|Charles Frederick Chandler
Michael DeSantis, 1935, oil on canvas, image courtesy of Union College Permanent Collection
Charles F. Chandler came to Union College in 1857, a twenty-three year old Harvard grad with a Ph.D. from Gottingen at age nineteen. He would go on to become one of the leading chemists of his generation.
He had been hired at Union in the dual role of assistant professor and janitor - because there were insufficient funds for an academic appointment only. Indeed, Chandler's janitorial duties, which included the building of six anthracite coal fires every morning, may have been his most important contribution since the temperature that winter in Schenectady dipped to minus twenty-nine degrees. Within a year, Charles Joy, who was the professor of chemistry, left Union for Columbia, and Chandler was promoted to professor; moreover, his janitorial duties were eliminated. By 1861, he was named the Nott Professor of Chemistry, thereby rising from janitor to professor to endowed chair in four years.
Despite the fact that many of his students were older than him, Chandler quickly became a student favorite because of his elegant and clear lectures, his charismatic personality and his enthusiasm for and knowledge of chemistry.
Over next few years, Chandler became increasingly disenchanted with the worsening financial situation at the College. At Joy's urging, Chandler decided to accept an offer from Columbia University and left Schenectady on election day in 1864, just after casting his ballot for Abraham Lincoln.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Chandler was considered by many to be the dean of American chemistry, primarily through his contributions to industrial chemistry and to the improvement of public health in New York City. One newspaper, at the time of his death, gushed that Chandler became the apostle of chemical science in New York City and compared his preaching of salvation through science with the apostolic missions of St. Paul in Athens and St. Peter in Rome. Chandler is also given credit for being the most influential founder of the American Chemical Society, the largest professional organization in this country. He received numerous honorary degrees during his career, including ones from Union and Oxford. Chandler is so revered at Columbia University that the building housing the chemistry department is called Chandler Laboratories.
Near the end of Chandler's life, he sent Union President Raymond a photograph of himself. Across the bottom of the photograph, this dean of American chemistry, this apostle of science, this father of the American Chemical Society, this patron saint of the Columbia chemistry department, wrote the following: "I owe everything to Union."