Historical Sketch of the Chemistry Department (1916) by Samuel Parr

Samuel Wilson Parr Professor Parr was one of the first U of I chemists to specialize in industrial chemistry. He was involved in Illinois coal research and developed bomb calorimetry

The inaugural ceremonies and formal opening of the University of Illinois (originally the Illinois Industrial University, until changed by Act of the Legislature, June, 1886) occurred March 11, 1868. The Board of Trustees met on that date and received the first annual report of the Regent (President) of the University. In this report occurs the first reference to chemical work in the institution, as follows: "It is especially important that an appropriation should be made to fit up, at once, a chemical laboratory." At the same meeting of the Board, on recommendation of the Regent, it was voted to appoint Professor J. A. Sewall of the Illinois State Normal University, Normal, Illinois, to the chair of Chemistry. Dr. Sewall declined the appointment. His only connection with the University was to deliver the first annual address before the Literary Societies in June of that year. The records do not give any of the details from which we might surmise the reasons for his withdrawal. However, the State Normal, founded in 1857, had a remarkably strong faculty, was an exceedingly popular institution, and occupied a leading place in the educational work of the state. Moreover the environment was attractive, thanks to a public-spirited citizen who had planted trees by the thousand over most of the area likely to be occupied by the new town of Normal, so that it was rapidly assuming the appearance of a park or forest.

The Urbana-Champaign institution, on the contrary, was located on a most uninviting strip of flat open prairie one mile from either town; it was to inaugurate a novel and untried educational program, the published announcement of which had already awakened more antagonism than support, and the students in attendance at the time numbered seventy-seven.

It may be remarked, in passing, that the writer of this sketch obtained his first chemical experience in Dr. Sewall's laboratory. In the capacity of the ubiquitous small boy with perhaps overgrown curiosity, he was watching some advanced students assemble a hydrogen generator. For some reason, not altogether clear at this remote date, but which would not be difficult to surmise, the outfit exploded with a liberal distribution of acid upon everything in the neighborhood. There were no permanent injuries except to clothing. The coat, which was a new one, had to be worn just the same in spite of the leopard spots. This might be designated as an early experience in applied chemistry.

In August, 1868, there was better success, as indicated by the following extract from the minutes of the Board:

"Professor Sewall having declined the appointment tendered him to the Chair of Chemistry, the committee, under authority given by the Board, secured the services of Prof. A. P. S. Stuart, late of Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University, and now recommend Prof. Stuart to the Board for permanent appointment to the chair of Chemistry."

The following action further appears upon the minutes of the Board under date of November 18, 1868:

"That Prof. A. P. S. Stuart be and is hereby elected to the chair of Chemistry, at a salary of $2,000 per annum to take effect from and after September 1, 1868."

In the budget presented to the Legislature in 1869, an asking of $30,000.00 appears with the result that $5,000.00 was appropriated. With the revenue thus provided the first laboratory was equipped and operated. It was located in the basement of the south wing to the original University building.

Professor William McMurtrie was appointed head of the department September, 1882. The funds of the institution seemed not to warrant any expenditure that could possibly be avoided. This may be inferred from the fact that the total legislative appropriation for the biennium 1881-83 was only $41,300.00, or approximately $20,000 per year, and of this only $5,700 per year was designated as for instruction.

The year opened in September, 1888, with Dr. J. C. Jackson as Professor of Chemistry. The Agricultural Experiment Station had just been organized with Chemical Laboratory for the station installed on the top floor of the chemistry building. Dr. A. G. Manns was in charge and H. S. Grindley, Assistant. Dr. Manns had graduated from the department in 1885, studied abroad, and received his doctor's degree at Berlin in 1888. The work of Professor Jackson was far from successful. Indeed, the affairs of the department were so rapidly approaching a state of chaos that he withdrew December 31, 1888, and Dr. Manns was asked to conduct the classes for remainder of the year. Dr. Palmer was communicated with by cable, the result being that he resumed his work again September, 1889, as Assistant Professor of Chemistry. He was advanced to a full Professorship at the end to the first year.

An interesting event of this period was the starting of the Chemical Club. It was organized November 22, 1892. Through the research propensities of Miss Sparks the membership roll for 1893-94 has been unearthed. It contains 20 names which might well be put in suitable form for preserving in the archives of the club. All four members of the instructional staff are in the list and every one of the student members became graduates of this department.

In the spring term of 1899 the honorary chemical fraternity, Phi Lambda Upsilon, now grown to national status, was organized. The promoters and charter members were F. C. Koch, Horace Porter and P. Rudnick of '99, and Harry Hasson, "Artie" Johnson and E. B. Safford of '00.

In the early morning of August 15, 1896, the laboratory was struck by lightning. The entire upper floor was burned. This included the Pharmacy, the Photographic rooms, the Museum and the laboratory of the Agricultural Experiment Station. On the second floor everything north of the central store room was burned. This included Dr. Palmer's private laboratory, with the result that many valuable papers and records were lost. The large steel tank near the roof had its supports burned away and it fell through to the basement, completely wrecking the two store rooms in its path. A new roof of different pattern was at once put on, but only such repairs and board partitions were provided as would make the interior usable temporarily, it being confidently expected that at the coming session of the legislature funds would be appropriated for making good the loss, with a new and larger building which the great increase of students made imperative. The outcome was $5,000 appropriated to replace apparatus lost in the fire.

On February 2, 1904, occurred the death of Professor Palmer; he had been ill but a short time. The direction of the State Water Survey had brought on a tremendous amount of work and responsibility, especially in connection with the survey of the Illinois River before and after the opening of the Chicago Sanitary Canal. His second report covering the work from 1897 to 1902 and embodying the results of the Illinois River and Sanitary District Survey is a monument to his untiring industry and ability. He literally gave his life in the service of the University and the State.

Dr. H. S. Grindley, who had been appointed Assistant Professor of Chemistry in 1895 and Associate Professor in 1900, continued in charge of that department for the remainder of the year.

At the meeting of the Board for August, 1904, the following recommendation by the President was passed:

"(1)That the Department of Applied Chemistry be discontinued as such and that there be one Department of Chemistry. (2) That Professor Parr's title be continued as that of Professor of Applied Chemistry and Associate Professor Grindley be made Professor of General Chemistry. (3) That the headship of the department be divided so that Professor Parr shall have general charge of all matters pertaining to instructors and instruction, and Professor Grindley as Director of Laboratory shall have charge of and be responsible for all business and material affairs. They will then so adjust matters that each shall have supervision over definite subordinates and courses of instruction, and each be directly responsible for the men and work so assigned."

From September, 1904, therefore, the consolidation of the two departments was effected and the work carried on as above ordered until the appointment of Dr. W. A. Noyes as "Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Laboratory" beginning September 1, 1907. At that same time Dr. Grindley was appointed chief in Animal Chemistry in the Agricultural Experiment Station and Professor of Animal Chemistry in the College of Agriculture. The State Water Survey was put under the supervision of Professor Parr in February, 1904, and so continued until the appointment of Professor Edward Bartow, September 1, 1905.

The Illinois section of the American Chemical Society was organized April 24, 1906, with twenty-six members. At the present time there are 152 members of the section and all but thirty-seven are connected with the University.

In April, 1908, the Zeta Chapter of the National Chemical Fraternity, Alpha Chi Sigma, was installed.

The instructional force from 1869 to 1874 numbered one. From 1876 to 1882 there were four members on the staff. From 1882 to 1890 there were three. In 1902 at the time of entering the new building there were fifteen. For the current year 1915-16 the number is sixty-two.

After the organization of the Graduate School at the University in 1895, the first examination for a Doctorate was in the Chemistry department; it was that of Dr. William Maurice Dehn who received his degree in 1903. The degrees of this order from the department last year were six. The prospective candidates for 1916 number fourteen.

It has been the purpose of this sketch to give the larger place to details connected with the early development of chemical work at the University. The events of the current years are familiar and can be better set forth in their proper relation when they, too, have become history.