Department History

In 1854, S. Pearl Lathrop taught the first chemistry course in the newly constructed North Hall, just off the shores of Lake Mendota on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

The department was officially established in 1880 and was chaired by Professor William Willard Daniells, who held classes in the basement of Bascom Hall. UW-Madison as a whole saw a growing emphasis on science during this era, under the leadership of university president John Bascom.

In the early twentieth century, the department saw major growth in undergraduate enrollment, graduate education, and the faculty. Student chemistry research began to flourish.

Student involvement also grew, and nine UW-Madison students founded Alpha Chi Sigma (AXΣ), a professional chemistry fraternity, during this era. The organization still thrives on campus today and now boasts more than 50 chapters nationwide.

Professor Louis Kahlenberg (B.S. 1892, M.S. 1893), who joined the faculty in 1895, served as department chair from 1907-19, and is credited with initiating the first renaissance within UW-Madison chemistry. Following graduate studies in physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig (Germany), Kahlenberg returned to UW-Madison and became the first chemistry professor to develop a visible and ongoing research program.

After Kahlenberg, Professor J. Howard Mathews was named chair. He held the position for 33 years and oversaw the department’s second renaissance as it grew into what his successors would later call a “great department.”

In addition to recruiting talented faculty, Mathews aimed to have his faculty explore new areas of chemistry. One such area was colloid systems, and the department hosted Swedish chemist Theodor “The” Svedberg, a leading experimentalist in the field, in 1923. While Svedberg was at UW-Madison, he conceived the ultracentrifuge, which assisted in scientific projects that ranged from the development of the plastics industry to the purification of gamma globulin. In 1937, UW-Madison became home to the second ultracentrifuge in the U.S., the first in a university setting.

That same year, renowned chemist Professor Joseph Hirschfelder, the founder of modern theoretical chemistry, joined the faculty. Once established in the department, Hirschfelder founded the Theoretical Chemistry Institute. The Institute now awards the internationally recognized Hirschfelder Prize in his honor. Hirschfelder was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford.

The Chemistry Instrument Center was established in the 1920s under the direction of Professor Villiers Meloche. The center grew over the decades, with Professor Paul Bender taking over in the late 1950s. As director, he opened access to the center’s sophisticated analytical instruments to other scientists and established classes that taught students to use the instruments. In 1993, the center was named in Bender’s honor, in recognition of his role in creating a premier center that continues to provide exceptional access to world-class NMR, ESR, mass spectrometry, and X-ray crystallography instruments, services, and instruction.

In 1960, Professor Howard Zimmerman joined the department; he is regarded as a pioneer in the field of mechanistic organic photochemistry.

The department has hosted dozens of visiting scholars from around the world. In 1962, Professor Harlan Goering established a program for visiting organic chemists and since 1999, the visiting professorship has been named in his honor.

The Institute for Chemical Education (ICE) was founded in 1983, in an effort to help science educators develop and share their ideas. The Wisconsin Institute for Science Literacy (WISL) outreach program soon followed and aims to promote understanding of science, math, and technology among the public.

Before moving to its current location at the heart of campus on University Ave. at Mills Street in 1962, the department made its home in Chamberlain Hall, Science Hall, Old Science Hall, Bascom Hall, South Hall, and of course, S. Pearl Lathrop’s lab in North Hall.

Entering the twenty-first century, the department expanded into the Shain Research Tower, named for Professor Irving Shain, who served as a faculty member, department chair, and chancellor of the university. The Shain Tower joined two older buildings, the Mathews Building, named for Professor J. Howard Mathews, opened in 1962, and the Daniels Building, named for Professor Farrington Daniels, opened in 1965.

Professor Laura Kiessling joined the faculty in 1991. She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1999 and became the founding editor-in-chief of the journal ACS Chemical Biology in 2005.

Today, the Department of Chemistry is known for its outstanding teaching, research, and outreach programs as well as its collegial and collaborative atmosphere. Whereas research in the department once fell neatly into the four traditional areas of chemistry, today’s chemistry students work on research projects that transcend traditional divisions. They collaborate with researchers in other groups, departments, campuses, and with researchers in industry. These collaborations have led the department to offer new areas of study, including chemical biology and materials chemistry.