Fresh Start

War left a lasting impression on early American chemist James Woodhouse. For one thing, it showed him that doctors needed a proper understanding of chemistry to save lives.

By Kelly Tuttle | June 19, 2013

In 1791 a young medical student at what is now the University of Pennsylvania took a break from his studies and joined the army as a medical assistant in the Northwest Indian War being fought in and around present-day Ohio. James Woodhouse (1770–1809) spent four miserable months tending ill or wounded soldiers on the poorly equipped and badly planned expedition led by General Arthur St. Clair, then governor of the Northwest Territory. An alliance of Native Americans led by Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee routed the expedition on November 4 of that year. Woodhouse returned to Philadelphia with two convictions: he would never again practice war medicine, and doctors needed far more practical experience in chemistry to save the lives of their patients.

Back in Philadelphia, Woodhouse completed his course work and earned his degree in medicine. One of his teachers, Benjamin Rush, held the first chair of chemistry in the United States, published the first American book on chemistry, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush encouraged his medical students to study chemistry, and several of them, Woodhouse included, abandoned the practice of medicine for chemistry.

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St. Clair’s Defeat

St. Clair’s Defeat, a painting by Hal Sherman. James Woodhouse served as a medical assistant to General Arthur St. Clair’s army during the Northwest Indian War.

Hal Sherman

Around the time of his graduation in 1792 Woodhouse founded the Chemical Society of Philadelphia as a place for interested parties to meet, discuss, and practice chemistry. Woodhouse hoped his new society would encourage research and enthusiasm for chemistry, which was still in its infancy in the United States. Its members also provided, free of charge, chemical analyses of soils, minerals, and fossils to any “citizens of the republic” who sent them samples. Experimental chemistry in particular fascinated Woodhouse; he pursued his research with unbridled enthusiasm, spending most of his time in his laboratory.

In 1794 the renowned English chemist Joseph Priestley arrived in Pennsylvania. The discoverer of oxygen brought to America renewed interest in phlogiston. At the time, phlogiston was considered a real, though weightless, substance comparable to electricity and magnetism. Phlogiston provided a way to understand combustion: burning (or rusting) objects gave off their phlogiston, and whatever did not contain phlogiston could not burn. In the 18th century the idea of phlogiston was widely embraced by chemists, including Priestley, until that approach was challenged by Antoine Lavoisier’s theory of oxygen-based combustion.

Woodhouse was one of a growing number of chemists who rejected the phlogiston theory for Lavoisier’s oxygen approach. Like almost all chemists at that time, Woodhouse had the highest respect for Priestley’s scientific work, and he knew that only by careful research could he prove Priestley wrong. Woodhouse repeated one of Priestley’s phlogiston experiments at least 20 times to show that Priestley had not found what he thought he had. In 1799 the results of Woodhouse’s experimentation appeared in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, dealing a serious wound to the phlogiston theory.

In 1795 the University of Pennsylvania offered Woodhouse its chair in chemistry. In his classes Woodhouse taught by experimentation rather than lecture, and he continued his own investigations and closely followed scientific developments elsewhere. What’s more, he believed experimentation could instruct the general public. In 1797 he published The Young Chemist’s Pocket Companion, a self-guided lab manual accompanied by a case containing “philosophical apparatus and a great number of chemical agents by which any person may perform an endless variety of amusing and instructing experiments; intended to promote the cultivation of the science of chemistry.” The kit, a precursor to chemistry sets, taught the subject to those who could never hope to attend university. The first experiment “on hydrogenous gas or flammable air” is followed by 99 others, each with step-by-step instructions.

In an introduction to a chemistry book Woodhouse pointed out to parents how useful chemistry would be to their children, whether they were destined for farming (soil analysis), doctoring (medicine making), manufacturing (dye making, inks, glass, ceramics, tanning), baking (bread making), or any other job. For Woodhouse chemistry was everywhere, and everyone could benefit from a dose of it.