Our History

The history of the Department of Chemistry at MIT dates back to 1865. Over the years, a number of renowned and colorful figures have been associated with the department as faculty and as students including James Mason Crafts, Arthur Amos Noyes, G. N. Lewis, James Flack Norris, Arthur C. Cope, and F. Albert Cotton.

Video History of the Chemistry Department

Please click here to enjoy a series of videos documenting the history of the Department of Chemistry, as described through interviews with current and emeritus MIT faculty.

Timeline History of the Chemistry Department

Many important research advances in chemistry have taken place at MIT and the department has also been on the forefront of innovation in chemical education. A Timeline History of the MIT Chemistry Department outlines highlights in the history of the department.

I. The Early Days (1861 – 1888)
II. Around the Turn of the Century (1890 – 1908)
III. MIT moves from Boston to Cambridge (1916)
IV. The Keyes Era (1922 – 1945)
V. The Cope Era (1945 – 1964)
VI. After Cope (1964 to present)

Any suggestions or ideas about preserving and presenting departmental history can be directed to Communications Coordinator Danielle Randall Doughty at randalld@mit.edu.

I. The Early Days


  • MIT is founded by William Barton Rogers, formerly Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the College of William & Mary, and Professor of Natural Philosophy at University of Virginia.


  • MIT holds its first chemistry class (15 students) in Boston. Two faculty members include Francis H. Storer and Charles W. Eliot.1866 – Professor Cyrus Warren is the first professor of organic chemistry.


  • Professor Cyrus Warren is the first professor of organic chemistry.
  • The Rogers Building is completed in Boston. Chemistry Department and its laboratories are located in the basement.


  • The Lowell Institute begins holding evening classes including chemistry open to the public, men and women.
  • Professor Eliot leaves to become President of Harvard University. Professor Storer follows him to Harvard. Eliot attempts “takeover” of MIT.


  • James Mason Crafts starts as professor of analytic and organic chemistry. He leaves MIT in 1874 for a 17-year stay in Paris where he develops the Friedel-Crafts reaction.
  • Ellen Swallow (later, Ellen Swallow Richards), the first woman in the chemistry department, receives her B.Sc. degree in 1873.


  • The Women’s Laboratory (non-degree until 1883 when women could become degree candidates) is founded by Ellen Swallow Richards to give women laboratory training in chemistry.


  • The M.Sc. degree program is started at MIT.


  • Professor Lewis M. Norton founds the first course in chemical engineering in the Chemistry Department.

II. MIT at the Turn of the Century


  • Professor Henry P. Talbot, professor of analytical chemistry, starts first course in physical chemistry (Dept. Head 190-1921). Arthur Amos Noyes (’86) joins Chemistry Department as assistant professor.


  • Professor Crafts returns to MIT as professor of organic chemistry. He serves as MIT president from 1897 to 1900.


  • Professor Noyes starts “Systematic Review of American Chemical Research”, the precursor of “Chemical Abstracts” (1907).


  • Gilbert Newton Lewis joins Chemistry Department. He departs for Univ. of California at Berkeley in 1912.


  • Professor Noyes founds world-famous Research Laboratory in Physical Chemistry.


  • The first three MIT Ph.D.s are awarded to students of the Laboratory in Physical Chemistry.


  • Professor William Walker founds the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry.

III. MIT Moves to Cambridge


  • MIT moves from the Back Bay in Boston across the river to Cambridge (made possible by gifts of T. Coleman duPont and George Eastman). Chemistry professors at the time include: Frederick G. Keyes (physical chemistry and Department Head (1922 – 1945), Arthur A. Blanchard (inorganic chemistry), Forris Jewett Moore (organic chemistry), James Flack Norris (organic chemistry and Director of Research Laboratory of Organic Chemistry).


  • Professor Noyes leaves MIT to found Gates Chemical Laboratory at California Institute of Technology.

IV. The Keyes Era (1922-1945)


  • Between 1922 and 1945 notable chemistry professors include: George Scatchard (physical chemistry), Avery A. Ashdown (organic chemistry), Avery A. Morton (organic chemistry), James A. Beattie (physical chemistry), Walter C. Schumb (inorganic chemistry), Leicester F. Hamilton (analytical chemistry and longtime Executive Officer), Isadore Amdur (physical chemistry), Walter Stockmayer (physical chemistry).


  • The Eastman Laboratories for chemistry and physics are completed.


  • Robert B. Woodward, Nobel Laureate 1965 is an undergraduate and graduate student at MIT.

V. The Cope Era (1945-1964)


  • Arthur C. Cope comes from Columbia University to become Chemistry Department Head
  • Many new faculty join the department between 1945 and 1964 including: Charles D. Coryell (inorganic and radiochemistry), Richard C. Lord (physical chemistry), John C. Sheehan (organic chemistry), David Hume (analytical chemistry), John D. Roberts (organic chemistry), C. Gardner Swain (organic chemistry), Lockhart B. Rogers (analytical chemistry), George Büchi (organic chemistry), and David Shoemaker (physical chemistry)


  • There are significant changes to the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. The 2-semester first year chemistry lecture/lab course is modified, and a new sequence of lab courses is developed.

VI. After Cope: 1964 – Present


  • Construction begins on the Dreyfus Building to house organic, organometallic, and biological chemistry research laboratories.


  • Biological chemistry is developed as a new research direction. Professor Gobind Khorana joins the department. Other biological chemists join the department including Christopher Walsh, 1972; Gregory Pesko, 1978; William Orme-Johnson, 1980; and Joanne Stubbe, 1987.


  • The Department of Applied Biology is discontinued and several faculty receive appointments in the Chemistry Department including Professors Klibanov, Essigmann, Wogan, and Tannenbaum.


  • Professor Mario Molina shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on formation and decomposition of the ozone layer.
  • Stephen J. Lippard appointed Department Head and spearheads fund-raising campaign to support renovation of all research laboratories in the department.


  • Renovation of physical chemistry laboratories (1999) and inorganic chemistry laboratories (2000) in Building 6.


  • Major reconstruction of Dreyfus Building completed.


  • Professor Richard R. Schrock shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis.
  • Professor Stephen J. Lippard receives National Medal of Science.