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Horsford, Eben Norton (1818-1893)

Name: Horsford, Eben Norton (1818-1893)


Historical Note:

Eben Norton Horsford (27 July 1818-1 Jan. 1893), chemist, was born in Moscow (now Livonia), New York, the son of Jerediah Horsford and Maria Charity Norton, farmers and missionaries. Growing up on the frontier, Horsford witnessed the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. The canal opened up markets for wheat grown in the Genesee Valley, but by the 1830s progressive farmers such as Horsford's father recognized that intensive agriculture had resulted in "worn-out soil." Horsford entered the Rensselaer School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in 1837 and graduated the following year with a B.S. in civil engineering. Following graduation, he worked for the New York State Geological Survey and from 1838 to 1839 taught a yearly lecture course in chemistry at Newark College in Delaware. While teaching mathematics and natural history at the Albany Female Academy from 1840 to 1844, Horsford fell in love with a student, Mary L'Hommedieu Gardiner. Her father, however, refused to assent to their marriage unless Horsford improved his station.

Probably on the advice of his friend, the Harvard chemist John White Webster, Horsford set a goal of obtaining a teaching position at Harvard University. In order to enhance his education, Horsford set off in 1844 on borrowed money for the nation of Hessen-Darmstadt (now part of Germany) to study agricultural chemistry with Justus Liebig. Liebig had become world famous following the publication of his book, Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology (1840), which was especially popular in the Genesee Valley region, and Horsford's friend Webster had translated the first American edition. Liebig's laboratory at Giessen was, consequently, at its peak, attracting advanced students from all over the world. Horsford was at the leading edge of a wave of American students who studied with Liebig in the late 1840s. He worked at Giessen from November 1844 to November 1846 and was admitted to Liebig's laboratory for advanced students during the latter part of that period. His advanced research was on the relative protein content, and presumably therefore the nutritive value, of various grains. Though best known for promoting professional chemical education, Liebig was also a zealous advocate of applying chemistry to industrial development; in both respects, his example shaped Horsford's career.

On returning to the United States in early 1847, Horsford received an appointment to the Rumford chair at the newly founded Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. In August 1847 he married Mary Gardiner; they had four children. Endowed by Boston industrialist Abbott Lawrence, the new school was part of a general reform movement that was aimed at making American higher education more responsive to the needs of business and industry. At Harvard, Horsford attempted to model chemical instruction on the paradigm of Liebig's laboratory at Giessen, which had assistants to teach introductory courses, perform lecture demonstrations, provide initial laboratory instruction, and oversee the stockroom and monitor inventory. Horsford's new school, however, was underendowed to achieve anything on this scale, and by 1853 Horsford had worked himself ill in the attempt to do everything himself. Low enrollment confounded his efforts to gain better funding.

After 1853 Horsford put less effort into teaching and administration and more into the industrial applications of chemistry. His efforts to develop patentable and marketable chemical commodities paid off, especially with "artificial yeast," a phosphatic baking powder. He resigned from Harvard in 1863 to devote himself full time to the Rumford Chemical Works. Founded in 1856 by Horsford and industrialist George Wilson, the company was a great success, and Horsford made a modest fortune, largely from contracts with the army for baking powder and other commodities during the Civil War. Horsford also improved condensed milk and scientifically proportioned marching rations for the army, and worked on vulcanized rubber and methods to avert the potential contamination of water that flowed through lead distribution pipes.

Late in life, Horsford took up anthropological studies of American Indian languages and of the evidence for pre-Columbian Viking settlements in North America. He was also an active supporter of Wellesley College after it was founded in 1870. Two years after the death of his first wife in 1855, he married her sister, Phoebe Dayton Gardiner, with whom he had one child. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In many ways, Horsford was a victim of his times. As a hard-working social climber, he made chemistry his ladder, but his career predated the formation of institutional science in America. Emulating the German model, he tried to establish an advanced school of chemistry but did so before there was a market for professional chemists. Although he accomplished little original scientific work, through his position at the Lawrence Scientific School he trained a subsequent generation of American scientists, who were able to establish a firm institutional basis for chemistry in the United States. These students included George Chapman Caldwell and Charles Frederick Chandler, who built significant programs at Cornell University and Columbia University respectively. Horsford was an early member of the American Chemical Society, despite his initial opposition to its formation. Driven to succeed by the expectations of his father-in-law, and perhaps by his own expectations as well, Horsford was fortunate to find that some of his chemical ideas were readily translated into business profits.

Sources: Pat Munday, "<font color="red">Horsford</font>, Eben Norton," American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000




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