Unveiling Ceremony Recalls, Honors Legacy of John Emmet’s Chemical Hearth

March 7, 2024
Rob Davidson standing infront of the excavated chemical hearth speaking to a room full of people

Rob Davidson, treasurer of the Virginia section of the American Chemical Society, opens the ceremony to recognize the chemical hearth as a historic landmark. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The University of Virginia’s chemical hearth has stepped into history.

The American Chemical Society officially designated the hearth, designed by University founder Thomas Jefferson and John Emmet, his first professor of natural sciences, as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Built in the 1820s, then sealed in the walls of the Rotunda in the 1840s, the hearth was exposed during the recent renovations and is now on permanent display.

In a ceremony Friday in the Rotunda’s Lower East Oval Room, representatives of the chemical society, UVA’s Department of Chemistry and its Division of Facilities Management gathered to unveil a plaque citing the hearth and Emmet’s contributions to chemical education. 

“Chemistry has never been a science that you can learn only by studying a book. It has been, and always will be, an experimental science where discoveries and learning come through hands-on lab work,” Jill Venton, chair of the UVA Chemistry Department, said during the ceremony.

Jill Venton speaking at a podium infront of the excavated chemical hearth

Jill Venton, chair of the UVA Department of Chemistry, said chemists still use the hands-on teaching methods that John Emmet pioneered. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“You must do chemistry to learn chemistry,” Venton said. “John Emmet insisted that he needed a hands-on chemical hearth and lab for students to do chemistry and not just watch the professor, which was somewhat radical in his day.” 

The hearth provided heat for chemical experiments.

Venton said students in UVA’s modern chemistry labs and classrooms still follow Emmet’s hands-on, active learning process.

Mary K. Carroll, president of the American Chemical Society, said designating the chemical hearth as the newest National Historic Chemical Landmark highlights contributions of chemistry to daily life.

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‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

“Chemistry is a subject that can seem intimidating to people. One way to make it more accessible is to share the stories of the chemists responsible for some of the major innovations on which our modern lifestyle is built,” Carroll said. “The methods used to teach chemistry have come a long way since the first U.S. universities were founded. That progress is due, in part, to innovations introduced nearly 200 years ago, here at the University of Virginia.”

Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, said that while other professors taught on the ground floors of their pavilions, Emmet needed a separate space for chemistry because of the noxious fumes.

“Emmet wasn’t teaching theoretical chemistry,” Hogg said. “He was teaching practical chemistry to farmers or plantation owners. That science that he was teaching was intended to be taken by them to improve the production of the farms that they own and to enhance their work.”

Hogg said Emmet also taught medical students how to make medications.

Mary K. Carroll speaking at a podium infront of the excavated chemical hearth, left, Brian Hogg, right

Mary K. Carroll, left, is president of the American Chemical Society, which designated the chemical hearth as the newest National Historic Chemical Landmark. Brian Hogg, right, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, detailed professor John Emmet’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson and his contributions to the University. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“His classes were very popular. He regularly enrolled about a third of the student body in the various classes he taught, which was important because the faculty were paid in part by the enrollment in their classes,” Hogg said. “Being a popular professor was a good thing.”

Emmet lived in Pavilion I, married the niece of a fellow professor and was the first professor to move off Grounds, to Morea, a house he built nearby. However, he was plagued by poor health.

“Contemporary descriptions of him talk about burn marks all over his clothes from his experiments,” Hogg said. “At one point, a lab assistant spilled sulfuric acid on him and he was out of work for nine weeks. Eventually, his poor health drove him away from the University and he went to Florida in 1841 and ended up in New York at his brother’s house, where he passed away at the age of 48.”

Hogg said the hearth was walled up in the Rotunda in the 1840s when the lab was moved, and that enabled it to survive the 1895 fire that heavily damaged the building. Some of the hearth’s fireboxes were uncovered in the 1975 Rotunda renovation, but the full extent of the surviving hearth was not uncovered until more recent renovations.

He said one of the architects poked his head into the chemical oven, looked up and saw there was more concealed there than previously thought.

Formal portrait of Jill Venton and Mary K. Carroll standing infront of the historic plaque

Venton and Carroll display a replica of the bronze plaque to be installed at the Rotunda. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“So we made a hole in the wall and there was a void that we hadn’t expected,” Hogg said. “There was a lot of rubble, from the fire in 1895 and from the 1970s renovation, when they also more or less ignored what they found. There were lots of ash and building pieces and Coke cans and things like that. We opened it up slowly and carefully. We removed the things and we found some really interesting artifacts as we went along.”

The hearth was largely intact.

“There are five stations, two on each side and one in the center,” Hogg said of the hearth. “The fireboxes had more vents at the bottom and a pipe apparently connected to a bellows to make the center especially hot. The two slots on each side, we think, were where there were dampers that would help manage the heat.”

“It’s kind of a special object,” Hogg said of the chemical hearth. “It’s small, but it tells a story and it talks about how important the teaching of science was in the early history of the University.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications