THE HISTORY OF LABORATORY SPACE AT MSU: PART II
Welcome back to our blog series on research and historical laboratories on MSU’s campus! In our last blog, we outlined how the university gained its start with an emphasis on scientific research and its uses for agriculture. Although the College used as much of its limited funds as possible to provide students with a state-of-the-art chemistry laboratory, it was located within College Hall with all of the other classrooms and offices. Thus, in spite of the College’s efforts to engage students in actual chemical experimentation, dangerous fumes turned the laboratory into a hazard for others in the building. As the chemistry laboratory was quickly becoming a model for other scientific courses in the College that still relied on book learning, the question was not whether to shut down the laboratory – but how to continue to offer chemistry courses in a safer manner.
The Chemistry Laboratory (1871-1955)
An opportunity to overhaul the chemistry laboratory arose in 1869 when the College was granted $10,000 from the State Legislature (Beal 1915:268). With the new funds, the College would be able to provide the chemistry laboratory with its own building and could fix some of the historic problems of the old laboratory in College Hall.
Left: Chemical Laboratory, dated to 1896. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections. Right: 1899 Campus Map with Chemical Laboratory indicated by red square (Lautner 1978).
Under a new professor of chemistry, Dr. Robert C. Kedzie, the new Chemistry building was constructed with the subject matter in mind and revolutionized the way that laboratory space should be built for hands-on research. Learning from the problems with the College Hall laboratory space, Kedzie designed the new building so that work tables sat at windows rather than between them to provide better lighting (Beal 1915:268). Additionally, hoods were provided along the walls with ventilation pipes that led up to a chimney – the first ventilation system of its kind in the United States (Forsyth 2020). This chimney and its rather boxy structure earned the building the nickname “Chemical Fort.” The laboratory was finished in 1871 and was located on a lot southeast of College Hall, where the fountain in front of the main campus library stands today.
However, even with a building all to itself, the Chemistry Department appealed for even more space! And this clearly continued to be the case, as the Chemical Fort acquired two separate additions over the next few decades, with the first built in 1882 and the second built in 1911. This extra space also allowed for the creation of Physics and Electrical Engineering courses, which were soon taught alongside chemistry in the Fort (Forsyth 2020).
By 1927, both Electrical Engineering and Chemistry vacated the Fort upon the completion of new customized buildings, leaving just Physics, who stayed in the Fort for additional two decades. Following the departure of Physics, the Fort was used as a library annex until the Main Library was finished in 1955. At this point, without any departments or books to house, the Fort was demolished.
As chemistry clearly contributed to agricultural research, the field would have been extremely valuable to the early College, which likely made its requests for space a priority. Thus, the creation of the Chemistry Laboratory, as well as its two additions, clearly demonstrate chemistry’s importance and the College’s efforts to address their ever present need for more space.
The Botanical Laboratory (1880-1890)
The original Botanical Laboratory, also known as Beal’s Laboratory, may seem like one of MSU’s wonders of the world, as William J. Beal is often recognized for his Botanical Garden that still exists on campus today and because some spooky legends surround the original laboratory site. While previous blog posts discuss Beal and the laboratory, it is important to highlight how this Laboratory fits into MSU’s history as a research focused university!
In comparison to chemistry, early botanical instruction at the College followed the more traditional path at the time and was confined to textbook learning (Beal 1915:61). Although the first instructor of Botany, Professor Henry Goadby, brought the first microscopes to the college, students used it primarily for identification rather than to understand the structures of plant varieties (Beal 1915:61; Kuhn 1955:29). This attitude around botany changed when William J. Beal took over as Professor of Botany, as he aimed to break away from book learning and provide students with actual specimens to examine. In fact, upon his arrival at the university, Beal argued that a proper laboratory space was necessarily to further botanical studies – just as one was needed for chemistry.
Once the College was able to secure the necessary funds for construction in 1880, Beal helped design the space so that it was fitted with a laboratory, lecture rooms, offices, and a museum for Botanical specimens – which included one of the largest collections of corn varieties (Kuhn 1955:111)! Furthermore, its close proximity to the Botanical Gardens allowed students to get hands-on experience setting plants according to species – by the time Beal retired in 1910, over 2,100 species were represented in the garden (Kuhn 1955:111).
Botanical Gardens, undated photograph. Image courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
Left: Beal and his students in the Botanical Laboratory. Right: 1880 Michigan Agricultural College campus map (“U” indicates location of the original Botanical Laboratory). Images courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
Unfortunately, likely because the laboratory had been built on a budget of $6,000 and was not constructed with bricks, it burned down in 1890, destroying much of the material kept inside (Beal 1915:61). However, even with such a short time as a laboratory based discipline, it clearly made a big impact on the College as plans were made immediately to rebuild the laboratory. While a new laboratory was built to replace it, the new laboratory was located in a different location of campus – as a part of Laboratory Row.
As no building has ever replaced this plot after the first Botanical Laboratory burned down, CAP has been able to conduct some excavation work in this location as an effort to learn more about the original building. In 2016, CAP uncovered a portion of the foundation and burned soils, as well as associated artifacts, including melted glass and windows. It has been recommended that any construction in this region be closely monitored, as the likelihood for discovery of relevant historical material is high.
Image of Unit 2 from an excavation of the original Botanical Laboratory, dated to 2016 (CAP Report No. 64).
Join us for our next post in the Blog Series to learn more about the historic laboratories on campus and how Laboratory Row played a part!
- Beal, W. J. 1915 History of the Michigan Agricultural College and biogeographical sketches of trustees and professors. Agricultural College, East Lansing, Michigan.
- Forsyth, K. 2020. Accessed at: https://kevinforsyth.net/ELMI/chem-lab.htm
- Kuhn, M. 1955. Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.