• Harvard Astronomer, Mathematician Benjamin Pierce, Apologist for Slavery, Writes Peer Benjamin Gould

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    BENJAMIN PIERCE (April 4, 1809 - October 6, 1880) was an American mathematician at Harvard University for about 50 years. He made contributions to celestial mechanics, statistics, number theory, algebra and the philosophy of mathematics.  He helped develop Harvard’s science curriculum, served as the college librarian and was director of the U.S. Coast Survey.  In 1852, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London. Pierce is often regarded as the earliest American scientist whose research was recognized as world class.  Pierce was an apologist for slavery, believing that it should be condoned if it was used to allow an elite to pursue scientific inquiry.  Pierce was an expert witness in the Howland will forgery trial in which he and his son, Charles Sanders Pierce, proved that a questioned signature was a forgery.

    Pierce references the library of German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessell, whose measurements of positions for about 50,000 stars and rigorous methods of observation took astronomy to a new level of precision.

    Offering Pierce’s letter to BENJAMIN APTHORP GOULD (September 27, 1824 – November 26, 1896), a pioneering American astronomer, noted for creating the Astronomical Journal, discovering the Gould Belt and for founding the Argentine National Observatory and the Argentine National Weather Service.

    One page 7 x 8 ¾ ALS, Harvard University, Jan. 22, 1867. “My Dear Sir, I have examined the catalogue of Bessel’s library, which you were so kind as to lend me, with great interest, and have carefully compare the astronomical portion with that of the University library.  It is doubtless an excellent collection and particularly adapted to the wants of a practical astronomer. It contains several valuable works not in the college library and some which have been repeatedly ordered without success. I shall congratulate your son most warmly if he has the good fortunate to become its professor, and allow me to add that his good fortune will be well deserved.


    “Most sincerely and respectfully

    “Benjamin Pierce

    “B.A. Gould, Esq”

    Folds, light toning.

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