Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
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Preserving the history of chemistry was one of the many passions in Edgar Fahs Smith's multifaceted career. Educator, administrator, and scientist are just a few of the titles that Smith claimed throughout his life. Politics, writing, philosophy, and religion also occupied much of his career. According to George H. Meeker's biography, Smith's "current of life events flowed quietly, smoothly, deeply; with no excesses of conduct, joys, sorrows, successes, failures--a model of good human life-stream."1 Seemingly Smith's life did flow smoothly: he was raised in the Moravian faith -- a strong force throughout his life, by what all accounts appeared to be loving and watchful parents. He later married a woman who was a devoted companion. All of his successes appeared to emerge effortlessly throughout his long and distinguished career. The papers of Edgar Fahs Smith reveal a man who was intelligent, generous, and ethical.
Born 23 May 1854, Edgar Fahs Smith was the eldest child of Gibson Smith and Elizabeth Fahs (Smith). Younger brother Allen John Smith was born nine years later in 1863. Smith was raised in York, Pennsylvania, where his father Gibson Smith was a grain, wood, and coal merchant. Smith attended private grammar school prior to entering York County Academy, a college preparatory school, in 1867. He completed his education at the Academy in 1872, where he acquired a keen interest in classics and humanities.
During Smith's years at the Academy, he gained the reputation for being an extraordinary pupil. While at the Academy, Smith was permitted to teach Latin to younger students because of his proficiency in the subject.2 At the age of seventeen he founded and wrote a publication entitled Our Effort (see Box 62). July 1871 was the first printing of the publication. The front page states: "Our Effort is printed every month at the low rate of 50 cents a year, in advance". This ambitious but modest publication included sections entitled: "Science", including items on natural science; "Biography," with brief essays on famous men of history and literature; "Our Knotty Corner," which was a section of puzzles and riddles; and "Miscellaneous", which included poetry and short essays. The purpose of the publication as Smith expounds in the first issue was to "aid as much as possible in the forwarding of science, the love of which has incited us to such an important undertaking". So it seems that Smith, from his earliest days at the Academy, was devoted to the history of science. Smith was planning to enter Yale University upon the completion of his studies at York Academy, but a chance trip took him to Gettysburg with a classmate, who was applying to Pennsylvania College (now known as Gettysburg College). Smith was examined by the college and told that because of his advanced knowledge and education he could enter the institution as a junior. Smith found this to be a excellent opportunity and began his college education at Pennsylvania College in the fall of 1872. He majored in chemistry and mineralogy under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Philip Sadtler. Smith received his Bachelor of Science degree from Pennsylvania College in 1874. Dr. Sadtler, who befriended Smith, encouraged him to further his knowledge of chemistry by entering the University of Göttingen in Hanover, Germany.3 Through the encouragement of Dr. Sadtler, Smith's parents consented to the trip abroad for further study.
In Germany at the University of Göttingen, Smith studied under Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882). Wöhler, a famous chemist, proved that organic compounds could be synthesized from inorganic materials, thus laying the foundation for modern or ganic chemistry.4 In addition, Wöhler isolated aluminum in 1827 and beryllium and yttrium in 1828. Smith received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 1876 and returned home to marry Margie Alice Gruel.
Smith met Margie Gruel during his last year of study at Pennsylvania College. Since he was going to study in Germany, they decided to delay their nuptials until his return to the United States. In 1876, the year he returned home from Germany, Smith and Gruel were married. They appeared, from correspondence between the two, to be a loving, supportive, and happy pair. Margie and Edgar seemed to have a mutual respect and understanding for one another. The couple had no children and were married fifty -two years.
The same year that Smith received his doctorate and married Margie, he was appointed instructor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He achieved status of professor at the University in 1888. This was the beginning of an extensive and dist inguished career with the University of Pennsylvania. Smith taught chemistry at Penn for forty-four years, served as vice-provost from 1898 to 1911, and provost from 1911 to 1920. Letters from students indicate that Smith was not only a knowledgeable in structor but also helped and followed them in later professional endeavors.
Smith was elected Vice-Provost in 1898, under the administration of Provost (1894-1910) Charles Custis Harrison (1844-1929) and witnessed one of the largest building expansions at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of the buildings worthy of note erected under the Provostship of Harrison still stand at the University today. Houston Hall opened in 1896 to enhance the student's life outside the classroom setting and is still considered the student union. Smith worked in electroanalysis at the Harris on Laboratory of Chemistry built from a endowment as a memorial to Harrison's father. Other buildings erected during Harrison's tenure include the Gymnasium, Franklin Field, Dormitory housing, the Dental Hall, and the Law School.
During the summer months while he was Vice-Provost, Smith performed the duties of Provost and Vice-Provost through daily correspondence with and the constant advice of Harrison, who retreated to New England. Harrison and Smith worked well together, and after Harrison's retirement Smith was unanimously voted by the board to take the post as Provost at the University of Pennsylvania.
The ten-year administration of Provost Smith, although not as monumental as Harrison's administration, was certainly successful. He was devoted and loyal to the University, made sure the students had what they needed, and was accessible to respond to what may appear to us today as trivial matters. Having close political friends in the State Legislature allowed him to receive favorable hearings and obtain votes to support the University in the completion of certain projects. The politics and financial wizardry required of the Provostship were worrisome to Smith, and he longed to return to his research in the history of chemistry. He became ill in 1919, the cause of which was diagnosed by his doctor as overwork. Under strong protestations from the University, Smith resigned as Provost in June 1920.
Although Smith retired as Provost from the University of Pennsylvania, he still maintained an office and laboratory. Smith's work in chemistry was his passion. He collected manuscripts, documents, photographs, and books to preserve the history of chemistry. He also translated chemistry books from German for publication. Smith wrote numerous biographies and articles of famous chemists, including a biography of James Woodhouse (1770-1809), who was elected chair of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795, and a pamphlet on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), whose "chemical experiments led to the production of dephlogisticated air, a discovery which Lavoisier named oxygen and made the base of experiments which were the foundation of modern chemistry".5
Smith's own experimentation in chemistry focused on the process of electrochemistry and research on rare earth elements. Smith was a pioneer in the field of electrochemistry, discovering the applications and usefulness of electric current for separating metals and minerals from one another. Smith published a noted book on the subject entitled Electro-Analysis. His research with metals centered on tungsten (also known at the time as wolfram). Some industrial uses of this hard, brittle, heavy, gray metal include the electric lamp industry, dentistry, targets of x-ray tubes, phonograph needles, pen points, and shielding radioactive materials and missile surfaces.6 This is just a sampling of Smith's prolific contributions to chemistry.
Aside from his career at the University of Pennsylvania and his work in chemistry, Smith was actively involved in many prestigious organizations and political events. From 1903 to 1908, Smith served as President of the American Philosophical Society; he was President of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia from 1911 to 1922; trustee of Carnegie Foundation from 1914 to 1920; served as President of the American Chemical Society in 1898, 1921, and 1922; and received the 33d Degree in the Freemasons of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in 1895. Smith served and was named honorary member to a variety of other organizations. Some of Smith's involvement in the political arena included being a member of the United States Assay Commission in 1895 and from 1901 to 1905; member of Electoral College for Pennsylvania in 1917 and 1925, the year in which he served as President of the Electoral College; member of State Council of Education 1920 to 1922; and Chairman to the International Committee on Poison Gases a nd High Explosives. In addition, he was appointed by President Harding to the Board of Technical Advisors for the Disarmament conference in 1921.
On June 12, 1926, two years before Edgar Fahs Smith's death, a statue was erected in his honor at the University of Pennsylvania near the Harrison Chemical Laboratory. Smith became ill in 1926 and his condition worsened until he was hospitalized in 1928; he died at University Hospital on May 2, 1928. Smith worked with vigor and enthusiasm in every aspect of his life from his long and distinguished career at the University of Pennsylvania to his research and experiments in chemistry.
1. George H. Meeker, Biographical Memoir of Edgar Fahs Smith, 1854-1928 (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1936), p. 107
2. Meeker, Biographical Memoir, p. 106
3. The information contained in this paragraph was obtained from Meeker's Biographical Memoir
4. Columbia Encyclopedia, 1935, s.v. "Wöhler, Friedrich"
5. Columbia Encyclopedia, 1935, s.v. "Priestley, Joseph"
6. The Condensed Chemical Dictionary, 6th ed. (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1961), s.v. "tungsten"
The Edgar Fahs Smith Papers at the University of Pennsylvania is part of a larger collection bequeathed to the University. The Papers comprise Smith's personal and business correspondence; notebooks of his chemical research; bound lectures from his teaching; biographical material; personal photographs; pamphlets written by Smith; memorabilia that includes awards and certificates; and clippings. The larger Collection, which also is housed in Special Collections, includes Smith's vast library on the history of chemistry; miscellaneous manuscripts from several famous chemists acquired by Smith; and photographs of chemists. The material contained in Smith's papers date from 1870 through 1940. The bulk of correspondence with Edgar Fahs Smith runs from 1877 until Smith's death in 1928. Correspondence dated after 1928 is addressed to Margie A. Smith.
The Papers appear to have few significant gaps. Smith's correspondence with faculty and staff at the University of Pennsylvania can be complemented by researching appropriate correspondents at the University Archives and Records Center. For instance, Smith has a large amount of correspondence with Charles C. Harrison, whose papers are held at the University Archives. Since Smith was involved in so many organizations, to gain a complete picture of Smith's interactions with these organizations it may be recommended to review the papers of the American Philosophical Society and the American Chemical Society, et al.
Because of the extent of correspondence between Edgar Fahs Smith and Charles Custis Harrison a separate series was created. The correspondence among Smith, Harrison, and Harrison's family is housed in boxes 29-31. In addition, correspondence with Smith's wife Margie has been housed separately in boxes 32-33, since most of this correspondence falls after Smith's death.
Some of Smith's correspondence represents inquires for his research of chemists. Throughout the correspondence Smith writes to universities and descendants of the famous chemists to gain information. Joseph Priestley is one such example.
The principal works used to research the Edgar Fahs Smith Papers include: George H. Meeker's, Biographical Memoir of Edgar Fahs Smith, 1854-1928 (1935); Edward Potts Cheyney's History of the University of Pennsylvania 1740-1940 (1940); The Columbia Encyclopedia (1935); and The Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Sixth Edition (1961). More complete information on Smith was verified and obtained through the papers themselves.
Bequest of Mrs. Margie A. Smith, 1931.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Donna Brandolisio
- Finding Aid Date
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