The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
Development and Growth of the Chemical Laboratory

EXPERIMENTAL sciences were given a place in the curriculums of University studies with the nomination of Douglass Houghton to a combined professorship of chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in 1839, but actual teaching of chemistry was deferred until 1844, when Silas H. Douglass* became an assistant to the Professor of Chemistry. At this time instruction in chemistry comprised lectures and quizzes only. Laboratory work was initiated shortly after Henry P. Tappan became President of the University in 1852. Mainly, it consisted of chemical analyses and their applications to toxicology and to other subjects, chiefly medical. Hence it was fitting that quarters for the work should be in the old Medical Building, known at that time as the "Laboratory Building." The plans for this structure had been drawn by Silas Douglass, who also superintended its erection. The immediate success of the practical course and of Douglass' persistent effort to procure a separate building for chemistry led to the inclusion of a request for a chemical laboratory building in the President's Report to the Regents in December, 1855.

The following spring, funds were appropriated for the erection of "a convenient building for the experiments and instruction in analytical chemistry," and Douglass was again made superintendent of construction. Thus was erected in 1856 the first chemical laboratory building of a state university, at a total cost of about six thousand dollars for building and equipment. It was a one-story structure containing three rooms and was equipped with twenty-six laboratory tables. Probably the original chemistry building, then called the Chemical Laboratory of the University of Michigan, was the first structure on the North American continent that was designed, erected, and equipped solely for instruction in chemistry. Other older American chemical laboratories, such as the quarters used by Professor Benjamin Silliman at Yale University, the laboratory of Dr. Robert Hare in Philadelphia, and the laboratories for instruction of students in chemistry and in physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, were not designed and erected for the purpose, Page  513but were adapted from structures already existing.

With the erection of this building the University inaugurated a policy of housing under one roof all chemical activities; academic as well as professional students had practical chemistry in the one laboratory. The natural growth of the University, and particularly the development of professional training in dentistry, engineering, medicine, and pharmacy, together with enhanced interest in chemistry for teacher training and as a profession distinct from engineering, have necessitated additions to the original structure from time to time. Altogether, seven additions were made — in 1861, 1866, 1868, 1874, 1880, 1888, and 1901. The third addition was coincident with the establishment of curriculums in pharmacy; the fourth barely preceded the establishment of the School of Pharmacy in 1876.

The number of laboratory tables had increased from the original twenty-six to 190 in 1874, and to 362 in 1901, exclusive of a limited number for special research and for staff use. It had not been possible to adhere to a definite structural plan in adding units to the building; hence, as a whole, the laboratory was unhandy. Moreover, it was not fireproof. Numerous locker fires in the course of years resulted ultimately in a ruling by the Regents prohibiting instruction in blowpipe analysis, this apparently having been mainly responsible for the difficulty. So far as can be ascertained at present, the prohibition is still in effect, although the work of the laboratory has been conducted in a fireproof building since 1909. Lack of adequate ventilation in the old building was apparent, especially in late afternoon hours, when dense and acrid fumes dimmed the analytical laboratories, and, incidentally, permitted only a short span of life to the woodwork of fume-closets. Still another serious deficiency was the almost complete lack of sanitary facilities.

The writer vividly recalls his first experiences in the University as lecturer on general chemistry to engineering students in 1902. Although included in engineering curriculums, the work was conducted in the Chemical Laboratory, which could not provide laboratory facilities for these students. The largest lecture room accommodated about 120 listeners, and the class numbered 279. To give all of its members the advantages of experimental lecture demonstrations, it was necessary to offer the single weekly lecture three times. This could be done only when the lecture room was not otherwise in use and when the students did not have other classes. In the several quiz sections that met twice weekly, some members would not have witnessed the demonstrations of the week, some would have seen them before either quiz, and others would have seen them only between quizzes. The arrangement certainly was disconcerting to the instructor, and it was not conducive to efficiency of teaching. Fortunately, amphitheater space became available in the old Medical Building when the new one was completed in 1903, and later the amphitheater in the old Dental Building was taken over for lectures to the larger classes in elementary chemistry. But these rooms had been built for other purposes and were unprovided with facilities adequate for setting up lecture demonstrations in chemistry.

Continued growth in numbers of students and an urge for expansion along various lines of chemical engineering, chemistry, and pharmacy showed that it was imperative to erect a new chemical laboratory building if the University were to maintain its leading position among institutions of higher learning. Prior to his death in 1905 Professor Albert B. Prescott had worked on tentative Page  514plans for a new building. His successor as Director of the Chemical Laboratory, Professor Edward D. Campbell, and a selected group of the staff also were busied with preliminary problems of spacing and equipment for the three units that would occupy a new building. In the fall of 1907 architects were employed to draw up plans and specifications for a building that should meet the needs of the University for a number of years. The Regents approved plans for a four-story building, 270 feet in length and 150 feet wide, with provision for about 950 laboratory tables and a liberal allowance of rooms for special research and staff accommodation. But when the plans were submitted to the contractors for bids in the following spring, the estimates were so high that it became necessary to reduce the size of the structure. Accordingly, new plans were approved for a four-story building 230 feet long and 130 feet wide, and contracts for its erection were authorized on September 24, 1908. The structure retained essential features of design and arrangement shown by the first plan, but the number of laboratory tables was reduced to 634. Fortunately, only a minor reduction of accommodations for research and for the staff was necessitated. By October of 1909 the present building was so nearly completed that some courses were given in the new laboratories during the first semester of that academic year, and the remaining courses were transferred at the beginning of the second semester, in February, 1910.

During the decade 1910-20 an unprecedented increase in the number of students attending the University overtaxed the original equipment of the new laboratory. To alleviate growing pains, changes in table equipment were made from time to time. Space required for storage of each student's personal apparatus and supplies was reduced by rebuilding table lockers. Fortunately, the original design of the tables and the distribution of gas, water, and waste lines to them permitted this reduction of locker spacing without involving too great an expense. Locker accommodations of laboratory tables for beginning courses, situated on the fourth floor, have been doubled, and in this way table space has been provided for approximately 1,000 students, of whom 250 may occupy the laboratories at one time. For more advanced work it was not feasible to reduce locker dimensions to so great an extent, but an increase of 50 per cent in the number of lockers has been made for tables in all advanced laboratories. It is not possible to proceed further in this direction, for locker spacing is now at an irreducible minimum.

The transfer of the Department of Chemical Engineering to the East Engineering Building in 1923 relieved congestion both in the laboratory and in the chemical library. Part of the vacated laboratory and office space has been used for advanced laboratory courses and research in the several divisions of pure chemistry and in pharmacy, and an opportunity has thus been provided for a change in the organization and functions of the laboratory dispensing department. A new laboratory was equipped for electrochemistry, and several smaller rooms were made available for research in this field. The general laboratory, into which all regular course work of physical chemistry had been crowded, was equipped as a special laboratory for colloid chemistry, and more ample accommodations were found for the general course work in physical chemistry. Similarly, new laboratories were established for advanced work in analytical and organic chemistry, and increased facilities were provided for research in these two departmental units. Likewise, a prescription laboratory was equipped for the Page  515College of Pharmacy, and extra space was given over to the College for research.

Hitherto, the dispensing department had been charged with the handling of student accounts and had supplied apparatus and chemicals, mainly to the chemical laboratory. At the June meeting in 1923, the Board of Regents initiated a new policy for the distribution of such materials, through the establishment of a University Chemical Storehouse, of which the dispensing arrangements for the chemical laboratory should be a part. The resolution of the Board reads as follows:

The University Chemical Storehouse shall be assigned quarters now occupied by the dispensing rooms in the Chemical Laboratory, and in addition Rooms 126, 128, 132, 136, 138 and 227 of the Chemical Laboratory … Professor Robert J. Carney shall be in charge of the University Chemical Storehouse, and it shall be operated as a part of the business organization of the University for the service of all University work in chemistry, and … responsibility of Professor Carney as head of this work shall be to the Secretary of the University.


(R.P., 1920-23, p. 856.)

The new policy is a result of the continued increase in scientific laboratory work done by many departments of the University, for which the purchase and distribution of apparatus and supplies has become an important problem. The University Chemical Storehouse furnishes apparatus, chemicals, and other supplies on requisition to all departments, to individual faculty members, and to students. The change has resulted in a considerable saving to all departments using laboratory materials, and has made available an excellent, diversified stock. During the fourteen years of its existence the yearly net receipts have increased from $23,000 to more than $86,000. If the materials supplied to the Department of Chemistry and to the College of Pharmacy are taken into account, the annual business of the University Chemical Storehouse is now considerably more than $100,000. Besides the regular dispensing employees, a glass blower is engaged to repair apparatus and construct special equipment, so essential to modern research. The Storehouse also furnishes employment to a number of student assistants.

In February, 1926, an advanced course in gas analysis was offered for the first time in a laboratory newly equipped for this service. This is the most recent special laboratory to be established in the building for regular course instruction. Naturally, equipment of research rooms changes from time to time as new problems are developed for investigation. Pressure to offer laboratory work in organic chemistry to students in training for admission to a medical school was met for several years by providing extra facilities in the summer session. When the Medical School made laboratory work in organic chemistry an absolute requirement for all students entering in 1933 and thereafter, it became impracticable to require a summer session for this work. Accordingly, space that is provided with equipment suitable for organic chemistry has been borrowed temporarily in the general pharmacy laboratory. This has been possible because the growth in the number of pharmacy students has not kept pace with the numerical increase of the students enrolled in chemistry, since a four-year training period is now required of pharmacy students, and all shorter periods of training for the pharmaceutical profession have been discontinued. Although the borrowing of space for the use of premedical students continues, it may not be permitted to jeopardize the natural growth of facilities for the use of the students of pharmacy.