Martin Chemical Laboratory

Said the Colonel for whom the building is named:

“It is proper, however that I should express my conviction, which I think is concurred in by the Faculty, and, so far as I know, by the students also, that no other branch connected with my Chair is more important or more interesting [than chemistry]” (Beaty, 114).

It was with this passion, this assurance that the Martin Science building came to stand on Davidson College land. Chemistry, part of the Davidson College curriculum since its opening in 1837, has not always been the expansive, well-equipped department it is today. The Martin Chemical Laboratory of 1901 housed a department composed of a sole professorship.

It was, as “Mrs. Lucy Phillips Russell remembered, ‘Col. Martin’s swift, soldierly ways [that would] build up the Chem. Dept. from nothing at all'” (114). Struggling to find the money for “necessary work tables, purchase of re-agents, and the small amount of apparatus needed” (114), Col. Martin encountered some adversity in those first days.

It is said that perhaps he worked best with hardship; before coming to Davidson College, the colonel had organized the twenty-eighth North Carolina Regiment of the Confederate States Army which he led to several glorious engagements at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and others. The captain was wounded twice badly before Appomattox, and “his gallantry had received merited recognition in a consistent cursus honorum from Captain to General” (Tribute).

Proposed Martin Chemical Building
Martin Chemical Laboratory as designed.

With comparable heroism, the Colonel took the Chair of Natural Sciences at Davidson College in 1869 and became the “Father of Chemistry” here. By 1900, the chemistry department would see much expansion due almost entirely the laboring of the colonel, and his persistence to see its rise. The 1850  single-termed one course study would develop into four courses taught over six terms, of which one -organic chemistry– all sophomores were now required to take. Perhaps more importantly, Chemistry would finally have its own building.

Martin Chemical Laboratory as built
Martin Chemical Laboratory as built. [1911]

After sharing the facilities of Chambers for over fifty years, “Chemistry at Davidson entered the twentieth century with a true laboratory: a two-story brick building sixty-five by sixty feet, with a laboratory, huge classrooms, offices, and stockroom on the first floor, and two large laboratories on the second floor” (186). Classic and “mercifully not resembling the YMCA,” (186) the Chemical Laboratory was handsome and timeless in style.

Still, compared to the luxuries we now benefit from, the department’s equipment was still minimal, Jethro Rumple explained. “Nor did we spend
much time in scientific experiments. We had an electrical machine-the one, I think, still standing in Professor Smith’s lecture room-with which our professor produced some sparks, tried to charge a Leyden jar, shocking things in general, including a circle of students on one occasion.” He also remembered seeing an old battery and a few tubes and perhaps “some litmus paper about.”

It was in the forties, however that Davidson College became home to the first National Science Honorary Gamma Sigma Epsilon.

Martin Chemical Laboratory, 1969
Martin Chemical Laboratory [1969]

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With new awareness and concentration on Chemistry, the department continued to slowly augment its equipment and abilities. Then, in 1941, Martin Chemical was torn down and construction began on a new historically sound structure, in which both the chemistry and biology departments would be held. Three years later, Governor Broughton and the surgeon general of the United States army, Major General Normal Thomas Kirk and other distinguished guests would arrive at Davidson to honor the finally finished Martin Science Building.

In 1960, the biology department would undergo the move to Dana Science Building, leaving Martin to become a Chemistry Laboratory-lecture-classroom unit at a cost of $50,000. Through a final grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation in 1977, Martin would suddenly be provided with central heat and air, new lighting, furniture, laboratory equipment and altered rooms; the cost of renovation totaling just over one million dollars.

As a “project that ha[d] been on the drawing boards for at least fifteen years, [this] for everyone involved [was] a dream come true,” said a columnist in the Davidson College paper dated March 25, 1944.

Chemistry Lab

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Worthy of those who had dreamt it more than a century before, the newly renamed Martin Chemical Laboratory stands honoring “the virtual father of the science department at the college [and] his son [who was] intimately related to the college for almost his entire life” and served as president from 1912 to 1929, as the 1944 article put it.

Today the Chemistry department offers over two dozen courses taught by taught by ten highly-qualified doctors of organic and analytical chemistry, green and polymer chemistry, and computational and physical biochemistry.  Complete with technologically advanced lecture rooms, which, as Dr. Nick Burnett of today’s Chemistry department noted, has ceiling tiles in geometric shapes that suggest molecular structures (mainly benzene rings). While Col. Martin was, for more than a generation, “making chemists, without a laboratory, by the unique process of making men first, that could become chemists or anything else they undertook,” Davidson’s current students and teachers relish in a new building from whose cracks seep the old Colonel’s drive and moral fibers.

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Historic Buildings, Chambers Building, Martin Chemical Library,
President’s House, Carolina Inn – Works Cited

Anonymous. A Tribute: William Joseph Martin, Junior, Flyer. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. A Tribute: William Joseph Martin, Senior, Flyer. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “History of Martin Chemical Laboratory,” Fact sheet. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “Martin Chemical Laboratory (1899-1941),” Flyer, Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. “Martin Science Building to Be Dedicated April 14,” Newsclipping. Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Anonymous. Newsclipping, Martin Science Davidsoniana file. Davidson college Archives, Davidson, NC.

Beaty, Mary. The History of Davidson College. Briarpatch: North Carolina, 1988.

Beaty, Mary. A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937. Briarpatch: North Carolina, 1979.

Boyte, Jack. “Survey and Research on the Helper Hotel.” Architectural report. 1976. Carolina Inn Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson,

Burnett, Lee. “The Evolution of Chambers.” Davidson Journal Spring (1987) : 12-13.

“Chambers’ Gift: The Legal History” Davidson Journal Spring (1999) : pg.3

Davidson, Chalmers. “Lives of a Wayside Inn.” The State 15 November 1971: 8-10.

Davidson, Chalmers Gaston. The Plantation World Around Davidson. Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1982.

“Davidson Has Undertaken Vast Improvement Program.” The Charlotte Observer Newsclipping. Chambers Building- Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives., Davidson, NC.

Flyer, Davidson College. “The President’s Home.” President’s House Davidsoniana File. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Hamrick, Jason. The President’s House at Davidson College: a brief pictorial history compiled from the Davidson College Archives. Davidson: Davidson College, 1999.

Herran, Kathy Neill. They Married Confederate Officers. Davidson: Warren Publishing, 1997.

Invitation from President’s House Davidsoniana file. 15 Dec 1976. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Kuykendall, Missy. “Notes on the President’s House, Davidson College.” Davidson College, NC. 1996.

McLeod, R.A. Letter to Dr. Martin. 30 November 1921. RG211.11. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC

“Old Chambers Building.” Data Sheet. Old Chambers Building-Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives., Davidson, NC.

Park, Leland. Memo from Alumni Weekend, Davidson College. 22 May 1971.

Photograph of Louisiana. Photograph Collection, number 9-0885. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of President’s House. Photograph Collection, number 9-1007. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Photograph of Robert Hall Morrison. Photograph Collection, number 19-0698. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

President’s House Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Published essay. “The President’s House.” President’s House Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.

Rumple, Jethro. “Davidson College in the Forties,” Quips and Cranks. Vol. I. Davidson College, 1895.

Author: Julienne Alexander ’07
Date: October 2003

Cite as: Alexander, Julienne. “Martin Chemical Laboratory” Davidson
Encyclopedia October 2003 <>

Related Entries: Historic Buildings

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