Harvard’s Cook took over the new chemistry department, but it was Francis Prince Clary who made the bubble

Josiah Parsons Cook, Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy at Harvard University. (Photo: William Shaw Warren via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Cambridge is a global center for biotechnology and biochemical engineering. But in the early years of modern chemistry, American chemists lagged far behind their European counterparts. In the 1850s, Harvard began building what would later be seen as one of the most forward-thinking undergraduate chemistry departments in the country.

Francis Prince Clary was there.

By the time Clary moved to Cambridge in 1848, Josiah Parsons Cook had graduated from Harvard University. Cook had taught himself experimental chemistry, which was hardly taught when he was a student. In May 1850 he was appointed teacher of chemistry and mineralogy, and provided his own laboratory equipment. In December of the same year, he was appointed professor and tasked with building the department from the ground up. He was immediately granted leave to tour Europe buying equipment and attending lectures. Upon his return, he set up a small laboratory in the basement of University Hall.

Charles W. Eliot, professor of chemistry at MIT and later president of Harvard University, studied chemistry with Cook and then assisted him. He was considered one of the world’s foremost chemists by his death in 1894, after which Elliott wrote of his career—noting that for most of the 1850s “Professor Cooke had no conspicuous help in running his department. He paid himself for the services of Francis P. Clary, his only assistant for many years in his lectures, and he received some voluntary assistance from the students.”

In the 1860 census, Clary’s occupation was “servant.” In 1870, he was “Guardian of the College”. In 1880, he was a “janitor”. In one piece of Harvard-related literature is the “colored janitor at Boylston Hall,” built in 1858 at Cooke’s instigation to house a proper chemistry laboratory and classrooms. But for most of his career, in addition to his cleaning duties, Clary was, at least, cook’s chemist, and most likely a junior partner in his experiments.

Boylston Hall, where Clary and Cook worked together, circa 1858. (Photo: 1861 Stephen Williams Whitney Album, 1861/Harvard Archives)

Modern chemistry was in its infancy – Mendeleev’s periodic table did not yet exist. Cooke has been making and testing element labels to understand and predict how each element will behave. It is unlikely that Cook valued Clary’s help enough to pay his money out of his own pocket, but he would simply tell him to move the flasks and tubes, and Clary was present during all of Cook’s lectures and performances, which is why all the Harvard students knew him and would like to have a picture of him in their class albums Personal. By the late 1850s, he had a stock of theoretical and practical knowledge in chemistry far surpassing any of the new coming faculty members like Eliot.

In 1914, the Harvard Alumni Journal published recollections of “some square-goers, about the sixties”, including a view of Clary in the lectures:

‘Let us enter Boylston, and note where the immovable Clary stands, amidst all the pooling of salts and acids. The arcana solutions and sediments (some working some not), furious bubbles, and clouds of noxious gases do not light his dark cheek. Nay, though the experience was At once the most mysterious and most dangerous known to science, Clary goes on pumping, emptying, and shuffling, as if he were a paid-for policyholder in a top-tier insurance company.

“You remember, sir, the general belief that this important factor of the school curriculum was signed for the farewell exit (we did not know what moment) through the roof, shooting skywards with the wreckage of the device, and the fragments of the explosive formula: all that will be expounded Suitable for the next lecture … “

Chemistry shows are theatrical in nature, similar to magic shows in many ways. For the educated, everything is predictable and under control, but for the uneducated, disaster is always a possibility. Perhaps unknown to the student, Clary’s calmness reflects his knowledge of chemistry: he knows he’s not doing anything dangerous.

This “important factor in the curriculum” seems to have formed a kind of relationship with the students that was more personal than simply appearing in front of them at demonstrations. In the July 1881 issue of the Harvard Register, an article titled “Veterans of the University” gave short sketches of living men who had worked at the university for at least 20 years. Clary’s sketch states that he “has a ‘use’ once a year, when he provides rooms and a luncheon for class elections”. It would not have been inexpensive to rent or furnish rooms and to cater for lunch, and the fact Clary did this year after year meant that the students should respect his generosity and also that he must have obtained a great deal of satisfaction from hosting the students, all with which he was to spend time In required chemistry lessons. Clary and his wife, Maria, also housed at least one student during Clary’s career at Harvard: first-year student John Henry Wheeler, of Woburn, Class of 1871, who was later professor of Greek at the University of Virginia.

Aaron Molyneux-Hewlett, coach and curator of the Harvard gymnasium, would become a close friend of Clary’s. (Photo: George Kendall Warren via Wikimedia Commons)

Another important development at Harvard for Clary was the arrival of Aaron Molyneux Hewlett to take over the leadership of the new gymnasium in 1859. Hewlett was not on the faculty, but he was the first black coach – an achievement. He and his family were new to Cambridge, and Clary and other members of the Cambridge black community certainly welcomed him, for in a very few years Hewlett was working with some of them. Clary and Hewlett were about the same age. Both held unusual positions on campus, and both were Freemasons. Both were involved in civil rights work, with Hewlett petitioning public authorities regarding cases of discrimination against him and his family in transportation and in places of entertainment. Evidence indicates that the two families, whose children were similar in age, had converged.

Hewlett died suddenly in 1871 of a brain abscess. His wife Virginia and children remained at the family home on Dunster Street, but eventually moved to Washington, D.C.—Virginia first to live with her daughter Virginia, who married Frederick Douglass Jr. Hewlett was buried in Cambridge Cemetery, as were eventually others of his family. The Clary family plot is only a few yards away. When Hewlett’s son Paul Molyneux Hewlett, an actor known in the United States and England for his portrayal of Othello, died in 1891 in Washington, D.C., his body was taken to Cambridge and the funeral was held at the Roberts Road House in Clarice.

Clary’s association with Harvard continued even after the death of Francis Prince Clary.

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About the Cambridge Black History Project

The Cambridge Black History Project is an entirely voluntary organization of individuals with deep roots in Cambridge. We are committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, achievements and challenges of Black Cantabrigians, and raising awareness of their stories through educational outreach to the Cambridge community and beyond.


Special thanks for the research assistance of Charles Sullivan and staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission and Alyssa Pacey in the Cambridge Room of the Cambridge Public Library.

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