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J. Lawrence Smith

Dr. John Lawrence Smith (17 December 1818 – 12 October 1883) was an American medical doctor, chemist and mineralogist. Smith also studied civil engineering and geology, which led to his first job as a civil engineer. He did not like it, so he studied medicine. After graduating with a medical degree, he went to study in Europe. Smith was in Paris when the famous arsenic poisoning case of Madame LaFarge was prosecuted. He turned his attention to what is now modern forensic science. He did research poisoning dogs, burying them and digging them up at various intervals of time and detecting the poison in them. J. Lawrence Smith wrote an article, “On the means of detecting arsenic in the animal body and counter-reacting its effects.”

In 1844, he lectured at the Charleston Medical College. In 1864, he assisted in establishing the Medical and Surgical Journal of South Carolina. He favored chemical analysis more than medicine. In 1850, Smith invented the inverted microscope (light source at the top of the microscope). He examined various problems in agricultural chemistry, such as, the composition of soils. In 1852, Smith married Sarah Guthrie, whose father was the Treasury Secretary for the United States. Afterwards, J. Lawrence Smith became a professor of Chemistry at the University of Virginia. In 1854, Smith took over the chair and professor of medical chemistry and toxicology at the University of Louisville, replacing Benjamin Silliman Jr. who moved to Yale to take the position vacated by his father. Benjamin Silliman Senior founded The American Journal of Science – the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the United States. Silliman Sr. is tied to the Weston meteorite, but that is a story for another time. J. Lawrence Smith was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and President of the American Association for the Advancement in Science in 1872.


A 15 gram Pultusk with a J. Lawrence Smith number 70 painted on it. The numbering is distinct in that two colors of paint, white and red, are used. Check out the dark fusion crust on this specimen that was probably picked up right after the fall. The J. Lawrence Smith catalog lists Pultusk with a corresponding number 70.

 


My original J. Lawrence Smith catalog from January 1, 1876. It is an exceedingly rare catalog.

 


My J. Lawrence Smith catalog listing Pultusk with corresponding number 70 which matches my specimen. The 15 gram Pultusk specimen was acquired from my friend, Dr. Arnaud Mignan.

 


My J. Lawrence Smith catalog has an addenda at the end of it with handwritten notes. Who wrote those beautiful handwritten notes on the addenda? Were they locations of meteorites or something else?

 

J. Lawrence Smith began collecting meteorites in the 1850s. He had a respectable collection. During the American civil war, but since he lived in Louisville, Kentucky a vulnerable place for this precious meteorite collection, he sold or gave away most of it.

In 1866, after the civil war, J. Lawrence Smith started to travel to Europe to collect, study and write about “aerolites” (meteorites). He published various papers on the subject including “On the peculiar concretions in meteoric iron” which was published in the American Journal of Sciences in 1883.


A 4.1 gram Meso Madaras with J. Lawrence Smith number 69 and 32.2 gram Braunau with corresponding number 129 photo courtesy from my friend Frank Cressy. The Meso Madaras is listed in the J. Lawrence Smith catalog with corresponding number 69, but unfortunately the Braunau is not listed. These specimens are from the superlative Frank Cressy meteorite collection.

 


This 32.2 gram Braunau cube with number 129 stamped into it from Frank Cressy’s outstanding collection – photo courtesy Frank Cressy.

 

J. Lawrence Smith set out to obtain specimens from as many different falls as possible. At the time of his death, his collection was one of the largest private collections in the world, containing about 250 falls and had a total weight of approximately 2,500 pounds (1,134 kg). In October 1883, Harvard University purchased J. Lawrence Smith’s collection for $8,000 which anchored their meteorite collection. At the time, it gave Harvard the third largest meteorite collection in the world. Today, the Harvard collection has about 600 distinct meteorites and approximately 1,500 specimens ranging from less than 0.1 gram to 180 kg.


My friend Dr. Arnaud Mignan writes, Ensisheim cut fragment of 1 gram formerly from the Friedrich Wöhler (1800 – 1882) and J. Lawrence Smith (1818 – 1883) collections. It is accompanied by a Wöhler label and carries a small piece of paint, typical of Smith inventory numbers. It is interesting to note that in a letter to Benjamin Silliman dated 22 Feb. 1861, Wöhler wrote: “I can send you fragments (honestly not very big ones) from the meteorites, of which I have [undecipherable]. From: Ensisheim (fallen Nov. 7 1492), from [. . . .]” [Source: Johns Hopkins Libraries]. Since all the Smith collection was donated to Harvard University, this specimen had to be deaccessioned from that institution. This was confirmed by collector Bill Kroth, who obtained it from Harvard in 2002 with another specimen of 3.6 grams (unknown private collection). Only the other specimen had a paper tag from Harvard. It remains unclear if both specimens fit into each other.

 


The one gram Ensisheim is listed in the J. Lawrence Smith catalog with a corresponding number of 127. Wow, this one checks all the boxes. It is from the historic Ensisheim 1492 meteorite fall with a possible connection to Benjamin Silliman and was part of the J. Lawrence Smith collection and deaccessioned from the Harvard collection. Not to mention that it was part of Friedrich Wöhler’s collection. Wöhler was a professor at the University of Göttingen, and a pioneering researcher in organic chemistry. The Scientific American supplement for 1882 noted, “for two or three of his researches he deserves the highest honor a scientific man can obtain, but the sum of his work is overwhelming. Had he never lived, the aspect of chemistry would be very different from that it is now.” A 1982 German postage stamp honoring Friedrich Wöhler on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1882 was issued by the German government.

 

J. Lawrence Smith loved meteorites so much that his wife, Sarah Julia Smith, took the $8,000 proceeds from Harvard to establish research in the field of meteoritics by having the National Academy of Sciences award the J. Lawrence Smith medal to a worthy recipient. The J. Lawrence Smith medal is awarded every three years for research in meteoritics. It has been presented since 1888. The medal was originally solid gold, but not today, however, the modern gold medal comes with a cash prize of $50,000. The most recent recipient of the J. Lawrence Smith medal was received in 2021 by Dr. Meenakshi Wadhwa, Arizona State University (ASU), School Director and Foundation Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration. Other past notable recipients that caught my eye were George P. Merrill (Head Curator Geology and Minerals, including meteorites, at the Smithsonian Museum), Fred L. Whipple (Harvard Observatory and creator of the “dirty snowball” hypothesis of comets) and John T. Wasson (Emeritus Professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences).

 

Acknowledgement:

I would like to thank my longtime friend Mike Bandli who has been generous with his time and educating me on historic meteorites and people. He shared many great stories about the meteorites with me. I would not be able to have written so many interesting articles on historic people and meteorites without his early guidance.

I would like to thank my longtime friend Dr. Arnaud Mignan who educated me on historic meteorites and people. Arnaud has tirelessly updated his historic collection of meteorites and written sublime articles about them on his website. He was planning to replace his website with an app or something similar.

I would like to thank my friend Frank Cressy for providing photos of his outstanding specimens from his extraordinary collection. We share a love of historic meteorites, people and the great stories behind them. Frank’s exceptional book, “From Weston to Creston: A Compendium of U.S. Witnessed Meteorite Falls 1807 to 2016” is on my must read meteorite book list.

 

References:

J. Lawrence Smith (chemist) – Wikipedia

J. LAWRENCE SMITH AND HIS METEORITE COLLECTIONS Lee Anne Willson (studylib.net)

J. Lawrence Smith Medal (nasonline.org)

History | Mineralogical & Geological Museum (harvard.edu)

Benjamin Silliman | Chemistry Professor, Yale University, Mineralogy | Britannica

Meenakshi Wadhwa | ASU Search

Friedrich Wöhler – Wikipedia

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