History

History

Harvard’s contribution to the study and teaching of experimental chemistry spans more than 225 years, and contains many “firsts”:

1791

The first specific gift for chemical education in America, the Erving Professorship of Chemistry, given by Harvard graduate William Erving (class of 1753), major in the British army.

1819

“The Elements of Chemical Science,” the first American textbook of chemistry, written by Harvard’s second Erving Professor of Chemistry, John Gorham.

1850

Harvard's first laboratory for teaching experimental chemistry to undergraduates, built in the basement of University Hall. It lacked gas and running water.

1860 

The first chemical physics journal, “Elements of Chemical Physics,” published by Erving Professor of Chemistry, Josiah Parsons Cooke.

1877

The first Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard, awarded to Frank Austin Gooch under the direction of Professor Cooke.

1914  

The first American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Harvard chemistry professor Theodore William Richards and former student of Professor Cooke, for research into the determination of atomic weights.

Contributions to Harvard

Harvard’s chemists have made profound contributions to the governance and stewardship of Harvard itself. In 1869, 35-year-old Charles William Eliot, who had been a student of Cooke and an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, became president of Harvard. He served in that capacity for 40 years, transforming the university from a small college to an international research university. The transformation continued during the 20-year presidency of James Bryant Conant (1933-53), a student of Theodore William Richards who became professor of organic chemistry and chair of the department before ascending to the University’s highest position.

Conant mentored Louis Fieser, who helped establish Harvard as the preeminent department for organic synthesis. During his presidency, Conant was active in bringing many young and influential chemists into the department: Robert Woodward (whose career began as a Junior Fellow), Paul Bartlett, George Kistiakowsky, and E. Bright Wilson. He also hired Paul Doty, Frank Westheimer and Konrad Bloch, who together established biochemistry as a major effort at Harvard.

More recently, Professor Jeremy Knowles served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard from 1991 to 2002, and again from 2006 to 2008. Dean Knowles was a strong force in the implementation of the numerous cross-disciplinary, collaborative programs that exist among the various science departments today.

Although the department’s size has remained small, it continues to have enormous impact on academic chemistry throughout the world, by research accomplishment and the training of generations of academic chemists who are influential in chemistry departments around the world. Recognitions achieved by members of CCB include election to the National Academy of Science for department faculty going back to the days of Josiah Parsons Cooke; currently many of the faculty share this honor.