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History of the Department

The Department of Chemistry at Princeton University has a rich and extensive history that, with the opening of the world-class Frick Chemistry Laboratory in 2010, has a new home base from which to pursue research at the frontiers of science.

The chemistry laboratory's completion coincides with a bold expansion of the department and the recent and continuing recruitment of top-tier faculty. Faculty and students at Princeton are engaged in answering some of science's most pressing questions spanning topics from the life sciences to energy. They are exploring new avenues in catalysis and chemical synthesis with applications for medicine, agriculture and fine chemicals. Others are working at the interface between chemistry and materials science, seeking new forms of semiconductors that could be used in the next generation of televisions or computers.

As it often has been called, chemistry remains the "central science," strongly affected by and exerting a strong influence on many other scientific and technological fields. The chemistry faculty are embodiments of this idea, teaching and engaging in a full spectrum of chemical topics -- biochemistry, bioinorganic chemistry, bioorganic chemistry, biophysical chemistry, chemical physics, organic chemistry, experimental physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, materials chemistry and theory. They also conduct collaborative research with colleagues in many other fields. Frick's location at the heart of the University's emerging natural sciences neighborhood exemplifies the centrality of the subject as well as its close ties to many disciplines.

The Frick Chemistry Laboratory is the largest single academic building on campus excluding Firestone Library. At capacity, up to 30 faculty members, 30 staff, 250 to 300 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research staff, and several hundred undergraduates will regularly use the building. 

Housing some of the best, most advanced research instruments available, the laboratory also embodies the department's dedication to ensuring that undergraduates can experience the excitement of hands-on scientific investigation. Frick's teaching laboratories offer generous space so that students can explore chemistry by working side-by-side with faculty and graduate students. The chemistry laboratory is named in honor of industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), who was a benefactor of the University.    

Princeton's ambitions in chemistry stem from a productive past that includes early leadership. Physician John Maclean established the first undergraduate chemistry laboratory in America on campus in Nassau Hall after being appointed a professor of chemistry at the University in 1795. The discipline began its ascendancy then both in terms of its importance to science and its role at Princeton. Throughout the 19th century, chemistry was a required subject for all Princeton students.

As the 20th century emerged, and with it the demand for exploring the nation's mineral resources, the faculty grew to include several noted mineralogists. Hugh Stott Taylor, an inspiring educator and bold thinker who arrived at Princeton in 1914, set the pattern for research and teaching for the next half-century with his pioneering work in catalysis. After Taylor, the department's expertise continued to expand its inquiries in line with the events and challenges of the time. Faculty lent their expertise, for example, to the Manhattan Project during World War II.

At the start of the 21st century, long-term research by Edward Taylor, Princeton's A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Organic Chemistry Emeritus, led to the development of the anti-cancer drug Alimta in cooperation with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.