History of Harvard Chemistry Recounted in Recent Article

First Laboratory Located in University Hall Basement

The following is reprinted from the article in the recent Alumni Bulletin By A.B. Lamb, Sheldon Emery Professor of Organic Chemistry and Director of the Chemical Laboratory.

Chemical Laboratories are doubtless almost as old as Chemistry herself--or as Alchemy, her ill-favored sister. They must, indeed, have existed in a primitive form in the prehistoric civilizations of India, of Egypt, and of Sumeria. Chemical laboratories as an instrument of teaching and training are a relatively modern institution. Strangely enough the first person, so far as we know, to have appreciated their value for this purpose and to have advocated their use was a President of Harvard College.

Thus Lenard Hoar, on December 13, 1672, two days after his inauguration as President of Harvard College, writing to the famous Robert Boyle in England, outlining his plans for the future, said:

"A large well-sheltered garden and orchard for students addicted to planting; an ergasterium for mechanical fancies; and a laboratory chemical for those philosophers, that by their senses would culture their understandings, are in our design, for the students to spend their times of recreation in them; for, readings on notions only are but husky provender."

In spite of the soundness of President Boar's pedagogic ideas, they did not bear fruit. It was not until one hundred and fifty years later, that Justus Liebig established his famous chemical laboratory at the University of Giessen and demonstrated to the world the unique value of a laboratory for instruction and training in chemistry and, indeed, in science in general.

The first laboratory at Harvard where chemistry was taught experimentally to undergraduates was established by Professor Josiah P. Cooke in a cellar in the north end of University Hall in 1850. It was to the instruction given here that President Eliot referred when he wrote many years later:

"And then and there 1, for one, first learned what chemistry was about, and what was the scientific method, in observing and reasoning."

In 1857-8 Boylston Hall was erected--again, largely through the efforts of Professor Cooke. At first there was only one large room on the east side of the first floor occupied by the Chemical Laboratory, but gradually the Anatomical Museum, the Department of Music, the Peabody Museum, and the Mineralogical Collection were crowded out until the chemists occupied the whole building. It was remodeled and enlarged in 1895, but in spite of this the building was again soon filled to over flowing.

In 1912-13 the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory and the T. Jefferson Coolidge, Jr., Memorial Laboratory were built. They afforded excellent facilities for certain advance courses in chemistry and for the prosecution of research, and still do so. They did not, however, appreciably lessen the great overcrowding in Boylston Hall. Indeed, the conditions in this building, never designed primarily for a chemical laboratory, with little or no ventilation and with antique equipment, became well-nigh intolerable.

Earnest efforts had been made since the beginning of the century to secure funds to remedy this situation, and innumberable plans had been drawn. At last, in the early part of 1923, Mr. Edward Mallinckrodt of St. Louis gave $500,000 toward the construction of new chemical laboratories. With this gift, available, the time seemed opportune for making a determined effort to secure the funds necessary for building and endowing an entirely new plant for chemistry. Since two other departments of the University were sorely in need of better facilities for further development, it was deemed best to make a combined campaign to meet the requirements of all three departments.

To this end, the Corporation appointed an Executive Committee of which the Rt. Rev. William Lawrence, S.T.D., was Chairman and Dean Wallace B. Donham, Executive Chairman. In order to promote the work of this Committee, the Corporation agreed to appropriate from its won funds $750,000 toward the needs of the Division of Chemistry $500,000 "for endowing research" and $250,000 "for a maintenance fund for the Chemical Laboratories."