Professor of Chemistry, 1865-1901
Maurice Perkins was born in Connecticut into a prominent New England family whose presence in the area dated back to 1630. He began his academic career with three undergraduate years at Yale, but he was ordered by his doctors to take a long voyage at sea after an injury to his eyes. He returned to a brief business career before enrolling in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, but in 1859, he departed again, this time for Germany, continuing his studies in the natural sciences at the universities of Brunswick, Heidelberg and Tubingen. Upon his return to the United States, Perkins was appointed to several academic positions, first in New York City and then at Harvard, from which he received a MA degree in 1865. He left Harvard to assume the position of Professor of Chemistry at Union College. He arrived in Schenectady in 1865 with his wife Anne Dunbar Potts Perkins, whom he had married the previous year.
“Perk,” as he was nicknamed at Union, was a genial and energetic man with an eclectic sense of dress, good-humored disposition, and warm-hearted manner that endeared him to the undergraduates. His instructional methods were rigorous but equally well-regarded by his chemistry students both at Union and at the Albany Medical College, where he held a concurrent position for many years (and from which he received an honorary MD in 1871). Frank Bailey, Union College Class of 1885, recalled that it was Perkins who challenged and taught him to “think for himself.” A tribute in the Albany Medical Annals in August 1901 echoed Bailey’s praise of Perkins as a mentor: “As a teacher, Dr. Perkins was eminently successful. By winning the affection and securing the regard and confidence of his pupils, he easily enlisted their attention, and, being stimulated by his enthusiasm and encouraged by his kindly interest, they made rapid progress under his guidance. … His laboratory was a place in which they loved to gather, to discuss with him their work, ask his counsel, and unfold to him their plans, and here they were ever sure of kindly reception and disinterested advice.” Professional colleagues also relied on Perkins’ calm sense of humor and concern for others. Indeed, he came to be something of a pillar at Union College in its troubled and tenuous post-Civil War years.
Perkins’ interest in health and medicine led him to establish a small infirmary on campus in North Colonnade in the 1880s. About the same time, he was also a member of the Schenectady and then the State Boards of Health, and he later used his expertise in toxicology to testify in court cases involving suspected poisoning. His only book, published in 1867, was An Elementary Manual of Qualitative Analysis, but he contributed articles to medical journals as well. He also had a variety of other interests. He enjoyed American history and government, and in addition to his regular classes in chemistry, sometimes taught American history, physiology, German, zoology, geology and political economy. In 1873, he even instructed some engineering students in photography. Perkins was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Albany Institute, the Connecticut Academy, the American Academy, the Natural History Society of New York and the Society of Chemical Industry of England. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Perkins and his wife Anne lived their entire lives at Union in the center of campus and raised three children there: Roger, Alice, and Rose. (Brief biographies of all three children as well as Anne Dunbar Potts Perkins can be found on this web site.) Perkins died as the result of a heart problem on June 18, 1901 and was buried in the College plot in Vale Cemetery. President Andrew Van Vranken Raymond delivered the funeral address, saying, “Few men could see more clearly into the heart of things, and it was characteristic of the man that he found the heart of good in things evil, and so he believed in men when others did not, and, while censuring, could forgive, and while rebuking, encourage.”