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Parvin, Theodore Sutton
(January 15, 1817–June 28, 1901 )

—educator, lawyer, librarian, and private secretary to the first Iowa territorial governor, Robert Lucas —was the firstborn son of Josia h and Lydia (Harris) Parvin of Cedarville, New Jersey. When he was 12 years old, in 1829, he moved with his family to Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended the public schools there, graduating from Woodward High School in 1835. Upon graduation, Parvin was hired to teach mathematics in the Cincinnati public schools. He became the principal of one of the ward schools on a temporary basis and later was hired to be principal of the Third Ward School. During that time, he was also studying to become a lawyer. He studied with Timothy Walker and attended the Cincinnati Law School, graduating in March 1837.

    In April 1838 Parvin received a certificate to practice law from the Ohio Bar Association and became a member of a committee to look into the establishment of a library for Cincinnati. In his journals of 1838, he makes his first mention of Iowa Territory. In June he wrote that his father was going to go by horseback, "intending to visit Iowa territory, beyond the Mississippi River."In July Parvin determined to go to Iowa Territory. At about the same time, he was introduced to Robert Lucas. President Martin Van Buren had recently appointed Lucas Governor of Iowa Territory and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Lucas asked Parvin to accompany him as private secretary.

    On August 14, 1838, Parvin and Governor Lucas arrived at Burlington, Iowa Territory. As private secretary, Parvin accompanied Governor Lucas up the Mississippi River to determine the best site for the territorial capital. In September he returned to Cincinnati to purchase stationery and supplies. While there, he arranged to have a shipment of books sent to Governor Lucas. They became the Territorial Library and the beginning of the present State Library. In 1839 he was named the first Librarian of the Territory. He was instrumental in convincing Governor Lucas to ask the U.S. Congress for a grant of land to be set aside for literary purposes. As a result, Congress gave Iowa a grant of 72 sections of choice land to support the establishment of a university.

    On August 22, 1838, Parvin received a commission to practice law in the Iowa Territory and was appointed district prosecutor for the Second District of Iowa Territory. In 1840 he served as secretary of the Territorial Council, and in 1844 was a member of the constitutional convention. From 1847 to 1857 Parvin served as clerk of the U.S. District Court. In 1858 he served a one-year term as Register of the State Land Office.

    Almost as soon as Parvin arrived in Iowa, he began making daily observations of the weather, which he passed on to local newspapers, with copies regularly furnished to the Smithsonian Institution. Those records remain the only accurate records of Iowa weather at that time.

    Parvin was involved extensively in the development and promotion of public educational institutions in Iowa. In 1839 he helped establish the Bloomington (Muscatine) Education Society, which became one of the first fully equipped schools in the territory. In 1848 Parvin was appointed a trustee of the State University of Iowa. His term expired in 1852. In 1857 he was appointed to a committee to consider the proper instruction of natural philosophy at the university. When the university was reorganized under an amended constitution, Parvin was reappointed to the board of trustees. He was also elected curator of the cabinet of natural history and librarian. In that capacity, he was asked to prepare space at the university for a library and to procure books from the State Library that had been donated to the university. He was also required to devote a portion of his time to collecting and classifying specimens of geology and natural history. In 1859 he was named professor of chemistry and geology, and in 1861 he was named chair of the Department of Natural History. He served as a professor at the university until 1870.

    Parvin also worked to preserve Iowa history. He was one of the founders of the Annals of Iowa, which he edited for several years, and he served as secretary of the State Historical Society of Iowa for three years (1864-1866). He authored several historical works, including Report on the Climate of Iowa, 1850-1856; History of the Early Schools in Iowa, 1830-1859; and History of Knight Templar Masonry in the United States.

    An extremely active Mason, Parvin had become a Mason in Cincinnati in 1838. After arriving in Iowa, he helped found several of the early Masonic lodges in Iowa, including those in Burlington and Muscatine. He was involved with the formation of the Grand Lodge of Iowa in 1844 and was elected Grand Secretary, a position he kept until his death in 1901. In 1852-1853 he served as Grand Master of Masons in Iowa. In 1844 he recommended that the Grand Lodge of Iowa form a Masonic library. The resolution was approved, and a small allocation was provided in 1845. During its early years, the library was a nomadic institution remaining with Parvin, who was Grand Librarian. At various times, the library was located in Muscatine, Iowa City, and Davenport. In 1884 the collections had grown to include Masonic, anti-Masonic, and non-Masonic materials, and the library was moved to Cedar Rapids, where it remains as one of the premier Masonic libraries in the world. Parvin was instrumental in forming the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, Scottish Rite, Grand Council Royal & Select Masters and Knight Templar Commanderies in Iowa.

    Parvin married Agnes McCully on May 17, 1843, in Iowa City. They had six children. Agnes preceded him in death on November 20, 1896, in Cedar Rapids. Theodore S. Parvin died in Cedar Rapids at age 84. According to one biographer, "he was in public life from the time he crossed the Mississippi until he breathed his last. His life was filled with good works and they live after him."
Sources include Joseph E. Morcombe, The Life and Labors of Theodore Sutton Parvin (1906); and Charles Aldrich, "Theodore S. Parvin," Annals of Iowa 5 (1901), 199–208.
Contributor: William R. Kreuger