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The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley

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This is a biography of Wilson Alwyn Bentley, the farmer from Jericho, Vermont, who took over five thousand photomicrographs of ice, dew, frost, and -- especially -- snow crystals. Although his photographs were taken between 1885 and 1931, they have never been equalled and are in great demand today. Bentley's story is one of courage and persistence against tremendous odds. He taught himself how to photograph snow crystals through a microscope while still in his teens and then pursued his obsession for years before having the beauty and scientific value of his work recognised by others. 'The Snowflake Man' lays open the life of a simple, self-educated, sensitive man who pursued natural beauty with microscope and camera for nearly fifty years. The book contains 30 black and white photographs.

237 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1998

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Anna.
1,737 reviews673 followers
November 30, 2016
The reason I've had this book listed as part-read for two and a half years is that the Scott Polar Research Institute library does not allow borrowing. As the library is a lovely place to read, though, I eventually went back to 'Snowflake Bentley'. It is a serviceable but in no way exceptional biography of a minor figure who fascinates me. Wilson Bentley was a pioneer of snowflake photography, being entirely self-taught in rural America. I have every sympathy for his lifelong obsession with snowflakes and their beauty, as well as his wider interest in meteorology and geology.

Bentley is an interesting figure to me not just for his specific focus on snowflakes but because of his status. He was from a poor farming background and had no formal scientific training: consequently his theories about the formation of snowflakes were sometimes misconceived. Yet he still made a substantial contribution to the scientific understanding of snow, whilst retaining a sort of quest for the holy grail of the most beautiful snowflake. As he put it, his dream was of finding, 'the one, or the few, preeminently beautiful snow crystals that we may be certain exists among the snows'. According to his biographer, Bentley didn't take an interest in religion, but nonetheless had great respect for and fascination with the abstraction of Nature. Meanwhile, his neighbours on various farms seem to have found him weird, but not rich enough to merit eccentricity. He combined pragmatic scientific observation with mysticism in an unusual and rather charming fashion. As well as postulating how snowflakes form, he wrote things like:

The snow crystals... come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But although the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauty of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again.

Blanchard the biographer attempts to find out something about Bentley the man, but he remains something of an enigma. Although he apparently was also obsessed with the beauty of young women's smiles, which is mildly unsettling. His work, however, is covered in very satisfactory detail here. I have a book of his beautiful snowflake photographs (Snowflakes in Photographs) and this biography provides satisfactory context for them.
Profile Image for Floris.
108 reviews3 followers
May 13, 2021
Simple biography of a remarkable early-twentieth century figure. Blanchard draws from personal interviews, unpublished documents, and a variety of articles to paint a nice picture of Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931). The research is impressive, and remains the best and most extensive record of his life and work. Blanchard doesn't add much in the form of historical analysis, which was probably not his intention.
Profile Image for Crystal.
573 reviews
August 10, 2022

The author was able to interview people who had known “The Snowflake Man,” so the book balances discussion of the science of snowflake observation with details that bring Bentley to life, in all his northern New England quirkiness. Having spent my childhood just over the border in northern New Hampshire, I can feel recognition toward many of the characters. And I was thrilled that one of the professors Bentley had consulted early on was “one of the Professors in Wellesly [sic] College.”
Profile Image for Barb.
1,191 reviews128 followers
January 14, 2012


I like when books (and movies) lead me to other books. I first heard about Wilson Bentley when my children were watching a Scholastic video featuring the book 'Snowflake Bentley' by Jacqueline Martin. I loved the story and thought it was fascinating. I later borrowed the book from the library and read it with my children.

At some point I discovered Snowflake Bentley's collection of snow crystals 'Snow Crystals' (Dover Pictorial Archive) and the shorter collection of photographs 'Snowflakes in Photographs' (Dover Pictorial Archive) and borrowed those from my local library as well.

Both books are beautiful collections of the actual photographs taken by Wilson Bentley, who took more than five thousand photos of snow crystals over the course of his life. My children and I were in awe of those photos. Looking at them made me want to learn more about the man who made creating and collecting their images his life's work. That's how I found this book.

I enjoyed learning about the life of Wilson Bentley. Duncan Blanchard has captured both the scientist and the man in this biography. Blanchard, an atmospheric scientist himself, includes a fair amount of information on meteorology, cloud physics and the phenomenon of undercooled droplets, noting that some of the questions Bentley pondered during his life were still unsolved mysteries at the time of publication of this book (1998). I have no idea if that is still the case or not but the point was made that Bentley was a genius and a man ahead of his time. The science of meteorology was not what drew me to this book.

What I enjoyed most about this book was getting a glimpse of Bentley as a man. His mother was the only person who encouraged his passion for snow, the rest of his family and most of the people in the small community of Jericho, Vermont thought he was "a bit cracked". He was mild mannered, some thought shy, he liked to play practical jokes and was a musician. Bentley did not make much of a living. When he applied to open a savings account at the Burlington Savings Bank he gave his occupation as "Snowflakes".

Later in life when he traveled to give lectures in the Burlington area he would take family friend Helen Shiner with him and during the intermission of his snow crystals slide show the two of them would perform for the audience, he would play the piano and she would sing. I enjoyed reading the many anecdotal stories, letters and quotes from Bentley's own writing. Blanchard has portrayed a man singular in obsession yet humble, with a sense of humor and a gift for poetry when writing about the snow he loved.

In 1904 Bentley wrote "The snow crystals...come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again."

I'm glad I read this biography on "The Snowflake Man", I think readers who have an interest in meteorology, photography or the beauty of nature would appreciate the story of "Snowflake" Bentley's life.
Profile Image for Clark Hays.
Author 17 books131 followers
April 21, 2013
A fitting tribute for one man's life long obsession

It is said that no two snowflakes are alike; the same holds true for the obsessions that drive the human spirit. Some we control, others control us. Wilson A. Bentley, an eccentric Vermont farmer, gave in early to his fascination with snowflakes and spent his entire life documenting their myriad forms. His unprecedented and starkly beautiful collection of literally thousands of photographs of snowflakes taught the world just how unique these ice crystals really are, and how one man could stubbornly pursue one microscopic slice of knowledge over the entire course of his life.

Bentley lived and died bewitched by atmospheric process. As a teenager, he built by hand the photographic equipment that would later gain him some measure of fame, often incorporating found materials - such as straws from a broom - into the rigors of his study. Dismissed by most as a harmless crank, his work was groundbreaking, leading to a revolution in understanding.

In The Snowflake Man, author Duncan S. Blanchard uses his professional training as a meteorologist and physicist to commemorate the labor of love that drove Bentley. The writing is methodical, at best, but in some odd way that only serves to make the images of Bentley - a confirmed bachelor - hunched over his photographic equipment all the more poignant. What is clear is that Mr. Blanchard knows his subject matter well and was no doubt inspired in his own career by the unwavering dedication, or obsession, of the odd and all but forgotten researcher.

Like Bentley's favorite subject matter, the book itself will quickly melt away - it is a slim effort that can be read in one sitting. The photographs, now almost a century old, are still remarkable though. Most compelling, however, is the insight it offers into obsession which will linger long after the last page. It is a worthy and recommended read if only to honor the fierce, undying commitment of the snow flake man.
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