Thursday, December 1, 2016

Old Alabama Stuff (14): Dr. Charles T. Jackson Examines a Meteorite from Clarke County

I could have subtitled this post "It Came from Outer Space!" or perhaps "Alabama's connection to the 1846 'discovery' of anesthesia". But I did not. Bear with me, though, and you'll see why either of those designations would have been accurate. After a fashion....

Let's begin with the main character here, Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson. He was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on June 21, 1806. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1829, but an early interest in geology continued during his studies there. With a friend he visited Nova Scotia in 1826 to collect minerals; return trips to that area in 1827 and 1829 led to his first publication.

Jackson traveled to southern Europe in 1831 for further medical experience and geological exploration. From 1837 to 1839 he conducted geological surveys for Maine and Massachusetts; in April 1839 he began a survey of geological and agricultural resources in Rhode Island. At various times he worked as state geologist for Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. 

His geological work continued into the 1870's and proved to be his main source of income. Between 1828 and 1873 he published numerous works related to geology; his medical publications number less than two dozen. In 1873 he suffered what was probably a stroke; his family paid for his care at McLean insane Asylum in Belmont, Massachusetts, until his death on August 28, 1880.

During his long life Jackson was a physician, chemist, geologist and surveyor. Yet he had difficulty completing projects; his ideas were often brought to fruition by others. He helped dentist William Morton who was searching for a suitable pain reliever; Jackson suggested sulfuric ether. Using that agent, Morton demonstrated its usefulness in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in October 1846. The two received a patent for the process, but were forced to abandon it when local physicians refused to use the agent under those conditions. 

Jackson had similar brushes with the development of the telegraph and guncotton, an early form of nitrocellulose discovered by C.F. Schonbein in Switzerland in 1846. Jackson did demonstrate it in Boston in December of that year. A recent article has speculated that Jackson may have suffered from some form of attention deficit disorder.

By 1834 Jackson was attempting to establish a medical practice in Boston, and in that year married Susan Bridge. He also had a laboratory for his geological and chemical studies on which most of his income depended. His brother-in-law Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Jackson there on various occasions, and referred to the place in Conduct of Life. Emerson compared nature to a rag merchant "like some good chemist whom I found the other day in his laboratory, converting old shirts into pure white sugar."

In 1838 Jackson published an article in Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts entitled "Chemical analysis of meteoric iron from Claiborne, Clark Co., Alabama". Dated August 5, 1834, Jackson's article opens by telling us that "Mr. F. Alger handed me this remarkable mineral..." Francis Alger was the friend who had accompanied Jackson on that first trip to Nova Scotia and who became a well-known mineral collector and author. Jackson further notes the mineral came to Alger via "Mr. Hubbard, who had obtained the specimen during his travels in Alabama..." 

I have been unable so far to identify "Mr. Hubbard" for certain. The likeliest candidate I've found is Lucius Virgilius Hubbard, born in Vermont in 1803 and died in New Orleans in 1849. He graduated from Harvard in 1824. I haven't found any more information about him, but interestingly his son Lucius Lee Hubbard, born shortly after his father's death, had a life-long interest in collecting and writing about minerals. He also served in a Minnesota infantry unit deployed in Alabama during the Civil War. Yet none of that says anything about his father's possible presence in Alabama in 1834.

Jackson declares that Mr. Hubbard's find is a "most peculiar and remarkable meteorite." The specimen was found on the surface "near Lime Creek, in Claiborne, Alabama." The piece was so large that Mr. Hubbard had to employ "a negro to break it with a sledge-hammer." He was unable to do so, but Mr. Hubbard himself managed to detach the piece that ended up in Jackson's laboratory in Boston.

Jackson described the sample in some detail, followed by his analysis, which can be read below. Both iron and nickel were present, meaning it was an iron meteorite made up of an iron-nickel alloy. Some 5% of meteorites fall into this category. 

Claiborne is now a ghost town, but in the 1830's it was a thriving port and trading center on the Alabama River in Monroe County. In 1825 on his American tour the Marquis de Lafayette visited the town, which then had about 2500 residents. Claiborne was the county seat until 1832, when it was moved to Monroeville. Despite outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera, the town remained active until the Civil War. Looted at the end of that conflict, Claiborne quickly declined. Today all that is left are three cemeteries. 

Jackson made use of this Clarke County meteorite in two other venues. At the 1842 meeting of the American Association of Geologists and Naturalists, "Dr. C.T. Jackson exhibited a specimen of meteoric iron from Clairborne County, Alabama, in which he discovered chlorine, in the form of chloride of iron and nickel, in 1834" [Proceedings, published in Boston in 1843, p. 62].

In the following year he made "Remarks on the Alabama meteoric iron" at a meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History. You can read that material below.


Martin RF, Desai SP. An Appraisal of the Life of Charles Thomas Jackson as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Anesthesia History 2015 Apr; 1(2): 38-43

Woodworth JB. Charles Thomas Jackson. American Geologist 1897 August; 20(2): 68-110 [overview of Jackson's geological career and lengthy bibliography of all his publications]

Wolfe, Richard J. and Richard Patterson, Charles Thomas Jackson: "The Head Behind the Hands". History of Science, 2007

A street in Claiborne in the 1850's

Source: Wikipedia 

Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts, 1838

This biography of Jackson by Richard J. Wolfe and Richard Patterson appeared in 2007.

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