Charles F. Chandler

Charles F. Chandler

Charles F. Chandler with a wash bottle in hand. Courtesy Chandler Museum, Columbia University.

Charles F. Chandler (1836–1925) was a pioneer in his commitment to public health in all its forms. His work with New York City’s Metropolitan Board of Health between 1867 and 1883 provided a model for health and environmental laws and regulatory agencies nationwide by monitoring food and drugs, providing free vaccinations, ensuring the safety of milk supplies, bringing clean water into the city, and enacting building codes with adequate provisions for indoor plumbing (which he personally designed with appropriate trapping systems). Health problems were created not only by large numbers of people living in unprecedented proximity, but also by a burgeoning, if still chemically primitive, industry: the “nuisances” of noxious gases and acids discharged in sludge; dangerous products like kerosene that contained explosive naphtha fractions; and adulterated food, beverages, and cosmetics.

Chandler, the eldest son of an old and moderately successful New England family, prepared for his multifaceted career by attending Harvard University to study industrial chemistry, after which he sailed for Germany. There he studied for his doctorate at the University of Göttingen with Friedrich Wöhler and the analytical chemist Heinrich Rose, both former students of Jöns Jakob Berzelius.

“A proper reception for King Cholera.” Charles Chandler, with torch held high in this 1873 newspaper cartoon. Courtesy Chandler Museum, Columbia University.

“A proper reception for King Cholera.” Charles Chandler, with torch held high in this 1873 newspaper cartoon, led the drive for better sanitation in New York City as president of the Board of Health. Courtesy Chandler Museum, Columbia University.

After completing his Ph.D., Chandler returned to the United States, where he took a position at Union College in upstate New York, and then in 1864 was asked to join Columbia University’s new School of Mines in New York City. At both institutions, Chandler established modern chemical studies and also had the opportunity to work with his younger brother William, who became a prominent figure in American chemistry as well. At a time when salaries and fees were very low for academic chemists and holding multiple appointments was common, Charles not only conveyed the excitement of chemistry to students at the School of Mines, but also at Columbia College, the New York College of Pharmacy, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons—the three of which eventually joined to become Columbia University.

Although Charles was preeminent as a sanitarian, he became equally famous as a consulting industrial chemist, a lucrative complement to his academic income. His range of chemical interests was extraordinary and included such topics as sugar, petroleum, illuminating gas, photographic materials, aniline dyes, and electrochemistry, as well as the analysis of water and minerals more typical of a contemporary consulting chemist. He regarded industry as an exciting career opportunity for his many students, unlike some fellow academics, whose attitudes were more “ivory tower.”

Chandler was also a genius at organizing the American chemical community. He served as chairman of the chemists who gathered in 1874 at the grave of Joseph Priestley in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, to celebrate the centennial of Priestley’s discovery of oxygen. This meeting was the first truly national meeting of American chemists. Although the idea of founding a national chemical society was not well received in Northumberland, it was publicized in American Chemist, a journal that Charles and his brother—by then chairman of chemistry at Lehigh University—edited from 1870 to 1877. Charles was a prime mover in founding the American Chemical Society in 1876 and its Journal of the American Chemical Society, which succeeded American Chemist. He served as president of the ACS in 1881 and 1889. He was elected the second chairman of the New York (later American) Section of the Society of Chemical Industry and was the first American to be chosen president of the London-based parent society (1899–1900). He was also an organizer and the first president (1898–1900) of The Chemists’ Club, whose goal was to foster a social and professional identity in the chemical community associated with the nascent American chemical industry, then centered in New York City.

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