Celebrating 150 Years of Chemistry at Berkeley

South Hall c. 1900

Celebrating 150 years of history is a monumental task: doubly so when it is UC Berkeley’s prestigious College of Chemistry. The College has a rich academic and scientific history. When the University of California was founded, the first set of Regents deemed chemistry so important that one of the first ten faculty hired in 1868 was the chemist Robert A. Fisher as the professor of chemistry, mining and metallurgy. His position was in the College of Agriculture because an official College of Chemistry was not organized until 1872.

One of the many challenges Fisher faced was the complete lack of chemical lab equipment available for purchase on the west coast. As a result, Fisher was sent to Europe with the sizeable sum of $9,500 ($275,000 today) to buy the University’s first lab equipment and reference books. He taught the University’s first chemistry class in the temporary downtown Oakland campus at night with chemical demonstrations. He left the University abruptly in 1870 when the Board of Regents cancelled his faculty position for unexplained reasons. Fisher was followed by Ezra S. Carr who was hired in 1869 as the professor of agriculture, chemistry, agriculture and applied chemistry, and horticulture. Carr also taught at the downtown Oakland campus with his class open to the public. One of his first students was a very young Edmond O’Neill, who later served as dean of the College from 1901 to 1912. Years later, O’Neill recalled attending Carr’s lectures as a boy. “Although it was fifty years ago, I remember the lectures and experiments as though they occurred yesterday. It fired my imagination and gave me my first insight into the charm and interest of science.” Carr was a popular lecturer but was politically active, trying to sway University policy at the state level. Because of his political activities, he was removed by the Regents from his position in 1873.

The College of Chemistry, officially chartered in 1872 by the California state legislature, is one hundred and forty-six years old in this year of UC Berkeley’s sesquicentennial. Willard B. Rising was hired in 1871 and arrived on campus in 1872 as the first official professor of chemistry in the College. Rising had received his Ph.D. under Robert Bunsen at the University of Heidelberg. As with most chemists of the era, Rising’s principal expertise was the chemical analysis of minerals, drugs, agricultural products, and water. In 1885, he took a second position as Analyst for the California State Board of Health to test and certify water supplies statewide. He often worked free of charge to help communities improve their water primarily because the state could not afford to pay him. Rising was the de facto dean of the College until he was officially appointed the first dean in 1896.

Chemistry was first housed in South Hall, the oldest building on campus, designed by the Architect David Farquharson. Farquharson was a well-established architect in the Bay Area at the time and designed many of the original campus buildings. South Hall is the only original building remaining from that period. When it was first opened, the building housed the chemistry and physics departments along with the first campus library. Rising’s office, and the College’s first set of labs were located in South Hall. The interior furnishings were made from California laurel, the desks black walnut and the hoods were plate glass. The building incorporated stained-glass windows into its design.

According to O’Neill, in a 1918 Journal of Industrial Engineering Chemistry article, “When completed, the laboratory was physically superior to any in America and was probably unexcelled by any in the world.” He went on, “With the smallness of the classes and the lack of distracting avocations and activities, now unhappily so prevalent, we could devote ourselves to study and reflection…the small college in the midst of uninhabited fields of Berkeley had a charm that can never come again.”

In 1891, the first dedicated chemistry building was erected. It was designed by the architect Clinton Day, at a cost of $83,500 ($2 million today) was made of 43,180 bricks, and was paid for by University funds. The building contained a lecture hall, numerous laboratories for instruction and research, and faculty offices. It eventually came to be known as the “Old Chemistry Building.” The building was demolished in 1963 to make way for Hildebrand Hall. However, its original cupola was preserved and can be seen in the plaza of the College’s complex today.

Some of the first graduates of the College became its next faculty. John M. Stillman was the first Ph.D. graduate in 1885. He did his undergraduate work at Berkeley, graduating in 1874, and went to Germany for his graduate training. He returned to lecture at Berkeley from 1876 to 1882 and then went on to work as the Chief Chemist and Superintendent for the Boston and American Sugar Refining Company. He did not write a formal dissertation to receive his Ph.D. His degree was awarded for his “exemplary record as a student and for his publication while a university faculty member of nine papers on the composition of certain resins and the ethereal oil of the California bay tree.” Stillman was the first chemistry faculty hired at the inception of Stanford University in 1891. In addition to his teaching and scholarship there, Stillman took an active part in department and university administration, including time as Stanford’s Vice President and Acting President. He was executive head of the department from 1904 to 1919.

Edmond O’Neill received his B.S. at Berkeley specializing in chemistry and agriculture. Upon his graduation in 1879, he was appointed instructor in analytical chemistry. Except for the period from 1884-1887, when he was a graduate student in Europe, O’Neill spent the rest of his professional life at Berkeley. He taught everything from analytical to physiological chemistry (biochemistry). Physiological chemistry was his main interest and he studied fatty acids of the seeds of the California bay laurel and the terpenes of Monterey cypress. Similar to Rising, he was involved in solving water quality problems around the state. He was dean of the College from 1901 until 1912. Gilbert N. Lewis arrived at Berkeley and became dean in 1912. O’Neill took the position back temporarily during WWI as Lewis was involved in the war effort in France and Washington. O’Neill was a good judge of character and was largely responsible, along with Rising, for hiring Frederick Cottrell and Gilbert N. Lewis to the College faculty.

O’Neill was also associated with student life on campus. He was a member of all the student honor societies, chairman of the Faculty Committee on Athletics, and helped to organize the Alumni Association. He was one of the founders of the Faculty Club and served as its president for ten years. In addition, he was responsible for the formation of the California chapter of the American Chemical Society. Nearly forty chemists attended the first meeting in San Francisco in 1901.

The College’s first entrepreneur

Frederick G. Cottrell was destined for success in the chemical sciences. Cottrell finished his undergraduate chemistry degree at Berkeley in three years in 1896. It was not atypical for him to work on problems all night in the lab. During Cottrell’s third year as an undergraduate, Rising wrote to him and said, “I wish to say to you that I consider your attainments in chemistry and your faithful devotion to the science worthy of some special recognition. I have accordingly, with the consent of the President of the University, designated you Assistant to the Professor of Chemistry.”

He left a Fellowship at the University to teach high school chemistry and to save enough money to do graduate work in Germany. After traveling in Europe, he settled into the lab of Wilhelm Ostwald (who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1909) in Leipzig in March of 1901 to study the “theoretical effect of the counterflow of an electrolyte on the migration of ions through a diaphragm in an electrolytic cell.” Cottrell’s final oral examination for his Ph.D. was held in July of 1902. He had completed his Ph.D. in less than a year and a half and graduated summa cum laude.

He returned to Berkeley as a lecturer at a starting salary of $1,000 a year. In 1904 he installed the first liquid air plant on the West Coast. The plant was the start of the low temperature laboratory that later was developed and used by thermodynamicists George E. Gibson, Wendell M. Latimer and Nobel Laureate William F. Giauque.

In 1905, the Du Pont sulfuric acid plant at San Pablo Bay asked Cottrell for help with the problem of precipitating the acid mists which form when sulfur trioxide vapor is bubbled through water or dilute sulfuric acid. Cottrell determined that an electrical method, similar to one unsuccessfully tried by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1884, could be used for precipitating the mists. Thus the electrostatic precipitator was developed. Cottrell realized that considerable money was needed to purchase special equipment for the project. O’Neill and a consortium of chemists and attorneys came together and backed Cottrell’s invention forming the Western Precipitation Company. With money in hand, Cottrell was able to demonstrate that every bit of the sulfuric acid in a gas current, representing 3 tons per day, could be collected with a power consumption of less than one-third kilowatt. The process was a complete success.

The electrostatic precipitator had far reaching applications pertaining to managing toxic chemical pollution. It became obvious that the patents would generate a great deal of revenue. Cottrell convinced his associates to donate the patents so scientists could use the proceeds to support future research. Cottrell worked with the Smithsonian Institution to form the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a scientific philanthropic non-profit. The formation of the Research Corporation was a major innovation in scientific philanthropy created to utilize the proceeds of the Cottrell patents for further advancements in science and technology. One of the grants made by the corporation was for $5,500 to UC Berkeley physicist Ernest O. Lawrence to help acquire the giant magnet that was used in the construction of the first big cyclotron at Berkeley.

Cottrell left the University in 1911 and went on to a successful career in the U.S. Bureau of Mines, National Research Council and the Department of Agriculture.

Gilbert N. Lewis & the atomic era

Gilbert N. Lewis was born into the era of atomic research. Max Planck and Albert Einstein had turned physics on its ear at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1905, Einstein introduced the concept of a “light quantum” which described the particle nature of light. Lewis would popularize the term “photon” to describe this unit of light in a 1926 letter to Nature.

Lewis completed his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1899 when he was 24. He then traveled to Germany and spent a year studying with Wilhelm Ostwald and Walther Nernst. After traveling, and working in the Philippines, he settled into a faculty position at MIT in 1905. In 1912, after Rising and O’Neill both canvassed UC President Wheeler, Lewis was hired and arrived on campus to take up the position of professor of physical chemistry and dean of the College of Chemistry. Lewis was elected to the National Academy of Sciences the next year.

His research was aptly summarized by Joel Hildebrand in an obituary written about Lewis, “[Lewis is associated with] the electron theory of chemical valence, the advance of chemical thermodynamics, the separation of isotopes which made possible the use of the deuteron in the artificial transmutation of the elements, and the unravelling of the complex phenomena of the adsorption, fluorescence and phosphorescence of organic dyes are among the achievements which will ever be associated with his name.”

In 1902 he began to use unpublished drawings of cubical atoms in his lecture notes. In the drawings the corners of the cubes represented possible electron positions. His ongoing study led to the publication in 1916 of his classic paper “The Atom and the Molecule” in the Journal of American Chemistry where he described the electron-pair bond and the “rule of eight.” He detailed this and other research concepts in Valence and the Structure of Atoms and Molecules published in 1923. Lewis co-published a review of the theory of color with Melvin Calvin in the 1930s.

Old Chemistry Building c. 1897

Several famous chemists became faculty during the Lewis era. Nobel Laureate William F. Giauque joined the faculty in 1922, the same year he received his Ph.D. degree in chemistry with a minor in physics. He had been focused on an engineering career when he started his undergraduate work in chemistry but acquired a liking for fundamental research. He cited the emphasis on scientific investigation by the group of faculty and students associated with Lewis as the major influence for his career choice. Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg was his personal laboratory assistant from 1937 to 1939. Seaborg joined the faculty in 1939. Other faculty who started in the Lewis era included Wendell M. Latimer, Joel H. Hildebrand, G. Ernest Gibson and Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin. Two hundred and ninety Ph.D.s were granted under Lewis and his colleagues.

According to Seaborg, in William Jolly’s book From Retorts to Lasers, “[Lewis] to a large extent ran the College from his laboratory. I recall that his efficient secretary, Mabel Kittredge, would come into our laboratory, stand poised with her notebook until she commanded his attention, and describe clearly and briefly the matter that required his attention or decision. Lewis would either give his answer immediately or ask her to come back in a little while.”

Gilbert N. Lewis in lab c. 1944

Lewis stepped down as dean in 1941 focusing on his research. In 1946, he tragically died from a heart attack in his lab. A graduate student found his lifeless body under a workbench. He had been working on an experiment with liquid hydrogen cyanide, and deadly fumes from a broken line had leaked into the room.

Contributions by the early faculty as researchers, educators and administrators in chemistry have been foundational to training world-class alumni who have excelled as researchers, faculty, and industry experts over the last 150 years. Many discoveries that changed the world were researched during the early years at the College of Chemistry. This important legacy continues through to the present day.