Cooper, Thomas, 1759-1839

Alternative names
Birth 1759-10-22
Death 1839-05-11
English, Latin

Biographical notes:

Epithet: abolitionist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001188.0x000283

Thomas Cooper, born in London in 1759, immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1794. Well-known for his political beliefs, Cooper eventually pursued a career as a science professor and became the second president of South Carolina College in 1821.

From the guide to the Thomas Cooper Papers, ., 1819-1837, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection.)

Thomas Cooper was a reformer, philosopher, lawyer, newspaper publisher, teacher, scientist, judge, and college administrator.

From the description of Letter, Northumberland, Pa., to Joseph Clay, Washington, D.C., 1803 December 10. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 35155334

Biographical note: Thomas Cooper had been a professor of chemistry at Carlisle College in Pennsylvania when he was offered a similar position at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1815. Known for his radical religious principles, it is generally believed that the trustees, who were under attack for their own Presbyterian orthodoxy, chose Cooper to pacify their critics. In doing so however, they offered him a salary far below what they knew he would accept, and he declined the offer. Following this exchange, Cooper let it be known that he did want to be considered for the presidency at Transylvania. Though many prominent citizens petitioned the board to seriously consider Cooper for the presidency, he was never offered the position.

From the description of Letters, 1815-1817. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 191917832

Thomas Cooper, faculty member of Dickinson College, 1811-1815.

From the description of Notes on the chemical lectures of Thomas Cooper / [transcribed by] Samuel Alexander. [1812-1813] (Dickinson College). WorldCat record id: 48894837

Parker Cleaveland worked as a mineralogist and geologist.

From the guide to the Parker Cleaveland papers, [ca. 1806]-1844, Circa 1806-1844, (American Philosophical Society)

Cooper was born in England, where he studied law and medicine, practiced law, and experimented with chemistry. As an agitator for radical political causes he was dissatisfied with the conservative reaction against the French Revolution and moved to the U.S. in 1794, settling in Northumberland, Pa. There he practiced law and medicine and became active in Jeffersonian politics. He held a variety of state offices until 1811, when he was removed from his judgeship, with some justification. From 1811 to 1834 he taught chemistry, first at Carlisle (now Dickinson) College, then at the University of Pennsylvania and at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he was also president. He was also a pioneer of political economy in the U.S., and the author of a number of books on legal and scientific topics.

From the description of Letters, 1800-1816, to Alexander James Dallas. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122591489

Staunch advocate of separation of church and state; anti-Federalist; outspoken supporter of Nullification and states' rights; served as chair of natural philosophy and chemistry at Dickinson College (1811-1815); served as a professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania from 1816 to 1819; although through the influence of Thomas Jefferson, Cooper was elected in 1819 to the faculty of the newly founded University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Cooper never did assume this position, but went on to become professor of chemistry at South Carolina College in 1820. He was elected as the College's second president in 1821 and remained there until his retirement in 1834.

From the description of Thomas Cooper papers, 1778-1976 (bulk 1803-1853) (University of South Carolina). WorldCat record id: 642054615

Physician Joseph Carson taught medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The College of Philadelphia's Medical School, founded in 1765, became known as the University of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Medicine In 1779.

From the guide to the Joseph Carson letters, 1789-1858, 1789-1858, (American Philosophical Society)

Humphry Davy (1778–1829, APS 1810) was a British chemist and pioneer in the field of electrochemistry. He was a major figure in the reformed chemistry movement initiated by the French scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794, APS 1775).

Davy was the son of an impoverished Cornish woodcarver. As a youth, he was apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon with whom he pursued a regimen of self-study that included theology, philosophy, poetics, several languages, as well as, botany, chemistry, anatomy, mechanics and physics. In subsequent years, when most of his time was occupied by scientific endeavors, Davy exhibited a particular fondness for philosophical writings and poetry. In 1799 he published his first poems.

However, it was Davy’s aptitude for scientific matters that soon attracted attention. One of the people who recognized his abilities was Davies Giddy (1767-1839), a Member of Parliament with scientific interests. Giddy eventually became Davy’s patron. He allowed his protégé access to his library; furthermore, he persuaded Davy’s master to release him from his indenture so that he could become the assistant to Thomas Beddoes, Giddy’s former teacher at Oxford.

In 1798 Davy joined Beddoes's Pneumatic Institution in Bristol which was established for the purpose of investigating the medical powers of newly discovered airs and gases. There, he made the acquaintance of fellow scientists as well as individuals with literary interests, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Joseph Cottle (1770-1853), and Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). In 1797 Davy read Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie in French, a study that made a deep impression on him. Two years later he published an essay in which he refuted Lavoisier’s caloric; that same year he established his reputation as a chemist with his book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide . . . and its Respiration in which he suggested that nitrous oxide (laughing gas) be used as an anesthetic in minor surgical operations. Davy had arrived at his conclusions after a series of risky experiments with different gases on himself. He described his “emotions” after awakening from the effects of laughing gas as “enthusiastic and sublime.”

Davy engaged in electrochemical experiments that led to several discoveries, including the recognition that the production of electricity was linked to a chemical reaction. He also isolated and analyzed the chemical elements potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and barium. One of his best-known contributions to the field was his conclusion that, contrary to Lavoisier’s claims, there was no material basis for acidity. In 1810 he announced that the green gas contained in sea salt was an element. He named it chlorine.

As a strong promoter of applied science, Davy also engaged in various practical projects. He researched the chemistry of tanning, promoted improvements to agricultural practices, and developed a miner’s lamp that inhibited the ignition of the methane gas commonly found in mines. Furthermore, Davy was known as an effective lecturer. He made scientific topics accessible to an audience that extended beyond a small circle of fellow scientists.

Davy’s accomplishments were recognized with numerous awards and honors. In 1801 he joined the faculty of the Royal Institution in London. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803, was awarded the Copley medal in 1805, and served as the Society’s president from 1820 to 1827. He was knighted in 1812 and created a baronet in 1818. He was also a founder of the Geological Society of London, the London Zoo and the Athenaeum.

Davy was married to Jane Apreece Kerr, a wealthy and well-connected widow. They did not have children. In 1829, he suffered a stroke while vacationing in Italy. He died a few days later.

From the guide to the Sir Humphry Davy correspondence, 1803-1822, 1803-1822, (American Philosophical Society)

José Francisco Correia da Serra (1750–1823, APS 1812) was an abbot, diplomat, scholar and botanist. In his work as a botanist he was particularly concerned with the systematic classification of vegetable species. Thomas Jefferson described him as “profoundly learned in several branches of science he was so above all others in that of Botany; in which he preferred an amalgamation of the methods of Linnaeus [1707-1778, APS 1769] and of Jussieu [1686-1758] to either of them exclusively.” Correia spent many years of his life in France, England and the United States where he made the acquaintance of leading European and American intellectual leaders of the time.

Correia was born in Serpa, Portugal, to the physician and lawyer Luis Dias Correia and Francisca Luisa da Serra. In 1756 the family was forced to leave Portugal because the elder Correia’s scientific work had incurred the displeasure of the Holy Office. They settled in Naples, Italy, where the boy came under the tutelage of the abbé and university professor of “Commerce and mechanics” Antonio Genovesi (1712-1769), a major force in the Neapolitan Enlightenment. During this time Correia was also taught in natural history by the botanist Luis Antonio Verney (1713-1792). In 1772 Correia moved to Rome where he studied at the University and other institutions. By that time he was already corresponding with Carl Linnaeus, in Latin. He also made the acquaintance of Don John Carlos of Braganza, second Duke of Lafoens, a member of the Portuguese royal family. The Duke became Correia’s friend and patron.

In 1775 Correia was ordained a Presbyterian abbot; two years later he received the degree of Doctor of Laws. However, it was clear that Correia’s real interest was natural history, especially botany, and that he did not plan to pursue a life in the church. In fact, some of his biographers have suggested that he focused on ecclesiastical studies mainly in order to protect himself in his scientific work from potential suspicions by the Inquisition. Whatever the case, in early 1778 the young abbé, with encouragement from the duke, who hoped to encourage scientific research in Portugal, moved to Lisbon. There he turned his attention to scholarly pursuits and diplomacy.

Correia and the duke set out right away to organize the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, a learned institution that was dedicated to the advancement of science. Correia also conducted botanical research. He spent the period from 1786 to about 1788 outside of Portugal, and while his activities during this period remain unclear, there is evidence that he visited Rome. In the mid-1790s, after his return to his native country, he began the task of editing what would be the first three of five volumes of Colleccao de livros ineditos da historia Portugueza, an extensive collection of documents.

In 1795 political difficulties compelled Correia to leave Portugal. The Royal Academy and many of its members were viewed with suspicion by certain ecclesiastical groups, especially after Correia befriended the French naturalist and Girondist Peter Marie Auguste Broussonet (1761-1807), who had taken refuge in Portugal. Armed with letters of introduction to several British scientists, Correia traveled to London. He soon became the protégé of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820, APS 1787), president of the Royal Society, who facilitated Correia’s election to the Society. He also was welcomed by James Edward Smith (1759-1828, APS 1796), president of the Linnean Society. By then, Correia was already publishing on various natural science topics, especially botany, which contributed to his growing reputation as a naturalist.

For about one year during his residence in London, Correia also served as Secretary to the Portuguese embassy. However, tensions with the conservative Minister compelled him to depart from England in 1802. In the summer of that year, Correia moved to Paris. There he made the acquaintance of leading scientists and other public figures. The list includes Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours (1739–1817, APS 1800), the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834, APS 1781), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859, APS 1804), the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Augustin Pyrame de Candolle (1778-1841, APS 1841), and André Thouin (1746-1824), superintendent of the Jardin du Roi, now known as Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. Correia also met Esther Delavigne, who eventually became his lover.

Of particular importance to Correia was his extensive correspondence with friends in Portugal that he maintained throughout his time in London, Paris and then the United States. Through his contact with them he hoped to bring the latest scientific ideas and discoveries to his mother country. His letters are filled with news of new vaccines, maritime maps, instruments, and anything else that he thought might serve to aid the progress of Portugal. Correia’s wide-ranging contacts with fellow botanists made him an important intermediary in the exchanges between naturalists in different parts of the world. In 1807 his own government recognized his contributions by making him a Knight of the Order of Christ.

Overall, Correia’s time in Paris was happy and fruitful. However, life as a liberal under Napoleon was not easy, and Correia soon began to explore the possibility of relocating once again, this time to the United States. Finally, in the winter of 1811, the abbé was aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, on his way to what would become a particularly interesting period in his life.

Correia arrived in Washington, D. C., in early 1812, and he did not lose time in making the acquaintance of leading Americans, including President James Madison. He was anxious to visit Thomas Jefferson but owing to the fact that Philadelphia was the intellectual center of the new nation, he decided to establish himself there first. His European friends had already announced Correia’s imminent arrival to several prominent Philadelphians, including the physicians Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, APS 1768) and Caspar Wistar (1761-1818, APS 1787), and John Vaughan (1756–1841, APS 1784), the treasurer and librarian of the American Philosophical Society. The abbé was elected a member of the Society in January of 1812, before his arrival in the city. He became close friends with Vaughan who soon handled his business affairs and advised him in all kinds of matters. Correia also got to know the botanist Henry Muhlenberg (1753-1815, APS 1785), who introduced him to the physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow (1787-1879, APS 1818). And he reconnected with several Philadelphians he knew from his time in Paris, including the lawyer and financier Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844, APS 1813), and William Short (1759-1849, APS 1804), Jefferson’s private secretary in Paris. Life in Philadelphia was clearly enjoyable for the Portuguese exile but he remained anxious to visit “the great the truly great Mr. Jefferson.” In July of 1813 he left for Virginia for the first of what would eventually be seven visits over a period of about eight years.

Jefferson had been introduced to Correia in glowing letters from Lafayette, Du Pont, Thouin, and Humboldt. It is not surprising, then, that Jefferson received the visitor with warmth and great expectations. They were not disappointed. Jefferson described his guest as “the best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character.” The room in which Correia stayed during his visits to Monticello, the North Square Room, is still known as the Abbé’s room. Correia spent much of his time in Virginia on rambles through the country, often in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828, APS 1794). His interest in natural history eventually also took him to Kentucky, Georgia and north to the Canadian border.

Through Jefferson, Correia made the acquaintance of Francis Walker Gilmer (1790-1826), a promising young man who readily accepted the abbé’s invitation to accompany him on his excursions. In 1816 President Madison asked the two men to deliver a letter from him to the agent of the Cherokee, in the southeastern United States. In the course of their journey through South Carolina and Georgia, they made extensive botanical notations, and Gilmer also recorded several pages of Cherokee vocabulary.

In 1816 Correia received news of his appointment as Portuguese minister-plenipotentiary at Washington, D. C. His expectation that this post would not interfere with his scientific pursuits turned out to be mistaken, even though he never spent more than half a year in the nation’s capital. From the start he was forced to deal with complaints about privateers flying foreign flags who were threatening the Portuguese colonies in South America. The fear was that these privateers, many of whom were American, could encourage and aid a rebellion in Brazil. Correia successfully lobbied the U. S. government for a Neutrality Act that was designed to curb these actions.

In the late 1810s, increasing worries about the turn of Portuguese-American affairs and serious health problems gradually made the abbé’s temper shorter and his spirits lower. He also ultimately became a severe critic of America and Americans, an attitude that contributed to his estrangement from some of his older American friends. However, he also found comfort in new relationships with, for example, the English-born chemist and lawyer Thomas Cooper (1759-1839, APS 1802). Most significantly, Edward Joseph, his fifteen-year old son with his lover Esther Delavigne arrived in the United States from Paris in 1818. Edward, who stayed with his father until their return to Europe, got to know many of his Philadelphia friends quite well. In 1820 father and son sailed from the United States for Portugal via London, a year after Correia had learned of his appointment as Counselor of State for Brazil. Correia spent the last three years of his life in Lisbon, “covered with honors,” as his son Edward wrote in a letter to John Vaughan. He died in Lisbon in 1823.

Correia published many essays and reports on botany in the leading European and American scientific journals of his time. His research centered on the systematic classification of vegetable species. In his work he attempted to apply the methods of compared anatomy of zoology to botany; he sought to group plants into families based on their similarities. His concept of symmetry was later adopted and developed by Candolle. While Correia was not “a member of every philosophical society in the world,” as his young protégé Gilmer wrote enthusiastically in a letter to his brother, he did belong to numerous learned societies. They included the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, the Academy of Science of Paris, and the Société Philomatique. He also offered several courses in botany at the American Philosophical Society.

From the guide to the José Francisco Correia da Serra papers, 1772-1827, 1772-1827, (American Philosophical Society)

Biographical notes are generated from the bibliographic and archival source records supplied by data contributors.


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