On March 6, 1860, it seemed like the whole town of Easton had no other thought than to watch the little steamer Alfred Thomas go up, or rather attempt to go up the Delaware River. Among them was Dr. Triall Green, professor of chemistry at Lafayette College, who was also a physician and a man of many interests in all fields of science. But now Green wondered why the little craft seemed stuck. Pulling his watch out of his jacket pocket, he noticed that it read exactly 1:17 p.m. Then, almost before he put it back on, a terrible explosion sounded and echoed louder than the loudest clap of thunder ever. heard in the Lehigh Valley.
Below the Alfred Thomas lay a smoking wreck, broken and aflame with the cries of wounded and dying humanity in the water around it. Rushing to the river, he did what he could to help his victims. Perhaps Professor Green later picked up an article in a fledgling publication called Scientific American about the tragedy which noted in its conclusion that the way the boiler was run, “anyone can kill themselves.”
If ever a 19th century town had a favorite son, it would be Easton’s Dr Triall Green. A distinguished man, clean-shaven with long flowing locks of hair, he looked more like a romantic composer/pianist of the day than a doctor or professor.
Green was born in 1813, the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Green. He received his unusual first name in honor of his mother’s father, Robert Triall (1744-1816). Originally from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, Robert Traill immigrated to America and served as Easton’s third barrister. He learned German (his wife was of German origin) and was often called upon to translate at the trials of Germans in Pennsylvania. Traill was very proud of this achievement, but according to one source, when another prominent lawyer, Samuel Sitgreaves, who had served for a time as a US diplomat in Europe, sought to correct Traill’s pronunciation of a German word in in the middle of a trial, he felt insulted, put his hat on his head and walked out of the courtroom. It is said that Sitgreaves later apologized for interrupting the trial. Traill also later represented Northampton County in the state legislature.
During the early days of the Revolution, Traill was clerk of the Northampton County Board of Observation and Inspection on which future signer of the Declaration of Independence George Taylor sat. Triall Green has long kept the notes his grandfather took for the Observation Committee. Today, this valuable historical resource is included in the Skillman Library of Lafayette College Special Collections.
Green studied medicine in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. JK Mitchell. It may have been part of his family’s tradition to benefit the community. After graduating, he spent a year at the Philadelphia Dispensary before returning to Easton to open his own practice. Since then, he has been considered “Easton’s” doctor. Green cared for those who were poor and was known for his generosity to local charity.
According to an early 20th century source, chemistry was Green’s first love: “Chemistry was his cherished study and was not abandoned (for medicine) and in his consulting room at night he lectured on this subject and related studies to a class of young people.”
In 1837, Green would begin his long association with Lafayette by becoming its first chemistry teacher. He would hold this position on and off for most of his academic career, eventually heading the science department at Pardee in Lafayette. Later, Green witnessed the two 19th century fires that tore through Pardee Hall.
From 1841 to 1849, Green was chairman of the Department of Nature and Science at Marshall College. He teaches botany there, one of his secondary interests. One of his students was Harriet Moore. In 1844 they married and later had three children.
In the 19th century, academic disciplines were not as structured as they are today. Green has found it possible to form close ties with fellow professors in different fields. One of them was James Henry Coffin, whose main interest was metrology. A native of New England from Amherst College, Coffin in 1846 became professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Lafayette, a position he held until his death in 1873. Green worked closely with Coffin on his study of winds and their impact on the weather. Coffin’s book, “Winds of the Globe”, was a groundbreaking work at the time. Green then took it upon himself to advocate for a metrology department in Lafayette.
In 1864, when fictional writers like Jules Verne imagined flights to the moon, Green scanned the sky with his own large telescope. That year, he donated $15,000 for the creation of a university observatory that would house him. Before the building was dedicated, Green said he didn’t want his name mentioned. Perhaps to circumvent this indirectly, the president of Lafayette, in his dedication speech, said that whoever the donor, “his name will be green in the memories of all Lafayette lovers”. The students quickly dubbed it the “Star Barn”. There is no record of the architect who designed it or its builder, perhaps it was Green himself, but it existed until 1929. Its stones were used to form the arch at the foot of College Avenue, a gift from the class of 1929.
In addition to his academic role, Green was deeply involved in his community. He served as chairman of the Easton School Board, chairman of Easton Cement Co. and director of Easton Gas Company. He was a founding member of the American Association of Science. Two governors of Pennsylvania called him to be director of the state lunatic asylum in Harrisburg.
For someone like Green, there were a few hours when he wasn’t busy. Collecting leaves, categorizing them and putting them in order was a favorite pastime. He then donated them to leading schools for their collections. Several colleges and universities, including one as far away as Australia, still hold parts of his botanical collection.
To all these things Green contributed. This would lead him to be considered a leader in his field. But he also had other interests. He was a strong supporter of female education and championed it. During his career, he often organized evening classes for adult women. He held several administrative positions at the college, including a brief period (1890-1891) as president of Lafayette.
After many years of service, Dr. Traill Green died April 29, 1897 and was buried in historic Easton Cemetery. In 1911, with great fanfare, a large bronze statue was dedicated to him near the entrance to the cemetery. He is shown pensive and holding a book.