You are here

A History of Chemistry

Fall 2010
Edgar Fahs Smith at his desk
From the Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
Edgar Fahs Smith at his desk as Provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

Can you recount the story of the first distilled spirits? How about the invention of compounds like dynamite or TNT? Would chemicals such as aspartame, an artificial sweetener, be more interesting if you knew that it was discovered completely by accident? These discoveries may or may not directly influence our lives today, but the stories of their creation can enrich our lives and contribute to our understanding of the world. To review these types of stories, curious sorts should take the time to visit the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial, a collection that focuses on the history of chemistry documented through manuscripts, drawings, and books.

At the 1981 Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Kenichi Fukui, known for his work on the mechanisms of chemical reactions and for sharing that year’s prize in chemistry with Roald Hoffmann, stated “we believe that [young researchers] are working with all the scientific wisdom at their disposal for the preservation of the inheritance of the earth and for the lasting survival of mankind.” For this to happen, the researchers of today must be able to use the collective research performed and gathered by those before them. To aide in this study, Edgar Fahs Smith gathered and preserved the history of the sciences for future generations to view in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania.

Smith was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1854 and earned his degree at what is now Gettysburg College, and later earned his Ph.D. in Germany at Göttingen. In 1874, he traveled back to the United States and became an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, he went from being associate professor to professor, to dean of the college, to vice provost, and finally to provost of the university.

Edgar Fahs Smith Collection in the 1920s
From the Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
The Edgar Fahs Smith Collection during the 1920s.

While Smith’s research in electro-chemistry helped to shape the field and guide other researchers, his most enduring legacy was the research and collection of the history of chemistry. Smith once stated during a talk at the City College of New York, “I have become a real enthusiast in regard to the history of chemistry, particularly the history of chemistry in America.” This research was a lifelong search of finding old manuscripts, drawings, and biographies from the greatest chemists, both in America and around the world.

By the time of his death, Smith had amassed his own library devoted to the history of chemistry, which was housed in his office. When he died in 1928, his collection’s future was uncertain. For three years, the library he created waited, untouched, until, in 1931, his widow donated the entire collection to the University of Pennsylvania, and named it The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection.

At the time of its donation, Smith’s collection is said to have contained “3,000 prints, engravings, and photographs of eminent chemists; and an extensive collection of pamphlets and reprints.” It also contained multiple manuscripts and books, including Smith’s personal collections, adding to its wealth of information of chemistry. The collection has been cared for by the University of Pennsylvania’s library system since its donation, where it has grown to contain many additional works pertaining to the history of chemistry.

Eva Armstrong receiving an award
From the Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
Eva Armstrong receiving an award.

Eva Armstrong, Smith’s personal secretary, was named the first curator of the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial. During her lifetime Armstrong helped Smith to collect and store artifacts and continued to do so with items that were donated after Smith’s death. As curator, she carried on his legacy of developing the history of chemistry. She was one of the key developers for the journal Chymia that is devoted solely to the “history of the physical sciences.” Her influence on the memorial library set the pace and tone for the collection’s growth and care. She remained curator of the collection until she retired in 1949. Nine years later in 1958, Armstrong received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society (commonly referred to as ACS) for her role in preserving the history of chemistry.

Through those years, the collection had received multiple boosts from individuals donating large collections to the Memorial. In 1945, Charles Browne of the U.S. Department of Agriculture donated over 450 books to the collection. The 1940s also brought the addition of various works in oriental alchemy from a generous donation from the personal library of MIT’s professor Dr. Tenney Davis.

Smith’s collection continued to expand through 1954, when the endowment began to run a deficit. After the new chairman of the Department of Chemistry removed the collection from its original home, it was packed away into crates, and left in a storage room. Fortunately, the University of Pennsylvania student body newspaper printed an article revealing the neglect of the collection, and a backlash of criticism from chemists helped to restore the collection, which was then placed in another building on Penn’s campus, the Hare building. While this did save the collection, there was a great deal of controversy over the move, leading to the resignation of then curator Robert Sutton.

The Smith Collection remained in the Hare building until 1967, when the collection was annexed by the library and stored on the sixth floor of the chemistry library center on Penn’s campus, its current home to date. Opening one of the collection’s books feels like delicate surgery, as the pages are frail and stiff. Reading the hand pressed pages; it is amazing to think how much time was put into the creation and preservation of books dating back to the early 1900’s. Brewing, medicine, alchemy, metallurgy, engineering and hundreds of other topics are covered in this breadth of history.

The Compleat Distiller from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection
From the Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
The Edgar Fahs Smith Collection preserves countless texts such as this 1705 book on the distillation of alcohol.

During the 1980’s the current library curator, Arnold Thackray, decided to expand the history of chemistry beyond the collection and began the Center of the History of Chemistry. This began as a branch of the Smith Memorial collection to help promote interest in the history of chemistry, but over the years this has grown into its own venue run by the university. Much of the information contained within the museum of the history of chemistry comes directly from the rare collections housed in Edgar Fahs Smith’s memorial collection.

The Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, commonly referred to as SCETI, has created an online database containing images of many of the items housed within the collection. Images include the first mass spectrometer, air pumps, electric generators and dozens of other images. Putting parts of the collection online in this manner has led to an increased interest in the collection, since modernization has allowed for more groups to gain access.

The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection is now listed by the American Chemical Society as a “Cradle of Chemistry.” The Collection contains thousands of works on chemistry ranging from early pharmacology to alchemy and medicine. As Armstrong stated in a book about the Smith Memorial, “He [Smith] dreaded to think that material so valuable to chemistry might be scattered to the winds or buried in the dark recesses of a general library.”

Fortunately through modern technology and careful thought from its curators, the Smith Collection has become more accessible to the public then it was in the past, ensuring that Smith’s fears would never come to pass. So if you are in the mood to find out how to brew a beer as it was done a century ago, or are interested in learning about the many ways turning lead into gold failed, the answers you seek can be found in one of the world’s largest collections of chemical history knowledge – The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection.


  • Deischer, Claude. “In Memoriam to a Secretary, Librarian, Curator of a Library, and Historian: Eva Vivian Armstrong - 1877-1962.” Chymia 9. (1964): 13-17.
  • Farrington, Lynne. The Penn Collections at 250. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 144-163.
  • Fukui, Kenichi. “Nobel Banquet Speech.” Nobel Banquet. The Nobel Foundation. Stockholm, Sweden. 10 012 1981. Speech.
  • Smith, Edgar Fahs. “A Chapter in Historical Chemistry.” Journal of Chemical Education. 9.4 (1932): 635-642.
  • University of Pennsylvania Libraries. “The Edgar Fahs Smith Collection.” Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Images. University of Pennsylvania, 30 May 2007. 11 Oct 2010 <>.