georgiana Robinson of Exeter, New Hampshire. She died in 1889.

During the summer of 1869 Brewer accompanied Josiah D. Whitney and four Harvard students on a geological and botanical exploration of the Rocky Mountains. In 1875 he made another trip to California and in 1876 was appointed judge of the forestry exhibits at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Brewer helped organize both the New Haven Board of Health in 1872, serving as its president from 1876 to 1889, and the State Board of Health in 1878, serving as its president from 1893 to 1909. He was also active in the American Public Health Association. In 1877 he helped his friend, Professor S. W. Johnson organize the Connecticut State Agricultural Experiment Station and subsequently served on its Board of Control for thirty-three years.

As a special agent for the Tenth Census, Brewer made another trip west and prepared a report on the distribution of cereal production in the United States in relation to geographical and climatic features, on the physical and chemical character of different cereals, and on the relation of cereal production to live stock growing. The report also included information on the distribution of forests in America, a brief history of American agriculture, and information on pasture and forage plants.

In 1880 Brewer was elected to the National Academy of Science. As a member of the Academy he served on commissions set up at the request of the national government to investigate various scientific questions of national interest. From 1895-1897 he was a member of the United States Forestry Commission which reported on the condition of America's forests and made recommendations for their preservation. In 1903 he served as chairman of the committee which reported to President Roosevelt on the need for a scientific survey of the Philippine Islands.

In 1889 Brewer declined an appointment as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. He accepted an appointment in the same year as chairman of the commission set up to organize a topographical survey of Connecticut. He served on this commission for six years.

Brewer made two exploratory trips to northern waters. The first was with Captain Frederick A. Cook's expedition up the western coast of Greenland during the summer of 1894. The expedition's ship, Miranda, was shipwrecked near the Arctic Circle, however, and her passengers were rescued and returned to New York. The second trip was with the Harriman Expedition which traveled up the coast of Alaska and into the Bering Sea during the summer of 1899. Brewer was instrumental in the founding of the Arctic Club in 1895 and served as its president for many years.

In 1900 Brewer was active in the organization of the Yale Forest School. He taught a course in forest physiography until his retirement from Yale in 1903. In 1880 Brewer was awarded a Ph.D by Washington and Jefferson College. The degree of LLD was conferred upon him by both Yale University and Wesleyan University in 1903 and by the University of California in 1909.

Among Brewer's most important scientific contributions are the results of his experiments on the suspension and sedimentation of clays in river water and the resulting effect of deposits on delta formation, published in the American Journal of Science in 1885, and his numerous papers on the development of the American trotting horse in its relation to the evolution of breeds.

Brewer died in New Haven November 2, 1910. He was survived by his children, Nora Brewer Griswold and Henry, Arthur, and Carl Brewer.

The William Henry Brewer Papers are divided into five series: CORRESPONDENCE, WRITINGS, GENEALOGY, PHOTOGRAPHS, and SPECIAL FILES. CORRESPONDENCE is divided into three sections: "General Correspondence," "Correspondence of Others," and "Family Correspondence." Of special interest are the letters of William Henry Brewer written to various members of his family in diary form. These letters chronicle Brewer's trips away from home and include: letters written to Angelina (Jameson) Brewer and to his parents during his trip to Europe, 1855-1857; letters addressed to "Dear Friends at Home" written during his years with the California State Geological Survey, 1860-1864; letters to his wife Georgiana written during his trip to the Rocky Mountains, 1869; and letters to his children written during his trip with the Harriman Expedition, 1899. Also of special interest are the letters in "General Correspondence" listed under the heading, "Agricultural Colleges in New York," in which Brewer relates the early history of agricultural and land grant colleges in the United States. Correspondents of note include: George Jarvis Brush, Frederick A. Cook, James D. Dana, Daniel Cady Eaton, Daniel Coit Gilman, Asa Gray, Clarence King, John Pitkin Norton, Charles Sprague Sargent, Henry Parker Sartwell, Benjamin Silliman, Senior and Junior, William Starling Sullivant, Sereno Watson, and Theodore Dwight Woolsey.

The WRITINGS series is divided into eight sections: "Diaries," "Note-books," "Lectures," "Addresses," "Articles," "Reports, Scientific Papers, Memoirs," "Essays," and "Writings of Others." The material in the "Diaries" section covers Brewer's activities from 1848 to 1910. The remainder of the material in "Writings" spans the length of Brewer's career and is representative of his varied scientific interests.

The GENEALOGY series is divided into six sections: "Certificate," "Correspondence," "Notes," "Printed Matter," "Records," and "Legal Documents." Brewer's research into his ancestry was recorded in three large volumes entitled "Records."

The PHOTOGRAPHS series consists of two sections: "Photographs of People" and "Photographs of Places." The first section is mainly concerned with Brewer's immediate family. The second section includes photographs from some of Brewer's trips, including pictures taken during the California State Geological Survey. Unfortunately, many of the photographs in this section are unidentified.

The SPECIAL FILES include a variety of items such as: account books, address books, Brewer's bibliography, correspondence records, legal documents, maps, personal records, printed matter, and Yale memorabilia. Of particular interest is the section containing biographical material about Brewer.

At the end of the papers are ten file boxes containing index cards. Most of the cards contain notes in Brewer's hand on various scientific topics. Two of the boxes contain cards with notes on genealogical material.

Additional biographical information may be found in the Dictionary of American Biography . For a partial account of Brewer's participation in the California State Geological Survey, see Clarence King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada .

From the guide to the William Henry Brewer papers, 1830-1927, (Manuscripts and Archives)


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  • Smithsonian Publications
  • Mines and Mineral Resources
  • Surveyors--Correspondence
  • Science
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  • Scientific publications
  • Botanical exploration
  • Geological surveys
  • Geological surveys--California
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  • West (U.S.) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Arctic regions (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • Monterey (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Montana (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Montana (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Arctic regions. (as recorded)
  • Rocky Mountains (as recorded)
  • Colorado (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
  • West (U.S.) (as recorded)
  • Connecticut (as recorded)
  • New Haven (Conn.) (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Whitney, Mount (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
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  • Connecticut. (as recorded)
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  • Whitney, Mount (Calif.) (as recorded)