Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/October 1897/Early American Chemical Societies


THREE chemical societies were organized in the United States before the close of the first quarter of this century: 1. The Chemical Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1792. 2. The Columbian Chemical Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1811. 3. The Delaware Chemical and Geological Society, founded in 1821. These societies were short-lived, local in jurisdiction, and without much influence on the progress of the science; but it is interesting to note that professional, teaching, and amateur chemists in America formed associations for mutual improvement and for the advancement of their calling forty-nine years earlier than their brethren in England. American chemists were not impelled to form independent societies owing to a lack of organizations for men of science, but they early felt the advantages of specialization. Both the society of 1792 and that of 1811 were formed in a city honored by the presence of the venerable and dignified American Philosophical Society, established by Benjamin Franklin in 1743.

1. The Chemical Society of Philadelphia was undoubtedly the earliest organized body of chemists in either hemisphere; it does not appear to have published records of its meetings, but in 1801–‘2 it was presided over by Dr. James Woodhouse, the vice-presidents being Felix Pascalis and John Redman. Dr. house (1770-1809) was at the time Professor of Chemistry in the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, of which he was a graduate. This chair had been held by Dr. James Hutchinson, and on his death, in 1793, Dr. Joseph Priestley, who arrived from England a few months later, was invited to succeed him, but he declined, preferring retirement at Northumberland, and Dr. Woodhouse was chosen instead. He was more of a physician than a chemist, and most of his writings were on medical topics, but he edited Chaptal's Elements of Chemistry and other works. He is said to have been the first to prove by comparative experiments the superiority of anthracite coal from Pennsylvania over bituminous coal from Virginia for intensity and regularity of heating power.

The first vice-president, Felix Pascalis-Ouvrière (1750-1840), had an interesting career. He was born in France, where he received his medical education, but emigrated to Santo Domingo, and while practicing his profession there acquired an extensive knowledge of botany and other branches of natural history. In 1793 a revolt among the negroes compelled Pascalis to take refuge in the United States: he settled first in Philadelphia and afterward in New York, where he aided in founding the Linnæan Society of New York. The second vice-president. Dr. John Redman (1722-1808), was one of the foremost practitioners of medicine in Philadelphia, and from 1786 was President of the Philadelphia College of Physicians.

Among the most active members of the Philadelphia Chemical Society were Priestley, Hare, and Seybert. The ambition of the members is shown by the circumstance that a standing committee in 1802 was prepared to "annalize every mineral production" sent to them, free of expense. The meeting held October 24, 1801, was made memorable by the appointment of a committee for the "discovery of means by which a greater concentration of heat might be obtained for chemical purposes." One of the committee, Robert Hare, then only twenty years of age, reported to the society on December 10th his invention of the "hydrostatic blowpipe." Hare's remarkable paper was printed in a small pamphlet of thirty-four pages with the title. Memoir on the Supply and Application of the Blowpipe, containing an account of a new method of supplying the blowpipe either with common air or oxygen gas. Hare's invention yielded a fruitful harvest of discoveries and alone justified the existence of the first of chemical societies; his subsequent career as Professor of Chemistry in the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania from 1818 to 1847 is well known.

2. The Columbian Chemical Society of Philadelphia was founded in the month of August, 1811, by a "number of persons desirous of cultivating chemical science and promoting the state of philosophical inquiry."

The principal officers elected at the first meeting were as follows: Patron, Hon. Thomas Jefferson, Esq.; president, Prof. James Cutbush; vice presidents, George F. Lehman, Franklin Bache.

Thomas Jefferson's commanding position in the world of science and arts, as well as his literary attainments, well qualified him for the office of patron; he was at that time living at his country seat in Virginia, having already served his country for eight years as chief magistrate.

The president of the society, Dr. James Cutbush, was Professor of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and Mineralogy at St. John's College; in 1814 he held the position of assistant apothecary general in the army, and he afterward became Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy at the United States Military Academy, West Point, where he died in 1823. Dr. Cutbush published several books, the best known being A System of Pyrotechny (Philadelphia, 1825), an elaborate work of six hundred pages.

Franklin Bache, the second vice-president, was at that date a youth of only twenty years, who had graduated the year before at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and a member of the distinguished Bache family which numbered so many eminent men of science. He afterward became Professor of Chemistry at the Jefferson Medical College, a position which he held until his death in 1864.

The constitution adopted by the founders of the society, besides the usual business rules, contained some unusual features. The officers included an orator, whose duty it was to deliver an oration on some chemical subject once every year. Since the Society's Memoirs contain no "oration," it is to be feared that the incumbent's efforts were not satisfactory. The constitution undertook to control the members' actions by a series of fines: twelve and a half cents for absence each roll, and one dollar for refusing to accept an office or declining to read an original chemical essay when appointed to do so. To insure against members withdrawing early from a dull meeting, the secretary was directed to call the roll at the opening and close of each meeting, and to fine absentees twelve and a half cents. Candidates for membership were required to read an original essay on some chemical subject to be discussed by the members, and a two-thirds vote was required to insure election. It seems to have been easier to be put out of the society than to get into it, for "any member behaving in a disorderly manner shall be expelled by consent of two thirds of the members present."

There were two classes of members: "junior," thirteen in number, and "honorary," sixty-nine in number, of which thirty-one were Europeans; the home list included most of those chemists whose labors contributed largely to the foundations of the science in the New World. Brief notices of the prominent ones are here given:

Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), who has been called by his admirers "the father of American natural history," held the chair of medicine, natural history, and botany in the University of Pennsylvania; he was an agreeable writer on natural history topics.

Dr. Archibald Bruce (1777-1818) was one of the pioneers of mineralogical science in America, and published one volume of the American Mineralogical Journal in 1810; he held the chair of mineralogy in Columbia College, New York.

Thomas Cooper (1759-1840), born in London, accompanied his friend Priestley to America in 1793, sharing his radical views in politics and religion. He held the chair of chemistry at the college in Columbia, S. C, of which he afterward became president.

Dr. Edward Cutbush (1772-1843) was surgeon in the United States Navy and Professor of Chemistry in the medical school of the Columbian University from 1825–‘27.

Dr. John Griscom and Dr. David Hosack were both citizens of New York; the former had the honor of being regarded as the head of all teachers of chemistry in New York for thirty years; the latter was Professor of Botany and Materia Medica in Columbia College, but is best known as the founder of the first public botanic garden in the United States in 1801. He died under tragic circumstances—of shock at the disastrous conflagration in New York city which swept away his property to the value of $300,000.

Dr. John Maclean (1771-1840) was the first Professor of Chemistry in the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, to which chair he was elected in 1797.

The Hon. Samuel L. Mitchill, M. D., F. R S. E. (1764-1831), was not only an active Professor of Chemistry and Natural History in Columbia College, New York, and editor of the New York Medical Repository, but he was Senator of the United States from 1804.

Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was undoubtedly the first professor of chemistry in America, his appointment dating August 1, 1769. In his busy life he was Professor of the Institutes and Practice of Medicine in the University of Pennsylvania, besides acting as Surgeon General of the United States Army, Treasurer of the Mint, President of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, and Vice-President of the Bible Society of Philadelphia, in which city he also conducted a large medical practice. Dr. Adam Seybert (died 1825) was a pioneer in air analysis, having made twenty-seven analyses of the air by eudiometric methods on a voyage across the Atlantic in 1797. He came to the conclusion that the sea exerted purifying power over the air.

Benjamin Silliman, at the time of the founding of the Columbian Chemical Society, was forty years of age and had held the chair of chemistry in Yale College for ten years. The American Journal of Science was not begun until 1818. Silliman's name is a household word among us, and no eulogium is here needed to magnify his position in the scientific world.

The prominence of medical men on the roll of members is evident and readily explained. Before the days of schools of science, and before colleges devoted a portion of their curricula to scientific studies, almost the only training in science received by American youth was in the medical schools. The chairs of natural history and of the physical sciences were almost exclusively held by physicians whose education more nearly qualified them for teaching these branches of knowledge than the graduates of the classical courses customary in all colleges. To elevate the standard of membership in the Columbian Chemical Society a number of distinguished foreigners were enrolled. These included such men as Berthollet, Gay-Lussac, John Dalton, Sir Humphry Davy, and Dr. Wollaston, but no representatives of Germany or Sweden, which presumably indicates that at this early date communication and exchange of courtesies with Germany and northern Europe were less common than with France and England.

The society issued in 1813 one volume of Memoirs, containing twenty-six essays by ten writers on a great variety of topics—original, speculative, and practical. Eight of these papers are from the pen of Dr. Thomas D. Mitchell. In his Remarks on the Phlogistic and Antiphlogistic Systems of Chemistry he supports the Lavoisierian theory of combustion, stating that there is "no necessity for a principle of inflammability." He cites the experiment of Woodhouse, who obtained an inflammable air by heating charcoal with scales of iron, both being free from water; and points out that Cruikshank, of Woolwich, demonstrated that the inflammable gas thus obtained is gaseous oxide of carbon (carbon monoxide), discovered by Priestley in 1799 and combustible although containing no hydrogen. He compares combustion with neutralization of an acid and base, and says, "Inflammation and acidity are effects resulting from the action of relative causes and not attributable to a single agent or principle."

Dr. Mitchell, in his paper Remarks on Heat, objects to the term "latent heat" and to Dr. Black's theories. In a paper entitled On Muriatic and Oxymuriatic Acids he attacks the views of Sir Humphry Davy as to the non-existence of oxygen in muriatic acid, clinging to the statement of Lavoisier that all acids contain oxygen, and he claims that combustion is accompanied by decomposition of oxygen gas. The doctor's Analysis of Malachite from Perkioming, Pa., is given as follows: One hundred and twenty grains of the green carbonate contained carbonic acid, thirty grains; quartz and siliceous earth, sixty-eight grains; brown oxide of copper, fifteen grains; loss, seven grains. The specimen was evidently a poor one. No account was taken of the water, and reporting results in percentages does not seem to have been in vogue.

The same writer, in Remarks on Putrefaction, discusses the action of antiseptics and attributes the virtues of nitrate of potash to the increase of cold produced by the muriate of soda. His other papers are argumentative and speculative, with little originality.

Franklin Bache's three papers are likewise speculative disquisitions. In one he points to the "great error" in which Berthollet fell as respects the law of chemical affinity, and in another he proposes to introduce the following improvements in nomenclature: Nitral acid forming nitrotes; nitril acid forming nitrutes; nitrous acid forming nitrites; and nitric acid forming nitrates.

Four of the papers in the Memoirs are by Dr. John Manners. His Experiments and Observations on the Effect of Light on Vegetables abounds in quotations from Darwin's Botanic Garden. In the Mineral Spring at Willow Grove, fourteen miles from Philadelphia, he found iron and sulphureted hydrogen. In Experiments and Observations on Putrefaction he tested the influence of carbonic acid, hydrogen, and other gases on putrefying flesh, and he attempted to collect and analyze the gases generated by the same. He concludes that "putrefaction depends on a destruction of the equilibrium of attractions which exists in the elementary principles of which the animal substance is composed in a healthy state, occasioned by the loss of vitality in consequence of which new compositions and decompositions ensue."

The president of the society. Prof. Cutbush, describes quite clearly the "oxyacetite of iron" as a test for the detection of arsenic, a process since used quantitatively by Kotschoubcy.

Speculations on Lime, by Dr. Joel B. Sutherland, contains the singular claim that if mortar be made with sand containing common salt the resultant compound gives "so much coldness to the mass that during the whole summer vapor is almost incessantly precipitated on a wall" with which it is plastered.

Mr. Edward Brux, of France, one of the junior members, writes Upon the Effects of Various Gases upon the Living Animal Body, which consists largely of speculations, notwithstanding which he cites an admirable passage from Dr. Bostock: "Physiologists have in general been more inclined to form hypotheses than to execute experiments, and it has necessarily ensued from this unfortunate propensity that their science has advanced more slowly than perhaps any other department of natural philosophy." Unfortunately, this truth was not fully recognized by the members of the Columbian Chemical Society.

A contemporary journal (New York Medical Repository) reviews the Memoirs in the following quaint style: "It is highly gratifying to behold a band of worthies like those before us laboring to analyze the compounds which they find ready made, to form by synthesis new combinations in the laboratory, and thereby to deduce correct doctrines from the facts which are disclosed. We cordially congratulate them on their noble occupation and on the progress they have made. We hope they will be persevering and undaunted; and if from this beginning there shall arise great improvements in theoretical disquisition, as well as in economical exercise, we shall rejoice with a mingled glow of amicable and patriotic sentiment."

3. The Delaware Chemical and Geological Society was organized at Delhi, Delaware County, New York State, September 6, 1821. The first meeting was held at the hotel of G. H. Edgerton, in the village. The president was Charles A. Foote, and the vice-president the Rev. James P. F. Clark. The society was composed of "between forty and fifty well-informed and respectable inhabitants of the county." It had for its object the improvement of the members in literature and science, especially in mineralogy and chemistry. The members planned to form a library, and they made a collection of the minerals and rocks of the region, but the society was not long sustained.

In reviewing the condition of chemical science in the United States as indicated by the membership and achievements of these early societies, we note that those who held the most prominent places were handicapped by the necessity of devoting a large part of their intellectual energy to topics quite outside of the domain of chemistry itself. The active members were either busy with the art of healing or with teaching several branches of the physical and natural sciences, and too often chemistry was regarded in the colleges as a kind of side issue or appendix to the more important subjects of instruction. This was caused by the necessity of earning a competence at a time when there was no opportunity of reaping pecuniary rewards by skill as an analyst or by the application of science to the manufacture of products involving chemical knowledge. Indeed, in default of this stimulus to laboratory work it is not surprising that the papers read to the societies were largely either reviews of the grand discoveries made by Europeans or essays in which the imaginative faculty was given free play, it being far easier to indulge in speculations than to discover new facts.

In the early struggles of a country to secure a place among nations few men of ability can devote their energies to the pursuit of science for science's sake. The environment is more favorable to development of the inventive faculty than of the peculiar talent for conducting abstruse researches in an exact science. Add to this the limited facilities for acquiring chemical knowledge in the New World and the distance of amateurs from the European head centers of learning, and it is certainly noteworthy that American chemists combined to form associations for mutual improvement and the advancement of their calling at so early a period.

A fourth attempt to establish a chemical society was made at New York city in 1876. The organization was at first somewhat restricted in its plan, but in 1892 a change in its constitution was effected which broadened its scope, and it now forms a strong, influential, and truly national society. Its nine hundred and eighty-four members, working in nine chartered sections, represent forty-seven States and Territories, besides several countries of Europe, South America, and distant Australia. Its Journal, comprising eleven hundred and fifty pages annually, is an authoritative medium for the preservation and diffusion of the researches made in the United States, and its annual meetings, held in diverse localities, strengthen the bonds which unite its members in good-fellowship and in the pursuit of their common profession.

The recent publication of Mr. H. W. Seager's book, Natural History in Shakespeare's Time, has incidentally made it evident that our master poet was great in this as in all other fields, and that his allusions to animal life and habits are not based on the fables in which his contemporaries indulged even when writing seriously on the things of Nature, but on his own or other accurate observations. Of such are his allusions to the quick breathing of the captured sparrow, to the fast work underground of the mole, to the wounded duck hiding among the sedges, to the scattering of the wild geese at the firing of the fowler's gun, and his lamentation over the killing of a fly by Marcus. An English reviewer of the book well says that "the truth is that Shakespeare's natural history is modern in its vividness, its good sense, its sympathy. It is more profitable to compare his bird lore with Gilbert White's than with anything in Bartholomew; more just to set his animals against Buffon's than the grotesque 'four-footed beasts' of Topsell; more useful to verify his botany by Sowerby than by Gerarde or John Parkinson. Modern naturalists and Nature-lovers have not been slow to claim Shakespeare as their brother." Yet his characters sometimes bring in the natural-history fables of the time. They would not be true to what he intended to make them appear if they knew better.
  1. Abstract of a paper read to the Washington Chemical Society, April 8, 1897.