Chemistry at William and Mary: Three Centuries

Adapted and expanded from an article originally published in Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, VII (1), 23–27 (1986)
Department of Chemistry
The College of William and Mary in Virginia
Williamsburg, Virginia
The Colonial Period

Chemistry as a practical art was important to the early settlers in America. At Jamestown, Virginia (the first permanent English settlement—five miles from William and Mary) the colonists were involved in the manufacture of glass, dyes, waxes, salt, and other useful materials. The colonists’ thinking went beyond the immediate concerns of physical well-being. As early as 1617, plans were made to establish a college in Henrico County, near the present site of the city of Richmond. Unfortunately, these plans were forced aside by the disastrous Indian Massacre of 1622. The college finally came to fruition when, in 1693, King William and Queen Mary, monarchs in Britain, granted a charter for the establishment of an institution of learning to be known in perpetuity as “The College of William and Mary in Virginia”. The charter designated that the college be “a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages and other good Arts and Sciences…”

Glassblowing Reenactment at Jamestown (picture courtesy of the National Park Service – Colonial National Historical Park)The organization of the college was that of the English “Oxford Curriculum.” There were to be three schools: The Grammar School, the Philosophical School, and Divinity School. The Philosophical School, which eventually evolved into the present College of Arts and Sciences, was to teach Moral Philosophy, including rhetoric, logic, and ethics, and Natural Philosophy and Mathematics, including physics, metaphysics, and mathematics. A four-year program in the Philosophical School led to a B.A. degree and three additional years to the M.A. degree.

The significance that William and Mary attached to science in those early days can be appreciated from the fact that in 1756 Benjamin Franklin was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree. This was before the War of Independence. The degree was granted in part “on account of [Franklin’s] marvelous Discoveries in Natural Philosophy conceived by him and published abroad throughout the entire republic of settlers.”

Robert Boyle. Engraving by R. Woodman after the Portrait by Johann KerseboomThe first references to the teaching of chemistry at William and Mary occur near the end of the 18th century. (In 1723 monies from the estate of the famous chemist Robert Boyle were given to erect the College’s Brafferton building; however, this was to house the Indian School, not scientific studies.) Thomas Jefferson mentioned chemistry when he wrote:

What are the objects of an useful American Education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history, civil history, and ethics. In natural philosophy I mean to include chemistry and agriculture, and in natural history to include botany, as well as the other branches of those departments. It is true that the habit of speaking the modern languages cannot be so well acquired in America; but every other article can be as well acquired at William and Mary as at any place in Europe.

James Madison, president of the College from 1777 to 1812 and the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, included lectures on chemistry in his Natural Philosophy curriculum as early as 1772. Topics in his syllabus at the turn of the century included: Chemical Affinity; Of the Properties of Air; Of Air as Necessary to Combustion, etc.; Of some Gasses (sic) [oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen]; Of Nitrous Air [including also “of carbonic acid, of the analysis of atmosphere air”]; etc. Madison was a member of the American Philosophical Society and contributed a number of original papers to its scientific journals.

The Rev. James Madison Portrait by Thomas Thorne (courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William & Mary)In 1779 a Professorship of Anatomy, Medicine, and Chemistry was established and held by James McClurg until 1800. No record exists of what McClurg taught as chemistry. Since this professorship was not renewed after 1800, it appears that chemistry as we generally think of it was taught under Natural Philosophy and that McClurg emphasized anatomy and medicine.

It is clear from Madison’s syllabus that he embraced the new chemistry of Lavoisier by the end of the 18th century even though Priestley, who had come to America in 1794, was still touting the tottering phlogiston theory. Upon Madison’s death, John McClean came from Princeton to William and Mary where he taught chemistry until his death two years later. McClean was the first professor of chemistry at Princeton, which he left for the more tolerant religious climate at William and Mary. McClean was a champion of Lavoisier’s chemistry, publishing in 1795 “Two Lectures on Combustion…Containing an Examination of Dr. Priestley’s Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston and the Decomposition of Water.”

The Nineteenth Century

Chemistry continued as part of the curriculum through the nineteenth century under the professorship of natural philosophy. The most prominent of these 19th century professors was William Barton Rogers, who spent seventeen years in Virginia before leaving for Boston as a founder and first president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1927, William and Mary dedicated its new chemistry and physics building to Rogers, and in 1975 the chemistry department moved into a new building that was also named after him. Charles W. Elliot, the late president of Harvard, was appointed by Rogers as the first professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eliot, in a bold move, introduced the elective system at Harvard as a means of making a wider range of sciences available to undergraduates, which the fixed classical system precluded.

William Barton RogersIn 1905 chemistry became an autonomous department with its own professor. Physics and biology also became departments at this time. The traditional rubric of natural philosophy was abandoned. Van Franklin Garrett (A.M., M.D.), who had been Professor of Natural Science since 1888, became the first Professor of Chemistry. Chemistry has continued with vigor since that time.

The Twentieth Century

The “modern” era of chemistry at William and Mary can reasonably be said to have begun with the completion of a spacious three-story chemistry-physics building (Rogers Hall) in 1927. At this time William George Guy joined the chemistry faculty, having completed study at Oxford as a Rhodes’ Scholar and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago. Professor Guy was at the College for 42 years, serving as chairman for the last twenty-two. The strength and stability of the chemistry program from the 1930s through the late 1960s was due in large measure to Guy, along with two faculty colleagues Alfred R. Armstrong and Edward Katz. These three men retired with a combined service at William and Mary of 128 years.

The William & Mary Chemistry Faculty in 1956 (left to right, George Sands ’39, William Guy, Alfred Armstrong ’32, Al Lutz, and Ed Katz ’36).“Old Rogers Hall” in 1928 (now Tyler Hall)During Guy’s chairmanship the number of majors grew to approximately 20 per year, and remained steady at this number through the middle seventies. The roots of the chemistry department’s independent study and research opportunities extend back to 1932 when the Department instituted a course entitled “Problems in Chemistry”, which was described in part as being for “the advanced student and strictly personal”; consent of the instructor was required. In 1976 the chemistry department occupied a new building (the second Rogers Hall). Also in this year, the number of graduating chemistry majors jumped to 46! − doubling the previous high. This large number of chemistry concentrators has been sustained for the past two and a half decades. The chemistry department has remained attractive to students, a factor that can be attributed to the dedication of our faculty in providing the highest quality in teaching and research.

Chemistry at William & Mary Today

The current status of William and Mary as a small research university is apparent in the opportunities afforded to undergraduate chemistry majors within the department. At present, our formal program of undergraduate research begins in the second semester of the junior year. All students enroll in a one-credit course entitled “Introduction to Chemical Research”. In this course, students are instructed in the use of the chemical literature, and choose a faculty member for whom they write a 2,000-word paper related to their research interest. This paper serves two purposes: (1) it requires that the student become well-acquainted with the background literature to their problem and (2) the paper partially fulfills College-wide systematic writing requirements. During their senior year, most chemistry students pursue research with the same faculty member for a total of six semester credits.

Rogers Hall in 2002Approximately one-third of our senior students do research under the general Honors program which requires a thesis with oral defense. In addition to this formal program, 40–50 students participate in a full-time chemistry research program at the College during the summer. College housing is provided for these students in the dormitories through the generosity of the College administration. The annual William and Mary Undergraduate Research Symposium each September allows students the opportunity to present papers on their research. There are also opportunities for well-prepared and motivated students to begin research as early as their freshman year, as every member of the faculty enthusiastically participates in this very vital part of our curriculum.

The Department has graduated about 43 majors per year on average for the past twenty years. Over 85% of our majors participate in chemistry research. The faculty currently generates over $700,000 annually in external funding, publish regularly in leading scientific journals, and present papers at national meetings. On average, 25−30 undergraduate students are cited annually as co-authors on these publications. Among the more obvious educational benefits of an undergraduate research experience to the student are experience and confidence in the laboratory and in observational skills and critical thinking. However, one additional benefit should not be overlooked: rewarding friendships are often formed between faculty and research students that are more substantive and enduring than those developed out of classroom teaching alone. We believe that the mentoring relationship is the best way to pass on not only skills, but the love of science and the drive to know why.

The Future of Chemistry at William & Mary

Integrated Science CenterThe Chemistry Department moved in May 2008 into the new Integrated Science Center adjacent to Rogers Hall, which has been completely renovated to provide space for the Psychology and Biology Departments. Amply housed in the brand new Integrated Science Center, the chemistry program at the College of Willam and Mary will continue to provide its students state-of-the-art education and research opportunities for many years to come.