Skip to main content
Main Content

The first references to the teaching of chemistry at William & Mary occur near the end of the 18th century. Bishop James Madison, president of the College from 1777 to 1812 and the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, included lectures on chemistry in his Natural Philosophy curriculum as early as 1772. In 1779 a Professorship of Anatomy, Medicine, and Chemistry was established and held by James McClurg until 1800. No record exists of what McClurg taught as chemistry. Since this professorship was not renewed after 1800, it appears that chemistry as we generally think of it was taught under Natural Philosophy and that McClurg emphasized anatomy and medicine.

"Bishop James Madison, president of the College from 1777 to 1812 and the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, included lectures on chemistry in his Natural Philosophy curriculum as early as 1772. Topics in his syllabus at the turn of the century included: Chemical Affinity; Of the Properties of Air; Of Air as Necessary to Combustion, etc.; Of some Gasses (sic) [oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen]; Of Nitrous Air [including also "of carbonic acid, of the analysis of atmosphere air"]; etc. Madison was a member of the American Philosophical Society and contributed a number of original papers to its scientific journals."

"Thomas Jefferson mentioned chemistry when he wrote: 'What are the objects of an useful American Education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history, civil history, and ethics. In natural philosophy I mean to include chemistry and agriculture, and in natural history to include botany, as well as the other branches of those departments. It is true that the habit of speaking the modern languages cannot be so well acquired in America; but every other article can be as well acquired at William & Mary as at any place in Europe.'"

Chemistry continued as part of the curriculum through the nineteenth century under the professorship of natural philosophy. The most prominent of these 19th century professors was William Barton Rogers, who spent seventeen years in Virginia before leaving for Boston as a founder and first president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1927, William & Mary dedicated its new chemistry and physics building to Rogers Hall; this building is the current Tyler Hall (the current Rogers Hall was completed in 1975).

In 1905 chemistry became an autonomous department with its own professor. Physics and biology also became departments at this time. The traditional rubric of natural philosophy was abandoned. "Van Franklin Garrett (A.M., M.D.), who had been Professor of Natural Science since 1888, became the first Professor of Chemistry. Chemistry has continued with vigor since that time."

"The "modern" era of chemistry at William & Mary can reasonably be said to have begun with the completion of a spacious three-story chemistry-physics building Rogers Hall (1927) (the present-day Tyler Hall) in 1927. At this time William George Guy joined the chemistry faculty, having completed study at Oxford as a Rhodes' Scholar and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago. Professor Guy was at the College for 42 years, serving as chairman for the last twenty-two."

Material in the Special Collections Research Center


  • Department of Chemistry
  • Robert Gilchrist Robb, "Chemistry at William & Mary," The Alumni Gazette vol. 6, no. 4 (May 1939), 12-15.


Want to find out more?

To search for further material, visit the Special Collections Research Center's Search Tool List for other resources to help you find materials of interest.

Questions? Have ideas or updates for articles you'd like to see? Contact the Special Collections Research Center at or 757-221-3090.

A note about the contents of this site

This website contains the best available information from known sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information in this website is not complete, and it changes as we continue to research and uncover new sources.