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Department of Chemistry

Heads of the Department

Charles H. Wing 1874–[1884 leaves MIT]
James Crafts 1895–1897
Henry P. Talbot 1901–1921
Frederick George Keyes 1922–1941
Leicester F. Hamilton 1941–1945
Arthur C. Cope 1945–1965
John Ross 1966–1971
Glenn A. Berchtold 1971–1976
John Deutch 1976–1977
James L. Kinsey 1977–1982
Christopher T. Walsh 1982–1987
Mark S. Wrighton 1987–1990
Robert J. Sibley 1991–1995
Stephen J. Lippard 1995–2005
Timothy M. Swager 2005–2010
Sylvia T. Ceyer 2010–2015
Timothy F. Jamison 2015–2019
Troy Van Voorhis 2019–present

When classes began at MIT in 1865, Course V (5) Practical & Technical Chemistry was among the first five courses offered (Alexander, 18). The courses were designed by MIT founder William Barton Rogers, who himself had taught Chemistry at the College of William and Mary and at the University of Virginia (Andrews). The first two professors of chemistry at MIT were Francis H. Storer and Charles W. Eliot, who would go on to become the president of Harvard University and subsequently attempt multiple alliances and mergers with MIT. In 1866, Cyrus Warren was hired as the first professor of organic chemistry.

In 1870, Ellen Swallow was the first woman admitted to MIT as a special student in Chemistry. She earned her S.B. in 1873 and went on to establish the Women’s Laboratory in 1876, where women could receive instruction in chemistry at MIT until 1883, when they were finally permitted to work alongside men in the regular laboratories. Swallow’s title was ‘Instructor in Sanitary Chemistry.’ Her research on sanitary chemistry became the foundation for the home economics movement, and popularized the application of science in the home.

In 1888, Course X (10) in Chemical Engineering was added to the curriculum in response to industrial needs. It was reasoned that certain industrial machines could only be built either by or under the supervision of chemists familiar with the chemicals which would be processed by the machines, and Course X would fill the need for these kinds of skilled workers. Chemical Engineering remained a part of the department until 1920, when it became its own department.

In 1903, Arthur Amos Noyes founded the Research Laboratory in Physical Chemistry, which played a pivotal role in the development of chemical research at MIT.

During World War I, the department contributed heavily to the war effort, with 34 members of the faculty and many graduate students devoting their skills and expertise to solving problems of both chemical defense—including developing a superior gas mask—and offense (Ruckman, 257). Of the faculty who temporarily left MIT for the war effort, 18 worked under Professor William Walker on chemical warfare, poison gas manufacture and assay, and the rest were involved in gas defense.

The School of Chemical Engineering Practice was established in February of 1917 with 30 students thanks to a generous donation from MIT benefactor George Eastman, but was soon obliged to halt its operations due to the war effort. It was developed with the intention of providing practical and hands-on training in chemistry, and quickly became a popular course of study once the war had ended. In 1920, Chemical Engineering split from Chemistry to become its own department, which included the course in Chemical Engineering, the School of Chemical Engineering Practice, and the Research Lab in Applied Chemistry. The new department of Chemical Engineering was headed by Warren K. Lewis.

During WWII, the department was again diverted by the war effort. Department head Frederick Keyes stepped down from his position to focus on war research, especially the “efficiency of oxygen production and in transportation of it by lightweight portable units” (MIT, 1941). Despite the disruption of the war, instruction in chemistry continued to evolve, and in 1943 the department announced the intention to strengthen research and instruction in organic chemistry. To that end, in 1944 Arthur C. Cope was appointed head of the newly-created Division of Organic Chemistry.

Following the war, the department enjoyed an upswing in both research sponsored by private industry and government-sponsored research, notably a project on the properties and reactions of hydrogen peroxide, which was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (MIT, 1947).

The department continued to grow, modernize, and adapt to rapid changes in the field throughout the second half of the 20th century. In 1957, history was made when MIT chemist John C. Sheehan completed the first chemical synthesis of Penicillin. In 1962, new labs for research in nuclear chemistry were built next to the MIT reactor.

The growing department soon required more space, and in 1966, I. M. Pei (MIT Class of 1940) designed a new chemistry building to be located in Eastman Court, which was completed in 1970 and named the Camille Edouard Dreyfus Building (building 18).

Throughout the 1970s, cancer research became popular in the department, as it remains to this day (MIT 1974).

In 1988, the Women in Chemistry (WIC) group was established in connection with ongoing efforts to increase the numbers of women and minorities in the department. Also in 1988, the Chemistry Outreach Program was established to bring chemistry into Boston-area schools and inspire future scientists.

In 1995, a multi-million-dollar fundraising program was initiated to renovate the chemistry spaces in all buildings. The aim of Chemistry Campaign 2000 was to renovate all space in the department, including rooms and labs in buildings 2, 4, 6 and 18. The work was funded by MIT as well as gifts from alumni, industry and friends of the department. In August 2002, the labs on the second and third floors of building 18 were named in honor of the late Professor Emeritus George H. Buchi and for Pfizer Global Research and Development Division and the Pfizer Foundation, which supported the renovations. In 2003, a full renovation of the Dreyfus Building was completed with design by the architectural firm Goody, Clancy and Associates.

Prepared by the Department of Distinctive Collections, April 2020

Works Cited

Alexander, Philip N. A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.

Andrews, Elizabeth, Murphy, Nora, Rosko, Tom. “William Barton Rogers: MIT’s Visionary Founder.” Institute Archives and Special Collections. MIT. 2012.

Ruckman, John H. Technology’s War Record: An Interpretation of the Contribution Made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Its Staff, Its Former Students and Its Undergraduates to the Cause of the United States and the Allied Powers in the Great War, 1914-1919. Cambridge, Mass.: The Murray printing Company, 1920.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reports to the President. Cambridge: MIT, 1874-2012