In August of 1893, there was a terrible accident on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad. The Springfield Republican reported that the Chicago-bound express, the “Orinoco,” jumped the track and ran into the engine of a local freight train. Three sleeper cars were wrecked and nearly 30 people were killed or injured. Among the dead, The Republican reported, was Professor Benjamin Kendall Emerson, a prominent geologist and beloved teacher at Amherst College. The paper published a moving and thorough obituary of Professor Emerson attached to the report of the wreck, lamenting that the “ending of a career so full of usefulness, of high enthusiasm and solid achievement is all sadness and unavailing regret.”
It was “characteristically vigorous” of Benjamin K. Emerson, wrote Horatio Smith in 1932, “that he should outlive his own obituary by forty years.”* Though injured in the accident, Emerson did not die and was back in Amherst within the month.
Benjamin K. Emerson (class of 1865) had been appointed an instructor of geology and zoology at Amherst in 1879, following his graduate studies in Germany. He quietly introduced methods of instruction in his classrooms which would lead John W. Burgess to call him the “founder of modern science and modern scientific study at Amherst College.”**
Emerson emphasized laboratory work and dissection, hands-on techniques that were a departure from more commonly practiced lecture-based science instruction. Even more scandalously, he taught Darwinian evolution, and saw the study of science as separate from the study of religion, an attitude that ran counter to prevailing Amherst College philosophy, and certainly to the teachings of his geology department predecessor, Edward Hitchcock. It was a testament to Emerson’s non-confrontational nature that his beliefs and methods were not challenged by the administration. Even Amherst College President Julius H. Seelye, author of “A Criticism of the Development Hypothesis, as Held by Charles Darwin” stayed quiet on the subject until a proposed series of lectures pushed him to state that Evolution was a subject best left to the Department of Psychology and Philosophy.
Following the railroad accident in 1893, Emerson went on to become President of the Geological Society of America (1899-1900), revise the state geologic map of Massachusetts (1917), and to oversee the restoration and continued building of the Amherst College collection of minerals—originally collected by Charles Upham Shepard—after it was largely destroyed by a fire in 1882. The collection was one of the strongest in the U.S. by the time of Emerson’s retirement in 1917, and much of it can now be seen on display at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst.
Affectionately called “Emmie,” Emerson became one of the most loved faculty members at Amherst during his nearly 50 years here. “He never turned into a stiff pedagogue, never became an unbending elder statesman, never surrendered to any kind of ritualization,” wrote Horatio Smith. Emerson was known not only for his teaching and scientific contributions, but for his slightly eccentric personality and absent-mindedness. Many repeated the story of Emerson once taking his watch from his pocket and noting that he had just enough time to go back to his room for his watch.
Benjamin Kendall Emerson died peacefully in Amherst on April 7, 1932.
The Benjamin Kendall Emerson Papers held by The Amherst College Archives and Special Collections contain correspondence, geological notebooks kept during his geological surveys, pamphlets and scientific papers relating to Emerson’s “Helix Chemica” (a 3-D representation of the chemical elements) and his Geology of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and materials from his time as a student and professor at Amherst, including his 1865 valedictory oration. The collection also contains documents and photographs related to the wreck of the “Orinoco.” Further materials related to Benjamin Kendall Emerson’s personal and professional work can be found in the Alumni Biographical Files and the Pratt Museum of Natural History Records.
* (Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly 84)
**Reminiscences of an American Scholar: the Beginnings of Columbia University (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 138.