John Patten Emmet

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Portrait of John Patten Emmet by James Westhall Ford. From Thomas Addis Emmet, MD, LLD, A Memoir of John Patten Emmet (privately printed, 1898).

John P. Emmet (April 8, 1796 – August 14, 1842) was Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica at the University of Virginia and owned nine slaves at the time of his death. Appointed by Thomas Jefferson in 1825, Emmet was the first professor of natural history at the University.


John Patten Emmet was been born in Ireland in 1796 and was eight years old when he arrived in New York, where his father, Thomas Addis Emmet, an outspoken Irish patriot, had decided to seek political asylum. As a child, John Emmet had contracted severe cases of smallpox, measles, and whooping cough, and as a teenager he was forced to leave school because of a debilitating lung disease. Nonetheless, he was admitted to West Point as a cadet, where as a student he became an assistant instructor of mathematics; Emmet’s poor health, however, forced him to leave the military academy before completing his studies.[1]

In an attempt to regain his health, Emmet spent a winter in Naples, Italy, where he studied music, painting, sculpture, and Italian. When he returned to America in 1819, Emmet enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and became an assistant to Dr. William J. MacNeven, the professor of chemistry and a friend of Emmet’s father. When cold weather forced Emmet to remain indoors during the winter, he devoted himself to studying chemistry and fitted up a room in his parents’ house as a chemical laboratory; he also began “to show the same taste for mechanical pursuits.” Emmet was awarded his medical degree in January 1822. A few weeks later, in search of a warmer climate, Emmet moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he established a medical practice, which would prove somewhat disappointing, but he also “delivered a course of lectures” on chemistry, “which were very well received in that cultivated and intelligent community.” Emmet remained in Charleston through the winter of 1824-1825.[1]

Thomas Jefferson write to John Emmet on March 6, 1825, announcing his unanimous appointment by the Board of Visitors on March 4 as “a professor for the school of Natural history.” Jefferson explained that “under the generic term of Natural history,” the board “comprehend Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Chemistry and Geology; that of Chemistry however being considered as the branch most eminently distinctive of the school.” The “emoluments,” Jefferson explained, were a “fixed salary” of $1,500, “tuition fees from those of your school from 25 to 50 D. each according to circumstances, and an excellent house and convenient garden-grounds for your residence.” It would take a vote of five of the seven Visitors to remove a professor from his post, meaning, Jefferson assured Emmet, that “it is therefore a freehold in fact.” Only one vacation was allowed, from December 15 through January 31, and professors were expected to lecture “every other day during term.” There was not much time for Emmet to consider the offer. “The Institution opens tomorrow,” Jefferson continued, “so that in the hope that you will accede to our wishes, we shall request your attendance as early as possible, and in the meantime, ask an answer which may place us on a certainty.”

Emmet, then in New York, replied on March 13, 1825, just a week after Jefferson had sent his invitation:

I have just received your letter announcing my election to the Professorship of Chemistry and Natural History, in the College over which you preside. I beg to express my strong feeling of gratification at the result, and hope, by attention and zeal, to compensate for the disadvantage of not being on duty, as early as my Colleagues. As various arrangements, no doubt, yet remain for my own particular attendance at the University, I shall loose [sic] no time in entering upon the duties which have been assigned to me, and may limit my delay to a fortnight or three weeks.[1]

University of Virginia

John Patten Emmet was the third person to be offered the position of teaching chemistry at the University of Virginia. When Emmet had arrived at the university in 1825, he was assigned to Pavilion I. Here he kept a menagerie of wild animals, including a white owl, snakes, and a “friendly” bear, all of which was disbursed after his marriage to Mary Byrd Tucker in 1829. In 1834 Emmet purchased land on the west edge of the university’s grounds along the Staunton Turnpike and built a house for his family on the property, which he called Morea. Here he planted many fruit trees and flowers, including mulberry trees, established a vineyard, built a “brick building for the spinning of silk” from silkworms that he cultivated, and developed colorfast dyes for the silk.[1]

Emmet had left the university during the 1825-1826 winter vacation to be with his family; it had taken him seven days to reach New York, and he had “had a pretty severe jaunt of it.” “The stage was filled with students,” he complained, and he had been “compelled to ride with the driver all the way to Fredricksburg.”[1]

Over the years Emmet published several scientific papers. The experiments on which these papers were based most likely were carried out at the chemical laboratory in the Rotunda.

His health failing, Emmet and his wife left for Florida in January 1842. His condition improved as a result of the warmer climate, and he was thought to be “in a fair way of recovery.” During his return trip to New York, however, he suffered “a boisterous passage, in a small uncomfortable vessel,” which lost its masts and drifted at sea for nearly a month before its passengers were rescued. Emmet lost “more than he had gained in Florida” in terms of his health. He died on August 15, 1842, at age 47, just weeks after landing in New York.

The Board of Visitors held a special meeting on September 19, 1842, in order to officially appoint Emmet’s successor, Dr. Robert E. Rogers, the younger brother of William B. Rogers, for a term of one year; he was assigned to Pavilion VIII. Robert Rogers was officially appointed professor of chemistry on July 4, 1843.[1]


Professor Emmet, a New Yorker born in Ireland, arrived in Charlottesville as a non-slaveowner. Later he became dissatisfied with his hired workers and sought advice on how to purchase slaves. Professor Emmet owned nine slaves at the time of his death.[2]

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Web. CHEMICAL HEARTH, HISTORIC STRUCTURE REPORT, University of Virginia, JANUARY 2017
  2. Web. Slavery at the University of Virginia - Visitor’s Guide, Copyright 2013, the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2013

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