A Fresh Look: The Class of 1860, Department of Chemistry Group Portrait

Alison Braybrooks

The photograph known as Class of 1860, Department of Chemistry, Columbia College portrays some of the first chemistry students at Columbia University, along with their Professor, Charles Arad Joy (seated), and a laboratory technician standing behind Joy (Fig. 1). The names of the five students and the Professor are documented in the Columbia archives but, to date and despite ongoing research, the identity of the young technician, the Black man in the picture, remains unknown. This photograph, along with the daguerreotypes in the exhibition, are from Columbia's Chandler Chemical Museum, now part of the Art Properties Collection. Objects from the Chandler Chemical Museum documented the early history of industrial chemistry, and were collected by Professor Charles Frederick Chandler, Joy's successor.1

In an article published in Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering in September 1912 and accompanied by a cropped version of the group portrait (Fig. 2), George Maynard (far left of the group) indicated that the photograph was taken in 1857. The department was still not fully established at this time. In fact, within four years of this photograph being taken, Professor Joy was fighting to keep practical chemistry on the syllabus after the Columbia Trustees proposed that it be discontinued and that the teaching should “only consist of lectures and recitations with visual illustrations.”2
 Joy had studied in Germany, where experimental chemistry was the basis for its pre-eminence.3
Convinced that this was the only way to develop the discipline, he offered to establish a working laboratory in New York City at his own expense and in his own time,4
  which seemed to spur the trustees on to provide significantly more generous funding for equipment and expenses, including for a paid "servant" for the laboratory, who would now properly be described as a lab technician.5
 In his article, Maynard praised Professor Joy and his colleagues’ determination to establish a faculty of chemistry at Columbia, which was memorialized in this photograph: 

In his bigness of heart, he [Joy] has recognized the small beginnings in the six-table laboratory of 1857 in the garret of the 49th Street building by showing to every new class the photograph of the students in that laboratory.6

The image reproduced in the magazine crops out the faded outer portion of the original photograph, which was almost certainly the result of being framed and standing on Joy’s desk for over twenty years until his retirement, by Maynard’s account.

There is no record of the photographer in the Columbia archives, and few similar contemporary images with which to compare it. Around this time, Massachusetts-based George Kendall Warren (1832-84) was building a successful business as the class photographer for a number of Ivy League universities and elite colleges, but generally his group portrait photographs were informal and taken outside in front of one of the campus buildings (Fig. 3).7
 This staged image of a class of students, their professor and the lab technician, along with the elaborate prop of an experiment, seems quite unique in nineteenth-century university portrait photography. The men's expressions are serious and their attention is focused on the apparatus in front of them, and though the experiment only depicts the generating and cleansing of a gas, the men are dressed in their leather laboratory aprons as though they were in danger of chemical spills.

The photograph is a large salted paper print, produced using the wet collodion glass plate process, which was a technological innovation that was growing in popularity at this time. The process, as well as the reliance on natural light from a window or skylight, required the subjects to stand very still for at least thirty seconds while the image was being captured onto the glass plate.8
 To help the subjects remain immobile, their bodies were supported by posing stands, which are described in detail in Emily Wehby's essay on Cartes de Visite. In those images, the stands are disguised by the crinolines, but here are clearly visible between the legs of the students, in particular those on the left of the picture.9
 As well, note the poses: arms crossed, hands resting on the table or a prop, or even tucked in the jacket to prevent movement. The only person who is holding something in his hand is the young Black technician. Close looking reveals that the photographer has had to touch up this part of the picture as perhaps the unsupported hand wobbled as the image was developing (Fig. 4). Perhaps most interesting, the face of the young Black man is perfectly detailed, while the faces of his white colleagues and other features of the image are over-exposed; there is evidence of touching up on the eyes of the student second from the left (Fig. 5) and around much of the glass apparatus (Fig. 6). 

We can reflect on the purpose of the image: why did Professor Joy take his students, technician and apparatus to a photographer’s studio to recreate a classroom setting? We know from Maynard’s article that this photograph remained on Professor Joy’s desk until his retirement as a reminder of the humble beginnings of the now vast and well-funded department, but why take this photograph in the first place? Three members of the Class of 1860 are missing; were they unable to come in that day, or did they go to the studio but could not fit on the stage? If the purpose of the photograph was to memorialize the class members, why is one third of them missing? Why is the photograph in such contrast to the more typical class portraits taken by George Kendall Warren?

We know that Joy was a keen promoter of science in the public sphere, regularly contributing to popular science journals and participating as a committee member to the American Institute.10
 He was also interested in photographic processes and was vice-president of the American Photographical Society, where he reported on topics that ranged from the photogenic properties of magnesium wire lights to photographing the visible spectrum.11
 He also advocated for the benefits of photography to science, introducing lectures on the use of photography in mapping and its microscopic applications.12
 During his training in Germany, Joy would have certainly absorbed that country's preference for experimentation over theorizing. Consequently he became keen on trying to establish this departmental model in New York and this photograph potentially marked his intent. Perhaps all these factors came together to produce this unusual image of a scientific team at work.

This photograph can be considered a record of one of the key moments in the history of the study of chemistry in the United States. Most of the students photographed, including George Miller, Clarence Brown, Joseph Alsop, and Samuel Ward, went on to eminence in their respective fields, along with the three students in the department not included in the photograph, Julius Tiemann, Anson Stephens, and J.Emory McClintock. Ward was later commissioned by President Lincoln to be an assistant surgeon to the US Volunteers, and McClintock went on to be President of the American Mathematical Society.13

Today, however, our eye is drawn to the young Black man, known to his colleagues but not named in the archival documents unlike the Professor and students, his name not mentioned or perhaps forgotten in 1912, but now in 2021 the focus of our attention. While there is a letter in the archive giving permission for Professor Joy to employ a servant in the laboratory at $200 per annum, in 1857, when this photograph was taken, no administrative staff were named in the college records beyond trustees, faculty, and students.

Twenty years after this photograph was taken, the first Black student to graduate from Columbia, James Priest from Liberia, was in the School of Mines while Professor Joy was still teaching there. Little is known of Priest's time on campus, although there is now a scholarship fund in his name.14
 From then on, a trickle of Black students joined Columbia, though some other colleges counted more Black students in comparison. In 1924, the first Black student to live in dormitories on campus, Frederick W. Wells, was persecuted by some of his fellow students, who campaigned for his removal from the dormitory culminating in a cross-burning on campus, which made national news. The New York Public Library now holds the archive relating to this incident, including letters of support that Wells received at the time.15
 In 2016, Columbia Professor Eric Foner led a wide-ranging investigation into Columbia’s links with slavery and the history of Black students, which can be found on Columbia’s website under the title "Columbia University and Slavery."16
 Against this background, it is not surprising to find that this young lab technician was not named. It is fair to say that no administrative assistant would have been named in the archives at this time, but it seems to be only systemic racism that can account for his not being mentioned in other accounts. While he was clearly valued by Professor Joy as he was taken to the studio and included in the photograph as an active participant in the “experiment,” he was not named by him, or by Maynard when the photograph was reprinted in 1912.

The photograph has come to light again now thanks to recent efforts to catalogue and digitize Columbia’s Art Properties Collection. Despite extensive research both in the Columbia and the Union College archive, in the US Census records, and in a whole range of other sources such as the Schenectady County Historical Society report on the Underground Railroad, to date the name of this young man is still not known.17
Perhaps, along with the rest of the portraits in this exhibition, this photograph can start a new chapter in its history as we may now, with continuing research, and with a public exhibition, add this young lab technician’s name to the history of science in the United States.18

  • 1Columbia University, "Chandler Chemical Museum Records," 1934-80 https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/13272380.
  • 2Columbia University, Resolutions passed by the Trustees of Columbia College from 1820 to 1868 (New York: 1868), 22.
  • 3Jeffrey A. Johnson, “Academic Chemistry in Imperial Germany,” Isis 76:4 (December 1985), 500-524.
  • 4Jeffrey A. Johnson, “Academic Chemistry,” 500-524.
  • 5Columbia University, Resolutions passed by the Trustees, 22.
  • 6George W. Maynard, "Early History of Chemistry at Columbia University and Some Early Relations Between German and American Chemists," Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering 10:9 (September 1912), 516-17.
  • 7Mary Panzer, "The George Kendall Warren Photography Collection," History of Photography, 24:1, 24-30.
  • 8Graham Clarke, “What is a Photograph?,” The Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 17.
  • 9Clarke, “What is a Photograph?,” 17.
  • 10Charles A. Joy, "An Incident in the Life of Baron Liebig," Scientific American 25:11 (September 1871), 163; and Charles A. Joy, “Chair’s Report, Committee of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology,” in Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New York, 1867-68 (New York: C. Van Benthuysen), 1.
  • 11"Report of the Meeting of the American Photographical Society," Humphrey’s Journal of the Daguerreotype and Photographic Arts and Sciences and Arts Pertaining to Heliography 11:20 (February 15, 1860), 310.
  • 12"Report of the Meeting of the American Photographical Society," 57.
  • 13Emory McClintock, “The Past and Future of the American Mathematical Society,” Science 1:4 (January 25, 1895), 85-92.
  • 14Columbia University, "The James R. Priest Scholarship." Accessed November 30, 2021, https://www.engineering.columbia.edu/news/james-r-priest-scholarship.
  • 15The New York Public Library, "The Frederick W. Wells Archive." Accessed November 30, 2021, https://archives.nypl.org/controlaccess/16451?term=Wells,%20Frederick%2….
  • 16Columbia University, "Columbia University and Slavery." Accessed 7/28/2021, https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/content/about-project.
  • 17Schenectady County Historical Society, "The Underground Railroad and Anti-Slavery Movement in Schenectady." Accessed November 30, 2021, https://schenectadyhistorical.org/admin/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Unde….
  • 18As well as the research mentioned here, we have also researched the Reports to the Regents from 1850-1860, as well the Chandler papers held in the Columbia archive.