Early chemical lab discovered at UVA linked to Thomas Jefferson

Published: Oct. 19, 2015 at 1:55 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 29, 2015 at 2:00 AM EDT
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Source: University of Virginia
Source: University of Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (WWBT) - An early chemistry lab linked directly to Thomas Jefferson was found within the University of Virginia's Rotunda.  The "chemical hearth," which dates back to the 1820s, was sealed in one of the lower-walls of the Rotunda in the 1850s.  That's also the reason why most of the room survived the 1895 Rotunda fire.

The room is described as a "semi-circular niche in the north end of the Lower East Oval Room," according to The University of Virginia press release.  Crews recovered two small fireboxes of the hearth in the 1970s Rotunda renovation, but the hearth itself wasn't discovered until Monday.

School officials say the hearth may have been designed for John Emmett, the school's first professor of natural history.

"This may be the oldest intact example of early chemical education in this country," Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, said.

Students used the workspaces to perform chemical experiments, according to the release.  The room contained heat sources and a ventilation system to remove the fumes.

In an letter from April 1823, Jefferson requested the class to be moved to the ground floor of the Rotunda so water wouldn't have to be pumped to the upper floors.

"For the Professor of Chemistry, such experiments as require the use of furnaces, cannot be exhibited in his ordinary lecturing room," Jefferson wrote. "We therefore prepare the rooms under the oval rooms of the ground floor of the Rotunda for furnaces, stoves &c. These rooms are of 1,000 square feet area each."

The chemical hearth will remain on display, once the renovations are finished.

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