One of the great polymaths of the early Republic, Samuel Latham Mitchill was born in North Hempstead, Long Island, on August 20, 1764, to Quaker parents, Robert and Mary (Latham) Mitchill. After receiving basic medical training from an uncle, Dr. Samuel Latham, Mitchill attended the University of Edinburgh, from which he received his medical degree in 1786. A man with extraordinarily wide ranging interests, a "chaos of knowledge," Mitchill was seldom tied long to any single discipline, and after returning to New York and obtaining a license to practice medicine, he launched into the study of law. Very shortly, too, he entered into the public affairs of the young country. In 1788, he was appointed a commissioner to negotiate with the Six Nations for the purchase of lands in western New York state, and he served three terms in the New York state legislature beginning in 1791. Mitchill was again in the legislature in 1798, when he supported Fulton and Livingston's monopoly of steam navigation in New York waters. His last term in state office came in 1810.
Mitchill's scientific career began in earnest in 1792, when he was appointed to the chair of natural history at Columbia University, where he later also taught chemistry and botany, 1793-1795. His early analysis of the spring waters at Saratoga, N.Y., brought him widespread public attention. As an avid dabbler in many areas of science, from chemistry and mineralogy to biology and a host of applied sciences, Mitchill's scientific productivity was impressive, even by the prolific standards of the day, and while his theories often proved erroneous, equally often his research formed the foundation for later, more fruitful work. His research in chemistry, for example, led to better products in gunpowder, detergents, and disinfectants, and as an offshoot of his interest in agricultural development, he explored the mineralogy of the Hudson River valley.
Mitchill's contributions to the development of the natural sciences in the United States, however, lie mainly in the structural, rather than theoretical realm. In 1797, he, Edward Miller and Elihu H. Smith, founded the Medical Repository, a leading scientific journal of the day, and Mitchill served as its chief editor for over twenty-three years. Most crucial of all, though, may have been his role as one of the most ardent promoters of the sciences in the U.S. Congress. Mitchill resigned his chair at Columbia in 1801 to take a seat in the House of Representatives (1801-4), followed by a term in the Senate (1804-9), and again in the House (1810-13). He became an advocate of quarantine laws and the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, and a strong supporter of the Library of Congress. Proving that his back, and not just his brain, were useful to his country, Mitchill helped dig trenches for the defense of New York City during the War of 1812.
While in Congress, Mitchill continued to pursue his own scientific research. He received an appointment as Professor of Chemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, 1807, and from 1808 to 1820, held the chair of natural history, and afterwards that of botany. In 1826 he helped found Rutgers Medical College and served as Vice-President of that school during the four years of its existence. His furious rate of publication never abated.
On June 23, 1799, Mitchill married Catherine, the daughter of Samuel Akerly and widow of William Cock. They had no children. He died September 7, 1831.