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American Geology

William Maclure

William Maclure was born in Scotland in 1763 and made his fortune in a London mercantile firm before he devoted his life to science and philanthropy.

He had become an American citizen by 1803, when President Jefferson appointed him to a commission to settle claims between the U.S. and France. Then, mostly alone, Maclure set out to survey the regions east of the Mississippi River. He made a geological map of the U.S., one of the first of its scope ever prepared, which he published with “Observations on the Geology of the United States” in 1809.

An early member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Maclure was elected its president in 1817, a position which he held until his death in 1840. He was the Academy’s major benefactor in those years, giving it his library and scientific collections, as well as financial support. A correspondent of Jefferson’s on scientific matters, Maclure is known as the “father of American geology.” In 1824, he visited Robert Owen’s cotton mill at New Lanark, Scotland, and the following November, he met Robert Owen in Philadelphia and decided to join his group at New Harmony, Indiana. In 1818, Thomas Nuttall named the genus Maclura to honor William Maclure. It is a medium-sized tree native to parts of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) is noted for its beautiful glossy leaves and curious citrus-like fruit. Because native Americans prized its wood for making bows, the French called it Boisd’arc.

The University of Pennsylvania houses a Maclure Collection that contains more than 25,000 items mostly materials on the French Revolution. Maclure was an “enthusiastic advocate of the benefits of the French Revolution to the people of France.”

The University of Indiana also has a collection of his work where he is recognized as the founder of free libraries in both Indiana and Illinois. Maclure spent the last years of his life in Mexico and died there in 1840. His place of burial is unclear.

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