Monday, October 1, 2012

A Corps Subject: Early Chemistry Education at West Point

My good friend Ferdinand Meyer has had some wonderful recent posts at his Peachridge Glass website and blog.  The first post (here) was about mysteries and questions surrounding a West Point "Class of 1846" bottle; interest in the bottle naturally led to many threads about the early history of the United States Military Academy, described in a second post (here).

The posts- as with all of Ferdinand's posts - are excellent in their own right; they were also of special interest to me because they 1) emphasized the role of the famous "Class of 1846" in the Civil War and 2) they reminded me of my very first published historical magazine article in the (unfortunately now-defunct) Today's Chemist at Work.

The article, published in the November 1999 issue of the magazine, was about the early history of the chemistry department at West Point.  I've learned a lot about writing since then (see a few notes below in the article in red) but it was so much fun to write and research because it combined my day job (as a chemist) with my interests in history, chemistry, the Civil War, and more.

The article is below.  Enjoy!

An Officer and a Chemist
At West Point Chemistry is a "Corps" Subject!
November 1999 issue of Today's Chemist at Work
by James M. Schmidt

For nearly two centuries,  the United States has depended on the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, to provide many of its future Army officers with an advanced education.  Since early in the Academy's history, the study of chemistry has played a critical role in this training, not only as an essential military technology but also as a scientific discipline intended to develop a cadet's ability to analyze and solve any number of problems.  From Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in the last century to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Norman Schwarzkopf in this era, generations of West Point graduates have shared this legacy.

[Note: Wow - 1999 is a long time ago!  I could actually write "last century" and mean the 1800s and not the 1900s!  Also, the United States Military Academy has since celebrated its bicentennial, in 2002.]

Based on Europe's Finest

In1802, during the Jefferson administration, Congress established the U.S. Military Academy on the strategic banks of the Hudson River in West Point.  In 1817, Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, often called the "Father of the Military Academy," initiated a curriculum heavily slanted toward engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences.  He patterned the program after the famed European military academies of the 18th century, including Britain's Sandhurst and Woolwich, the Prussian upper cadet school in Berlin, and especially France's l'Ecole Polytechnique.  By the 1820s, West Point had established itself as one of the great scientific institution in the Western hemisphere.  Most of the schools on which it was modeled had chemistry as part of their programs, so it is not surprising that chemistry found an early and secure home at the academy.

Sylvanus Thayer
In West Point's first years, cadets studied chemistry informally through independent reading or by attending lectures given by visiting scientists to the school's "Military Philosophical Society."  The school's library made William Nicholson's First Principles of Chemistry (c. 1790) one of its earliest acquisitions.  In early 1820, Joseph Lovell, the surgeon general of the army suggested that chemistry be formally added to the academy's program of study.  Superintendent Thayer enthusiastically supported the idea and offered to spare $500 from the budget for the purchase of chemical apparatus.  The post adjutant issued an order on October 8, 1820, announcing that chemistry lectures would begin the following day.  Cadets in the upper two classes, as well as all other officers on site, were invited to attend.

[Click on image below for full text of Nicholson's First Principles of Chemistry]

But it was not until 1838 that the first permanent professor of chemistry was appointed: Jacob Whitman Bailey.  Bailey, who placed fifth in the academy class of 1832, had spent two years as a second lieutenant on artillery duty, then returned to West Point as an assistant chemistry instructor before receiving the professorship.  While at the academy, Bailey did noteworthy research in chemistry, but became best known for his achievements in botany.  He is recognized as the pioneer microscopist in the United States and was the first American to detect freshwater algae in the fossil state.  Bailey's scientific research was widely published in the American and European journals of the day, especially the American Journal of Science (commonly known as Silliman's Journal).  At the time of his death in 1857, he was serving as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[Click on images below for two excellent Bailey-related items.  One is a memorial address given after Bailey's death; the other is handwritten correspondence between Bailey and John Torrey, for 1836-1857. The correspondence discusses botanical topics including publications and plant identifications, particularly of algae, diatoms, microorganisms, and marine sediments. Bailey discusses his own collecting in the United States, as well as his work identifying collections from the United States Exploring Expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands.]

Bailey and Torrey Correspondence - NY Botanical Garden
 Cadets of the time  invariably mentioned Bailey with kindness and admiration in their memoirs.  He held the opinion that an otherwise deserving and qualified cadet should not be denied a commission for failing to understand the finer points of chemistry, evidenced by the small percentage of all academic dismissals due to failure in chemistry.

Whistler Self-Portrait
One notable academic casualty was the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (of Whistler's Mother fame).  In 1852, Bailey's wife and only daughter were killed in a steamboat accident, and Assistant Professor Caleb Huse assumed charge while Bailey attended to funeral arrangements and took personal leave.  Not as indulgent or forgiving as Bailey, any patience Huse did have was worn thin by the inattentive Whistler, who already had a considerable reputation as the academy's resident bon vivant. In the early summer of 1854, during the final examinations at the end of Whistler's third year, Huse called on the painter to discuss the properties of silicon. "I am required to discuss the subject of silicon," Whistler began confidently.  "Silicon is a gas..." "That will do, Mr. Whistler," the professor interrupted.  Huse promptly failed him, resulting in Whistler's dismissal from the academy.  Commenting on what he may have considered s tenuous link between success in chemistry and glory in the army, the famed artist later quipped, "Had silicon been a gas, I would now be a major general."  Whistler's nemesis Huse left the academy in 1859 and taught briefly at the University of Alabama before joining the Confederate Army as an arms-purchasing agent in Europe.

[This is a GREAT story but also a lesson learned; since the article was written I got advice from a professional historian that a) Whistler's humorous "major general" declaration might have been apocryphal an b) that his dismissal might have been owed to misbehavior in drawing class rather than chemistry.  I've learned since that a) if an anecdote sounds too good to be true, it probably is and b) that the truth is probably more interesting than the myth/legend.]

A Den of Fawkses

During the antebellum era, all cadets in the "second class," that is, juniors, attended chemistry recitations on alternate days throughout the academic year.  They studied inorganic, organic, and applied chemistry from the same textbooks in use at other colleges and universities.  Bailey often departed from the routine of blackboard recitations to show the cadets how chemistry could be applied to technology, especially in the military arena.

 The course and professor made an indelible impression on John C. Tidball, Class of 1848.  In his memoirs of cadet life, written almost 50 years after his graduation, he remarked:

"The most interesting study of [my third] year, in fact, of the entire four years to me was chemistry.  This was under Professor Bailey, a man then rising in fame as a scientist.  Microscopic investigation was his specialty, but he was erudite in every branch of his department...I well remember the talk he gave us on heliography, then but recently introduced in a practical form...He also produced gun cotton and, explaining the secrets of the preparation, illustrated its wonderful explosive qualities."

The cadets obtained the majority of their practical chemical instruction in the ordnance laboratory during their senior year. They made preparations and conducted tests that would make even the most adventurous of today's chemistry professors nervous!  Tidball described the laboratory in his memoirs:

"We, as First Classmen, had considerable other duties to perform, among which may be mentioned laboratory work...Perspiring and grimy, we worked in pitch paste, and brimstone, like so many Guy Fawkses, preparing all manner of incendiary compositions and material used in the artillery service."

These hands-on laboratory experiences gave Tidball and his comrades a clear advantage over their contemporaries at other schools, who rarely had the opportunity to work with scientific apparatus or perform experiments themselves.

Not All Warriors

The academy assigned cadets to a branch of service based on their class standing at the end of the four-year program.  Success in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, including chemistry, was a powerful determinant, because they represented nearly 70% of the weight in ranking the class.  The highest ranking graduates obtained coveted commissions in the "scientific corps" of the Army: the engineering, ordnance, an artillery branches.  The balance of the graduates were assigned to the infantry and cavalry, where as Tidball wrote, "...a good square seat in the saddle was deemed of more importance than brains."  Ordnance was the branch most associated with chemistry; its officers supervised production at the various arsenals and made advances in munitions and weapons.

Alexander D. Bache
The antebellum academy turned out graduates with highly prized scientific training, and colleges and universities actively recruited West Pointers to fill professorships, including ones in chemistry.  Alexander Dallas Bache (Benjamin Franklin's great-grandson), Class of 1825, was appointed professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and later served as president of the National Academy of Sciences from its founding in 1863 to 1867.  Rosell Patk, Class of 1831, succeeded Bache in the chemistry chair at Penn, serving as professor from 1836 to 1843.  William Gilham, Class of 1840, was the central figure in the chemistry department at the Virginia Military Institute for almost 20 years and made substantial contributions in advancing the discipline of agricultural chemistry in the South.

A Neutral Position

Edward C. Boynton, Class of 1846, was an assistant professor of chemistry at West Point from 1848 to 1855, where he published several papers on chemistry and chemical analysis.  In 1856, he accepted a professorship in chemistry at the University of Mississippi.  Boynton's interest in photography raised the suspicions of local authorities, who mistook his picture-taking for spying.  He was forced to resign his professorship in late 1861 for "evincing a want of attachment to the Government of the Confederate States." Boynton declined two invitations to command Union regiments raised by his native Vermont.  Instead, he offered to serve as adjutant at West Point, where he felt safe from having to engage in hostilities against his fellow students and professors from Ole Miss.

A few graduates applied their chemical and ordnance knowledge to commercial and manufacturing pursuits, especially in what we now term the "military-industrial complex": cannon foundries, iron works, and firearm manufactories.  The graduates with the greatest legacy in the chemical industry are a father and son - Classes of 1833 and 1861 - who eventually resigned their commission as officers to become directors and proprietors of their family's extensive gunpowder works on the Brandywine River near Wilmington, DE: Henry and Henry A. du Pont, scions of the E. I du Pont de Nemours dynasty!

The More Things Change...

Chemistry remains as important as ever at West Point today.  Every cadet is required to pass two semesters of general chemistry as part of the core curriculum (the same holds true at the Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard Academies).  Cadets with a special interest in chemistry, like their 19th-century counterpart Tidball, can now choose to major in it, choosing from traditional or life science degree options.  

West Point is America's oldest continually operated, federally-funded institution of higher education.  As this vaklued national experiment approaches its bicentennial in 2002, the heritag and scientific strength of its chemistry program begun in the 19th century continue to attract some of America's brightest young men and women to study under the rubric of a commitment to "duty, honor, and country."

Photo courtesy United States Military Academy

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