OT: Rise of the American Chemistry Profession, 1850-1900

“Rise of the American Chemistry Profession, 1850-1900,” by Edward H. Beardsley, Univ of Florida Press, Gainsville, 1964. This 76-page hardback describes the early chemistry profession in America especially from the academic point of view. The term chemistry was first proposed by Robert Boyle in 1661. Over time researchers, mostly hobbyists, learned materials were composed of elements. In time (1869) the Periodic Table showed how they were related. The chemistry of combustion was understood. Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen in 1774, came to America in 1791.

In the early days, chemistry was a lecture subject usually taught in medical schools. In 1815, Prussia began its modern education program offering free public education to all. That included the development of high schools (gymnasiums) and apprenticeships. In 1824, Justus von Liebig set up a laboratory at the University of Giessen, the first to teach chemical research. He developed combustion analysis to determine the empirical formula of organic chemicals and permit the study of structure. His associate Friederich Wohler synthesized urea in 1828 disproving vital force theory. He is the father of organic chemistry.

Germany became a leader in chemistry especially with the arrival synthetic textile dyes. The first synthetic dye, Perkin’s mauvre, was discovered in 1856 in England. Later the German “dye trust” evolved to make synthetic drugs including aspirin and heroin.

In this era, few chemicals were made in the US. One was sulfuric acid, made from sulfur in the lead chamber process, first produced in UK in 1736. Another was sodium carbonate (aka soda ash) used in glass making and made by the Leblanc process (1791) from sodium sulfate (from salt and sulfuric acid), coal, and calcium carbonate (limestone). Many materials now treated as chemicals were known in the ancient arts. White lead pigment, tannic acid, linseed oil, vinegar, alcohol, turpentine, gold, silver, iron, copper, zinc, lead, tin, and charcoal to name a few. They were made by skilled craftsmen; science was not involved.

Chemical education in the US began at the Sheffield Science School at Yale founded by Ben Silliman, Sr. in 1846. Classical education was the norm; science did not fit. The School of Applied Chemistry was part of the new Department of Philosophy and the Arts, that included subjects not under theology, medicine, or law. Benjamin Silliman, Jr. and John Norton were the first professors. They were unpaid. They had a lab but had to pay rent. The school struggled for several years before it benefitted from a land grant under the Morrill Act in 1862.

At Harvard, the Lawrence Scientific School began in 1847 with an endowment from Abbott Lawrence. A German trained scientist, Eben Horsford joined in 1848. His focus was analytical chemistry for manufacturing, metallurgy, medicine and agriculture. Bachelor of Science degrees were offered in 1852. After some lean years, Josiah Cooke secured funds for a laboratory in 1858 and began the first student laboratory course. His success became the model for others. By the 1870s, 60 colleges offered three year programs in chemistry. Many were staffed by Harvard graduates. The list included Dartmouth, Brooklyn Poly, MIT, Columbia, and Lafayette College.

From 1850 to World War I, as many as 10,000 American students studied in Germany (about 1000 of them studying chemistry). There they found an emphasis on research. Those ideas were not well received in American academia. Requests for lab space were often denied. That changed in 1876 when Johns Hopkins University hired Daniel Gilman as president and Ira Remsen to head the chemistry department. Remsen taught research in the German style. This evolved into the modern graduate school and the PhD in chemistry. Yale followed in 1882, Penn in 1887, then Michigan and Wisconsin. By 1905, the American PhD was accepted as equivalent to education at German universities.

A chapter describes the formation of the American Chemical Society in 1877. The need to share ideas with other scientists was recognized early on. The first was the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1874, a Centennial of Chemistry was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Priestly’s discovery of oxygen. It was well attended. Ideas for a separate chemistry organization followed in New York. The problem of regional concentrations was resolved with local sections. After a rocky start, the modern ACS came together in 1891 with 13 local sections. In addition to meetings to share research, ACS promoted standards for chemistry education, analytical methods, and atomic weights.

Journals began with the American Journal of Science by Benjamin Silliman, Sr. of Yale in 1818. The volume of research from the graduate schools resulted in American Chemical Journal from Ira Remsen in 1879. Journal of the American Chemical Society began in 1879, but struggled financially. ACJ trended to organic chemistry; JACS covered a broader range. ACS began publishing an index to chemical research in 1897, later Chemical Abstracts. Its popularity increased participation.

In the early days, college chemistry courses often were taught by graduates of medical schools or those with a classical education. That changed gradually. By 1901, ACS found that noone taught chemistry without a laboratory and the PhD was the required credential.

In this era, geological surveys (ie assays of minerals) were the main employer of chemists in government. After the Morrill act, agricultural research became more abundant. These jobs were better paying and gave opportunity for research on the Liebig model. In the US Department of Agriculture, one such position was held by Harvey Wiley, whose work on food additives and purity resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In 1906, his staff numbered 110; by 1908 it expanded to 425.

Before 1870, industry had little use for chemists. One exception was ER Squibb in Brooklyn, which began manufacture of ether, chloroform, salts and acids for the Navy and later for his company in 1858. Quality steel required analysis for impurities. Andrew Carnegie began to employ chemists in 1872, but competitors resisted. That evolved. The Pennsylvania Railroad hired a chemist to monitor the quality of purchased materials in 1875. Suppliers were forced to conform. Armour & Co hired a chemist in 1887 to help make by-products of meat processing saleable. General Electric, Bell Telephone, Dupont, Eastman Kodak, Westinghouse, and Standard Oil (Indiana) followed. By 1910, the value of chemists to industry was well established.

Readers will find this an excellent addition to the history of chemical education in the US. References. Index.