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The many scientific pursuits of University of Minnesota grad Laura Linton

Linton helped discover a new mineral, improved the process for manufacturing asphalt and later supervised the women’s ward at the Rochester state hospital.

historic portrait of laura linton
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Laura Linton, ca. 1896.
In 1879, scientists at the University of Minnesota asked chemistry student Laura Linton to analyze rock samples that had been collected along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Her research identified a previously unknown mineral, which her professors named “lintonite” in recognition of her work. Linton went on to become a chemistry and physics teacher, a research chemist, and, after earning a medical degree at the age of forty-seven, the supervising physician of the women’s ward at Rochester State Hospital.

Born in 1853, Laura Alberta Linton was the daughter of Christiana and Joseph Linton. Her parents raised her on farms in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania before moving the family in 1868 to a site on the Zumbro River in Minnesota’s Wabasha County. Linton graduated from the Winona Normal School in 1872 and taught at the Cook’s Valley school before enrolling in at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in science.

During Linton’s senior year of college, two of her professors, Samuel F. Peckham and Christopher W. Hall, recognized Linton’s proficiency in chemistry. They asked her to analyze several small, translucent, greenish pebbles they had collected during a geological survey of northern Minnesota. Her analysis noted that the pebbles were similar to a rare mineral known as thomsonite. The green stones, however, featured a fine-grained construction rather than the crystallized, fibrous structure of thomsonite. She concluded that they were a new discovery. In an article in the American Journal of Science, the professors described the unique characteristics of the mineral and named it lintonite “in honor of Miss Laura A. Linton, a recent graduate of this University, to whose patient effort and skill we are indebted for the analyses given in this paper.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Linton taught science in Lake City, Minnesota, for a year before Peckham recruited her to assist him with another research project. In 1880, when American oil companies were examining the potential commercial use of petroleum, the Federal Bureau of the Census hired Peckham to write a report on the country’s oil fields. Linton joined the project and conducted chemical analyses of oil samples, translated foreign language sources into English, and provided illustrations for the book’s charts and graphs. The three-hundred-page report included a detailed history of petroleum, a study of oil distribution around the globe, and an assessment of current and future uses of petroleum.

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Linton’s next step was attending classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although she likely intended to study for a PhD, she left MIT when she was invited to lead the science department at Lombard University in Galesburg, Illinois. She stayed at Lombard for just a year before returning to Minnesota, where she served as head of the science department at Central High School in Minneapolis for ten years.

In 1894, Peckham asked for Linton’s help once again. At a time when bicyclists, farmers, and townspeople were demanding paved streets, there were no standards for rating the quality of materials being used to produce asphalt paving. In his new role as chemist of the Union Oil Company of California, Peckham arranged for Linton to run tests of asphaltum samples and to develop recommendations on production methods of asphalt.

Linton’s research on asphalt first took her to Union Oil Company’s laboratory in California. She later moved to Michigan, where she continued the research while enrolling in classes at the University of Michigan. She changed course once again in 1896 when she returned to Minnesota to enroll in the University of Minnesota’s medical school. While taking medical school classes, she also taught physiological chemistry in the College of Medicine.

After completing her medical degree in 1900, Linton was hired to oversee the womens’ ward at Rochester State Hospital. Part of her position involved working with the hospital’s Training School of Nursing, where she taught classes in nutrition and food science. Building on the hospital’s theory of work therapy for male patients, in 1901 Linton borrowed ten dollars from the hospital’s funds to purchase yarn, knitting needles, decorative paper, and other materials. The patients made scarves, mittens, paper flowers, and shawls that they sold to hospital staff and visitors, and Linton’s ten-dollar loan was paid back within a month. The project is considered an early example of occupational therapy for institutionalized female patients.

By 1912, Linton became the second assistant of the hospital (the third highest position after the superintendent and first assistant). She died in 1915 and is buried in Greenfield Township, Wabasha County.

Lintonite is no longer considered a distinct mineral species. It is now classified as a unique form of thomsonite, which is itself part of the zeolite group of minerals. The change in classification came about as mineralogists established an international system for naming minerals during the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, as a rare varietal, lintonite is still sought by Lake Superior rock collectors and is typically set in jewelry as a polished stone.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.