The History of Chemistry at Vassar College

by Eric S. Eberhardt, Associate Professor of Chemistry, with the assistance of Joseph M. Tanski, Associate Professor of Chemistry
February 2011
Department Website

Coursework in chemistry and chemical laboratory facilities have been in place at Vassar since the opening of the College. The first seventy years of the Vassar Chemistry Department are described in detail in a 1932 article published in The Chemist written by Mary Landon Sague.

“Chemistry at Vassar”

By Mary Landon Sague

Vassar College, founded by Matthew Vassar in 1861, was ready to receive students in the fall of 1865. In the first catalogue we read, “The object of this college, as stated by its founder, is to accomplish for young women what colleges of the first class accomplish for young men; that is, to furnish them the means of a thorough, well-proportioned, and liberal education, adapted to their wants in life.” It was recognized from the beginning that to accomplish such a purpose must necessarily involve a departure from the existing curricula. At the same time the guidance to be furnished by such curricula was not to be overlooked.

It is obvious that such a program must have included generous provision for the sciences. In his address at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the college President Emeritus Taylor gave “as evidence of the outlook and advanced stand” of the first board of trustees the fact that “when the first building, Main, was erected (1861-65) provision was made for a students’ laboratory (then very uncommon in America).” He further stated that at its beginning the college was equipped with “laboratories for the sciences such as few colleges could boast.” In the description of the equipment given in the first catalogue we read, “The philosophical and chemical apparatus are of the most approved construction and complete for all purposes of illustration in the departments to which they belong.”

 It is not surprising that a department of mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry was among the first established at Vassar. Chemistry was part of the regular course for one semester and might be followed by a second semester of special studies in the applications of chemistry. This department was in the able hands of Professor Charles S. Farrar, who was assisted by Miss Emma Sayles, teacher of chemistry, mathematics, and the English language, and by Miss Barbara Grant, teacher of mathematics and chemistry. In the words of one of his early students, Professor Farrar was “a man of a wonderful magnetism, a subtle intellect, and a power of presentation that made students hang breathless on his prayers or his lectures. It would be impossible to overestimate the enthusiasm his presence and his teaching, both secular and religious, awakened. Girls went to his Sunday lectures provided with note-books, and there was no thinker or essayist with whom their studies made them familiar whom they could for one moment consider superior to Professor Farrar.” It is not strange that his courses were popular and that the announcement of special experiments should crowd the lecture room with faculty and students alike.

The catalogue of 1866-67 gives the proposed course of study, in which chemistry appears as a senior course. That it was elective is indicated by the statement that no student was expected to pursue all the courses listed but that “a certain liberty of choice is allowed to each, under the strict supervision of the President and Faculty—none will be allowed to neglect any branch of literature, science, or philosophy that is deemed essential to a sound general education.”

 Even this balanced plan met with bitter criticism in an article published in April, 1870, in which the writer claimed, among other things, that too much time was spent on Greek and astronomy and too little on chemistry. In his reply President Raymond regretted that the writer took his information from the catalogue of 1867, thus basing his criticism “on so much that belongs wholly to the past.” The curriculum was changing rapidly in these formative years, and by 1870, students who elected chemistry as a regular study devoted one-third of every day to it during the first semester of the senior year. They might continue it during the entire year, and those who were special students could spend an unlimited amount of time on their work in chemistry.

The most approved texts and methods of teaching were used, the conduct of the work was revised in keeping with the progress in science, and with the developments in the college curriculum and as students were better and better prepared for their work, the scope of it was extended. In May of 1873, President Raymond, in response to a request from the United States Commissioner of Education, prepared a report on the college in which he gave a full outline of the work in chemistry and of the equipment for it. Chemistry was given for two semesters, in the first of which the class met five times a week for the study of the theory of inorganic chemistry and the practice of qualitative analysis, while in the second semester it met three times a week for the study of organic chemistry and certain applications to the arts. In the latter were included the study of the precious metals, electro-plating and electro-casting, photography and photochemistry, the metallurgy of iron and the manufacture of steel, the chemistry of bread-making, general culinary chemistry, toxicology and antidotes, dyeing and printing, coal tar and its products, the curing, tanning, and dressing of leather.

The work was carried on in three rooms in the main building: the professor’s laboratory in the middle room, with the lecture room on one side and the students’ laboratory on the other side. All the rooms were provided with hot and cold water, gas and steam, and sinks, basins, and wall tables. The majority of the experiments were done by the students themselves, the class being divided for laboratory practice into small sections of eight to ten students, each section meeting two of three times a week under the supervision of an instructor. In the students’ laboratory each table, assigned to the use of one student, was equipped with the reagents and apparatus necessary for qualitative analysis. In addition there were cabinets containing a considerable amount of material illustrative of the work of the second semester. This account gives evidence of a splendid development of the work in chemistry in less than ten years from the opening of the college.

In 1874 LeRoy C. Cooley came to Vassar as professor of physics and chemistry and ten years later was appointed to the newly created Matthew Vassar, Jr., Professorship of Physics and Chemistry. Under the stimulus of enthusiasm, the exacting demands of his high standards, and his encouraging interest, work in the department prospered. Recognizing that more adequate quarters must be furnished for the growing needs, two nephews of the founder, Matthew Vassar, Jr., and John Guy Vassar, gave to the college in 1880 The Vassar Brothers Laboratory for physics and chemistry, and equipped the building in the most modern manner. With the increased facilities thus afforded it was possible to extend the work in chemistry to three semesters and to include more analytical chemistry. The training was thus made extensive enough to make possible the announcement in 1889-90 that “a certificate of study in inorganic chemistry at Vassar will be accepted in place of the corresponding course at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary.”

Following the appointment in 1893 of Charles W. Moulton as associate professor of chemistry, the work of the department was expanded to what was described as a “complete course in chemistry” in six parts, in which there were included, in addition to the established courses, one in the chemistry of water, air and food and one on the history and philosophy of chemistry, the latter for seniors only. In the following year the departments were divided; Dr. Moulton became professor of chemistry while Dr. Cooley remained the Matthew Vassar, Jr., Professor of Physics and Chemistry.

As the college increased in size and new courses were offered, the Vassar Brothers Laboratory, in spite of additions to it, became quite inadequate. Those of us who were students in that laboratory look back with increasing appreciation and wonder at the splendid accomplishment of the members of the department who worked under the crowded, difficult conditions of those days. In 1908 Dr. Henry M. Sanders, for many years chairman of the Board of Trustees, gave to the college in memory of his wife, Eleanor Butler Sanders, the Sanders Laboratory of Chemistry, which was dedicated in 1909. The generosity of the gift was matched by the skill and far-sightedness of Professor Moulton, whose plans, worked on through the years, were incorporated in those of the architects. The building with its equipment, including many items of original design, is a lasting monument to the sound judgment, thoroughness, and creative ability of Professor Moulton who, for thirty years, so ably directed the department, keeping it abreast of all that was best in the development of the science and of the methods of presenting it.

As Vassar is primarily an undergraduate college and urges its students to go elsewhere for graduate work, its function is to give a thorough undergraduate training, with opportunity in the advanced courses to do work of a graduate character. The department of chemistry offers at present [1932] courses in general chemistry, applications of chemistry, qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, hydrogren-ion determinations, organic chemistry, chemistry of food and nutrition and food analysis, organic preparations and analysis, and physical chemistry. In addition, students may carry on independent work in the junior and senior years.

Although the introductory course serves as the first course in the major field for those who begin chemistry in college it is also taken by many students who are not science majors. In the present [1932] Vassar curriculum the group in which chemistry is placed is so large that, with the required election of only one subject from that group, it is reasonably certain that students, in electing to meet the requirement, will choose that science which bids fair to be congenial. The class is therefore likely to be quite homogeneous; and the course which is actually a prerequisite for some students forms a satisfactory general course for the others. Both the theoretical and descriptive phases of the subject are developed. Weekly quizzes as well as small supervised laboratory sections give opportunity for much individual work.

For the student who has presented chemistry as an entrance unit there is a course which gives first a brief review of the principles of elementary chemistry. Any student who presents satisfactory evidence that this review is not needed for any portion of the work is given special supplementary reading assignments. By this review the class is prepared for the work in qualitative analysis, which is completed by the end of the year, placing such students one semester ahead of those who begin chemistry in college.

For students who wish to major in chemistry the course varies in the second year. Those who have begun chemistry in college take qualitative analysis in the first semester and quantitative analysis in the second semester, while those who have entered with chemistry must take quantitative analysis and usually do take hydrogen-ion determinations. In the third year the classes join in organic chemistry. In the fourth year the group is again divided, some students electing one or both of the courses in physical chemistry, others those in food while a few elect courses in both fields. Such is the main outline of a common sequence in chemistry which must, of course, be varied to suit the needs of the individual student, the actual plan being made after a conference with the department consultant.

… For a chemistry major correlative courses are required in some laboratory science allied to the student’s main interest in chemistry. For physical chemistry, mathematics through calculus is required. (This rule concerning electives naturally operates to bring into certain of the chemistry courses some students majoring in other fields of science who do not follow the sequence for a major in chemistry.) In the department of chemistry a special requirement is made of a reading knowledge of French and German, which are not counted in the hours for the major field.

Each year some six or eight of the students majoring in chemistry are employed as student assistants, thereby receiving valuable training not to be secured in the regular courses. They make up solutions and do any other work necessary in getting the laboratories ready for use, working at first under supervision and later taking charge of a group.

Since the publication of Ms Sague’s article “Chemistry at Vassar”, the character of the modern Chemistry department is exemplified in the careers of two long-time Chemistry Department faculty members: Ms Mary Landon Sague herself and Mr Curt Beck.

Ms Sauge spent fifty years of her life as both a student and teacher at the College. Numerous documents and her memorial moment indicate that she was tireless worker and dedicated teacher. She arrived at the College in 1903 in the barge, a horsedrawn carryall that brought freshman from the large house they lived in near Putnam Hall. Apparently, the original Vassar Bother laboratory facilities made learning chemistry a challenge at the time: “the water supply was so inadequate that if student used to much on the second floor the freshman laboratory on the third floor would have none. The gas lines were inefficient. They only delivered enough gas to give a tiny ineffective flame when the laboratory was in full swing.” After completing her degree, she went off to teach high school for a year and then returned to the College as an assistant. Here, she help plan the transition to the new Sanders laboratory. By 1920 Ms Sague had completed her graduate studies and had reached the rank of Assistant Professor. Dr Moulton died suddenly and the senior member of the department left the institution, leaving her as the senior member. Ms Sague was appointed chair of the department. While her term as chair pulled her away from her first love of teaching, she viewed administration of the department as the means to increasing the possibilities for effective teaching. Here, she assembled a dedicated group of faculty, which established the foundation of the modern chemistry department.

Ms Sague’s most significant contribution to today’s department was her singular role in establishing a memorial for Olive Lammert, who passed away suddenly in her research laboratory in 1932. On February 6, 1934, The Olive M. Lammert Laboratories of Physical Chemistry in the Sanders Laboratory of Chemistry were dedicated and a memorial bronze plaque, the gift of an anonymous donor, was unveiled. Professor Olive M. Lammert, '15, had been a member of the Chemistry Department from 1915 to 1932 except for two years devoted to graduate study. The Olive Lammert memorial fund has grown significantly over the years and is used today by the department to acquire books that recognize student achievement and acquire modern instrumentation. Her last annual report, written in 1951, Ms Sague stated “Chemistry is a thrilling subject and teaching it is an enthralling, exciting profession.” This passion and love for the study of chemistry is one that the department seeks to cultivate in all our students.

On June 18, 1954, the library in Sanders Chemistry Building was opened. The plaque on the door was inscribed: "This library is named in honor of Mary Landon Sague, A.B. Vassar, Ph.D. Columbia, Vassar Department of Chemistry, 1908-1952, Professor and Chairman, 1924-1951, scholar, devoted teacher, tireless worker."

For fifty years, the life and career of Mr Curt Beck exemplified the role of the modern teacher scholar in Chemistry. Arriving at the College in 1957, he served the College in a wide range of capacities across the College until his retirement in 1993. Mr Beck engaged in multidisciplinary scholarship before it was fashionable. Originally his scholarship focused on the area of petroleum chemistry, but in early 1960’s his interests shifted to the organic archaeological chemistry where he focused on the development of spectroscopic methods to identify the provenance of amber artifacts. Given the value of amber in ancient world, his work improved understanding of trading routes. Over 8000 amber samples have been examined in the Amber Research Laboratory, which he established in the 1960’s with samples coming from museums and national collections of major European cities (Athens, Paris, London and Budapest) as well as Boston, New York and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Mr Beck’s work in the area of organic archaeometry was extended over the years and he employed the tools of analytical chemistry to resins, tars and pitches and then to food residues in cooking pot and vessels. This work culminated in the cover article published in the scientific flagship international journal Nature, where Mr Beck appears as a co-author describing the funerary feast of King Midas.

Before the establishment of the Vassar’s Undergraduate Summer Research Institute (URSI) in 1985, Mr Beck routinely had summer research students working in his laboratory and, during his career, over 80 Vassar students were trained in his laboratory. A recipient of numerous research grants from the National Science Foundation during his career, Mr Beck’s work resulted in over 170 publications. In 2001, he received the Pomerance Award, the highest accolade of the Archeological Institute of America for scientific contributions to Archaeology.

The current chemistry program at Vassar has been housed in the departments forth space on campus, the Seely G. Mudd Chemistry Building, having moved from the old Sanders laboratory in 1985. The program follows a typical path of instruction with Introductory Chemistry in the first year, Organic chemistry in the second year, followed by advanced study in all the subdisciplines including analytical, biochemical, environmental, organic, and physical chemistry. The hallmark of the current chemistry program is our capstone senior thesis where all majors are required to conduct original research under the supervision of a member of the faculty. This year long endeavor culminates with a written thesis and oral defense in front of the department.

Throughout the chemistry curriculum, lecture and laboratory courses are taught in conjunction with one another, and an emphasis is placed upon student use of instrumentation, as students are encouraged and expected to use sophisticated instrumentation. The department strongly believes in the value of the undergraduate research experience, and therefore provides research opportunities for credit at all levels of the curriculum; students have the unique opportunity to work closely with faculty throughout their undergraduate career and to become proficient in the use of modern instrumentation and methodologies providing excellent preparation for graduate study in chemistry or related areas such as medicine, environmental science, materials science, public health and even the law.