Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab found hidden inside the University of Virginia wall proves that the former American president and Founding Father had something in common with Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. No, Jefferson was not cooking up meth. Instead, the discovery of the chem lab shows how Jefferson was interesting in teaching about chemistry, although it is also interesting how the room was eventually closed off from the world.
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Unlike Breaking Bad, Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab was not for personal experimentation. Instead, it was one of the earliest science classrooms in America.
“It was a surprise, a very exciting one for us,” said Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University. “This may be the oldest intact example of early chemical education in this country.”
The Founding Father actually explained his reasons for creating the chemistry lab on the ground floor in an April 1823 letter to Joseph Cabell, a member of the Board of Visitors during that time period.
“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.”
John Emmet, the first professor of natural history at UVA, helped with the creation of Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab, and also taught classes. By 1824, the Board of Visitors determined the “rooms in the Basement story of the Rotunda, shall be, one of them for a Chemical laboratory; and the others for any necessary purpose to which they may be adapted,” and by 1825 Emmet began teaching.
Unfortunately, the initial chemistry lab was hot and cramped like the inside of a RV, and Emmet complained that he needed more room. The room was simply too small to properly dissipate the heat generated by the chemistry experiments, so Jefferson agreed to allow the professor to expand into the larger rooms of the Rotunda. Emmet actually wanted a separate chemistry building, but even Jefferson was unwilling to authorize such a venture.
In the end, Emmet died in the 1842 at the relatively young age of 47. The professor claimed his failing health could be blamed on the “various accidents and mishaps suffered while he was conducting chemical experiments.” Not too many years later, Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab was shuttered up, and by the 1850’s the university decided to create an annex for chemistry. It was not until many years later that Emmet saw his wish fulfilled, and now the Department of Chemistry has its own building.
In announcing the discovery, UVA is hoping to preserve much of the original design of Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab.
“The hearth is significant as something of the University’s early academic years,” said Mark Kutney, an architectural conservator in the University Architect’s office. “The original arch above the opening will have to be reconstructed, but we hope to present the remainder of the hearth as essentially unrestored, preserving its evidence of use.”
The hearth for the chemistry lab provided heat through two fireboxes, one for burning coal and one for burning wood. Underground brick tunnels provided fresh air, and flues provided ventilation for the smoke and potentially dangerous fumes. Students had five workstations cut out of stone, and it is possible they had portable hearths used for conducting experiments.
“Back then, the different experiments would get different levels of heat from different sources,” said Jody Lahendro, a supervisory historic preservation architect for U.Va.’s Facilities Management. “For some, they would put the heat source under a layer of sand to more evenly disperse and temper the heat.”
Once the renovations of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda is complete, pieces of Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab will be left up for display. The alcove will not be directly accessible, but the chemical hearth will allow everyone to see what the Founding Father had cooked up in the past.
[Photos by Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Dan Addison/University of Virginia]