Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/Sketch of Robert Empie Rogers



FOR the facts in the life of Robert Empie Rogers, as well as of the other members of this family famous in science, the memorial paper of the late Dr. W. S. W. Ruschenberger is almost our only authority. Robert Empie Rogers was the youngest of the four brothers, sons of Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Blythe, whose researches, several and joint, have conferred so much honor on the name. He was born in Baltimore, Md., March 29, 1813, and died in Philadelphia, September 6, 1884. His father having been called to be Professor of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in William and Mary College, removed to Williamsburg, Va., in 1819. There his mother died in the next year, when Robert was seven years old, and the boys, Dr. Ruschenberger says, “became almost foster children in the families of the professors.” Robert seems to have received special care at the hands of the Rev. Adam P. Empie, D. D., and his wife, and in recognition of that care assumed the name of Empie. He was taught by his father, and after his death by his brothers James and William. The profession intended for him was that of engineer, and he began the exercise of it as an assistant in the survey of the Boston and Providence Railroad. Nothing is known about the engagement or the work done by young Rogers, except that the results of it were not satisfactory. In a letter written to his brother William in 1833, Robert expresses doubt of his prospect of success if he should try engineering again, and confesses that his favorite desire had always been to become an instructor. Civil engineering was given up, and Robert, having determined to study medicine, became a pupil of Dr. Robert Hare, Professor of Chemistry, “and worked zealously in his laboratory till the close of his undergraduate course.” He was graduated from the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania in March, 1836, offering as his thesis a paper on “Experiments on the Blood, together with some New Facts in regard to Animal and Vegetable Structures, illustrative of many of the most Important Features of Organic Life.” This thesis was published, with illustrations, in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. He, however, preferred chemistry to medicine, and served from 1876 as chemist of the first Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, under his brother Henry, who was chief of the survey. In this position he was associated with James Curtis Booth and John F. Frazer as the other assistants.

In the fall of 1841 he was invited to the University of Virginia to take the place in teaching the chemistry classes of Prof. John P. Emmet, who was ill. Prof. Emmet not recovering from his illness, Mr. Rogers was in March, 1842, elected in his place Professor of General and Applied Chemistry and Materia Medica, a position which he held with credit till 1852. In August of the latter year he was elected Professor of Chemistry, in the place of his brother, James B. Rogers, deceased, in the University of Pennsylvania. In 1856 he became Dean of the Medical Faculty of that institution. In July, 1862, during the civil war, he was appointed acting assistant surgeon in the Army of the United States, and assigned to duty in the Military Hospital at West Philadelphia, where he served not quite one year. At his suggestion a steam mangle was set up under his supervision in the neighborhood of the hospital. On the day it was completed he was showing a woman how to feed it safely, when his right hand was caught in the machinery and crushed. He was able with his other hand to throw the machine out of gear and stop it, but while a workman was lifting the cylinder, weighing eight hundred pounds, from off the disabled hand, the great piece slipped from the crowbar and fell upon it, aggravating the injury it had received. He was anxious lest his wife should be seriously shocked by too quickly realizing the severity of the mutilation he had suffered, and, to prevent this as far as possible, he left the carriage in which he was conveyed a short distance from his house and walked home. The hand was amputated by Prof. Smith, of the university, and its place was supplied for a time by an artificial hand. “Almost ambidextrous prior to the accident,” says Dr. Ruschenberger, “he speedily learned to write with his left hand and to use the right arm, beneath the shoulder, in prehension with notable skill in his experiments while lecturing.”

About this time the United States was swept by the “oil fever,” and visions of wealth to be suddenly acquired by the possession of a well turned many an otherwise well-balanced head. Prof. Rogers did not escape the epidemic; and the fact that a man so well informed in scientific matters as he was associated in the enterprise contributed no little to the success of the scheme for organizing the Humboldt Oil Company in February, 1864, to which a capital of a quarter of a million dollars was contributed. Organization was all the success the company had. Land was bought, wells were dug, and the work was carried on for some time without profit; and finally, in 1873, the whole concern was sold out, a nearly total loss to the shareholders. Prof. Rogers was the largest holder, having one fifth of the shares, and lost more than any of the others.

In 1872 Prof. Rogers was appointed, with Dr. H. R. Linderman, by the Secretary of the Treasury, a committee to make examinations in the mint at Philadelphia for the purpose of ascertaining the extent and sources of a waste of silver that was alleged to be taking place there “in excess of the amount tolerated by law.” The processes of assaying and refining the bullion and converting it into coin were carefully tested by numerous experiments at the mint and at the Assay Office in New York. About two months were spent in the examination. The result of it was presented July 25, 1873, in a well-considered and elaborate Report on the Wastage of Silver Bullion at the Melter and Refiner's Department of the Mint. This investigation, valuable in itself, was also valuable in its consequences, because it suggested modifications in the method of refining the precious metals which were afterward adopted. The Director of the Mint said in his annual report that the results obtained were conclusive of several points, and would be valuable in future minting operations. Prof. Rogers next made an examination of the working of the mint at San Francisco, concerning which he reported to the Director of the Mint. In 1874 he experimented at the Assay Office in New York concerning means of ridding the establishment of inconveniences suffered from acid vapors. “Prior to that time nitrous-acid fumes, arising from the nitric acid used in refining silver, were allowed to escape through the chimney into the open air, seriously annoying neighbors. To correct the evil, Dr. Rogers had constructed in the attic of the building a furnace for burning coke, into which the fumes were conveyed and burned.” Instead of extinguishing, these fumes promoted the combustion of the fuel. He afterward conferred with the Treasury authorities in Washington concerning plans which he had proposed for the equipment of a refinery in the mint at San Francisco. The plans, which included a sulphuric-acid process recommended by him, and the erection of additional buildings, were carried out under his supervision, and the completed work was put in charge of the superintendent in August, 1875. “At the suggestion of Dr. Rogers during the progress of the work, an artesian well was sunk within the hollow square of the mint, which supplies one hundred thousand gallons of water daily for all the uses of the establishment.” The succeeding report of the Director of the Mint mentions the advantage to the public interests which attended the operation of the refinery. In connection with this work in the mint Prof. Rogers also made a careful investigation and estimation of the probable total production of the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine in Nevada. He was further, from 1874 to 1879, or for about six years, a member every year of the Annual Assay Commission. He was for twelve years one of the chemists to make an analysis and daily photometric test of the illuminating gas supplied to Philadelphia.

In 1877 Prof. Rogers was elected Professor of Medical Chemistry and Toxicology in Jefferson Medical College; and, to accept the offer, resigned the position which he had for a quarter of a century held in the university. His entrance into this institution was the occasion of a flattering demonstration at the time of the opening of the course of 1877-'78 with an introductory lecture. “It was estimated that not less than twelve hundred physicians, students, and others were crowded into the hall. At the conclusion of the lecture a silver vase was presented to him as a token of the respect felt for him by the great class of medical students.”

Prof. Rogers became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1837; was interested in its proceedings through most of his life; attended its meetings at irregular intervals for many years in succession; participated in its discussions, and delivered lectures to promote its interests. Many of his verbal communications are noted in its proceedings from 1859 to 1862. He was a member of the Franklin Institute from April, 1838, except when living away from Philadelphia; became a life member in 1855; one of the Board of Managers in 1857; was one of the vice-presidents for seventeen years from 1858; was chosen president in 1875; and on retiring from that office in 1879 was returned to the Board of Managers for the rest of his life. “He was particularly active in the work of the institute, delivered courses of lectures on chemistry before its classes, assisted in the management of its public exhibitions, served on several of its standing and on many of its special committees, the most notable of which were one on tests of the efficiency of dynamo-electric machines, and another on the dangers of electric lighting.” At the celebration of the semi-centennial anniversary of the foundation of the society, February 5, 1874, he delivered an address on the history of scientific discoveries and their practical applications in the half century, in which he pointed out how the work of the institute had contributed to the progress of science and the diffusion of knowledge.

He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1855 and a member of its Council in 1859. He was a frequent attendant at its meetings, served on several of its committees, and often took part in its discussions. He was less often present at the meetings of the College of Physicians, of which he was elected a Fellow in 1857. At one of these meetings, according to Dr. Ruschenberger, he related an incident in the case of a trial for poisoning. He, as an expert witness, contributed to the establishment of the fact that the subnitrate of bismuth sold in the drug stores was contaminated with arsenic, which had not previously been suspected. He became a permanent member of the American Medical Association in 1853, when he attended the meeting at Richmond as the representative of the University of Virginia. He represented the University of Pennsylvania in the meetings of 1853 and 1873, representing also at the latter meeting the medical profession of Philadelphia, and delivering the address of welcome to the delegates. He took an active part in the formation of the Society of the Alumni of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, and was its treasurer for several years. With his brothers Henry and William he took part, in 1840, in the organization of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, which afterward became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The catalogue of his writings includes four papers under his own name alone in physiology, chemistry, and metallurgy; twelve papers by him and William B. Rogers in chemistry; a paper on the analysis of magnesian limestone by him and Martin H. Boyé; three papers by Dr. H. R. Linderman and him in metallurgy and electricity; a paper by James B. Rogers and him on the alleged insolubility of copper in hydrochloric acid; and seven papers by William B. Rogers and him on subjects in chemistry and meteorology. He also edited the American edition of Lehmann's Physiological Chemistry, which was published in 1855; and he was joint author, with James Blythe Rogers, of a text-book of inorganic and organic chemistry, compiled from the works of Dr. Edward Turner and Dr. William Gregory, which was published in 1816. Besides his regular occupations. Prof. Rogers was sometimes engaged as an expert in criminal trials; frequently delivered lectures, illustrated by experiments, for the benefit of institutions; and often did works of kindness and benevolence. Three instances are mentioned in which he heroically saved persons from drowning. He had a remarkable faculty. Dr. Ruschenberger says, in the use of tools of all kinds, and a respectable talent for mechanical contrivance. He was author of many inventions—notable among them the Rogers and Black steam boiler—and of several modifications and improvements of electrical apparatus. This ability was early manifested, in 1835-'36, in his original experiments on osmosis, in which he demonstrated how changes in the blood are produced by respiration.