William Henry Emerson

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Big Doc Emerson,Founding Dean, Head of the Department of Chemistry and Engineering Chemistry, and Professor of Chemistry at the Georgia School of Technology between 1888 and 1924[1].

Dr. William Henry Emerson was the founding Dean of Faculty, Professor of Chemistry, and Head of the Department of Chemistry and Engineering Chemistry at the Georgia School of Technology. A member of the original six faculty members at Georgia Tech, Dr. Emerson had a profound impact on hundreds of students during his thirty-six year educational career. Affectionately known as "Big Doc" or "The Commodore" by his students, Dr. Emerson was known for being extremely fair and compassionate.



William Henry Emerson was born in Tunnell Hill, Georgia on June 17, 1860. After graduating the United States Naval Academy in 1880, he served in the Navy until resigning in 1884[2]. Emerson then attended Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Dr. Ira Remsen, who is credited with the discovery of Saccrin[3]. After graduating in 1886 with his Ph.D in chemistry, Emerson accepted a professorship at the South Carolina Military Academy in Charleston, SC. After merely two years on the faculty at SC Military Academy, Dr. Emerson resigned in order to accept a position as the first professor of chemistry at the newly founded Georgia School of Technology[2].

Professor of Chemistry

The faculty of the Georgia School of Technology in 1899. Front Row: Krandle, Matheson, Emerson, Coon, Crenshaw. Others in picture: Edwards, Hall, Wallace, Field Thompson, Van Horten, Branch. Others are unidentified[4].

Dr. Emerson, seated in the middle of the front row of the faculty picture at right, was hired as Georgia Tech’s first Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Chemistry and Engineering Chemistry in 1888. Of the original faculty, Dr. Emerson was the only member who received a doctorate in the United States[5]. Dr. ‘Big Doc’ Emerson, as he was known to his students, placed a considerable emphasis on understanding chemistry rather than mindlessly carrying out reactions. This sentiment was mostlikely impressed upon him by his Dr. Remsen[3]. Dr. Emerson led the initiative to have a Chemical Engineering program and Hired Gilbert Hillhouse Boggs to assist in the teaching. Dr. Boggs would succeed Emerson as head of the Department of Chemistry after Emerson's death in 1924.

According to John Baum [6], a 1924 graduate in engineering, “ ’Big Doc’ Emerson was known for being a strict disciplinarian… There were no favorites. You were recognized for what you did. Period.” This mentality served him well as a professor. He became very well respected and beloved by his students[7]. In 1911, a group of students founded the Emerson Chemical Society in his honor, and invited him to be the first speaker[8].

While Professor Emerson had a reputation for being strict, he was also know for how much he cared about his students. An account from H. D. Cutter, ME 1892, describes living on Calhoun St. next door to Dr. Emerson. Cutter became very ill and had to call a physician. After the physician arrived, Dr. Emerson came to check on the sickly student. Out of habit, Cutter greeted him as “Doctor Emerson.” The physician was confused by this and Emerson then had to explain his position at the school and his interest in the wellbeing of his students[9].

Cutter also describes a particular chemistry lesson, in which an experiment with cyanide had to be done exactly. Dr. Emerson was unwilling to allow his students to perform the experiment because it of its dangerous nature. Dr. Emerson did, however, agree to do the experiment in front of the class. To the amazement of the students, the cyanide experiment exploded when Dr. Emerson performed it. [9].

Chemistry Curriculum

The Lyman Hall Chemistry Laboratory was the original location of Dr. Emerson's Department of Chemistry[10].

The Curriculum for chemistry under Dr. Emerson was as follows[11]:

The course in Chemistry requires three years; it is begun in the Junior year and continues through the Middle and Senior years.


At the beginning of the Junior year General Chemistry is taken up--Remsen's Inorganic Chemistry, "Brief Course," being used as the guide. The subject is studied by means of experiments and recitations, each student devoting six to seven hours per week to experimental work illustrating the principles of General Chemistry; the recitations consisting of questions on the text and on the work in the laboratory. The experimental work in General Chemistry may be completed in less than a year. When it is finished Qualitative Analysis is taken up. Stoddard's Qualitative Analysis is used with Fresenin's Qualitative Analysis as reference.


Metallurgy is taken up the first of the year. This course includes fuels, ores of iron, methods of reduction, chemical and physical properties of iron and steel, analysis of iron and steel. A few other useful metals will be more briefly considered. In the laboratory Qualitative Analysis is continued, and Quantitative Analysis is begun, Fresenin's Qualitative Analysis is used; also Troilus on the Analysis of iron and steel.


The Senior class will receive lectures on Organic Chemistry 1st half year; 2d half year lectures on Technical Industries. They will also meet occasionally to report on articles published in four selected chemical journals, which are at their command. In the laboratory they continue Quantitative Analysis, both gravimetric and volumetric analysis, and gas analysis.

Emerson Chemical Society

Students working in the Lyman Hall Chemistry Laboratory under Dr. Emerson's instruction. Later additions to the chemistry facilities would allow Dr. Emerson and Dr. Boggs to instruct a little over 100 students in a day.[12].

In 1911, a group of chemistry students founded the Emerson Chemical Society. The aim of this society was to keep chemistry students in touch with the industrial phase of chemistry. In order to accomplish this goal, they planned to have a guest speaker at every meeting who was an important figure in either the academic or industrial side of chemistry[8]. In addition to having a guest lecturer at each meeting, a society member would present recently published chemical research to the whole group. This was in an effort to stay at the forefront of chemical discovery [13]

The membership of the Emerson Chemical Society included junior, middle, and senior class students who were taking chemistry classes. The faculty of the Chemistry and Geology departments were accepted as honorary members[13]. A secondary goal of the society was to peak the interest of the freshmen. In doing so, they hoped to encourage the freshmen to pursue chemistry. Freshmen could attend the meetings, but would not be able to join the society until they began their chemical education in their junior year[8]

For the first meeting, the new members universally agreed that Dr. Emerson would be the speaker at the society’s first meeting. Dr. Emerson gave his talk on the biography of moissau and gave a full account of his work as a chemist[14]. The account given in the Technique claims that Dr. Emerson’s talk was very enjoyable for those in attendance.

The First Dean

In 1909, Dr. Emerson was appointed as the first Dean of the Faculty of the Georgia School of Technology[7]. By this time, Dr. Boggs had already assumed half of the chemistry teaching responsibilities. As the Dean of the Faculty, he gave a very impressive speech in an attempt to hire the legendary John Heisman as the Head Coach for the football program. After this speech, students began contributing money to supplement the salary that Emerson was to offer Heisman for his services as Head Coach[14].

Although Dr. Emerson was an avid chemist and longed for scientific discovery, he ultimately put his career on hold to become the cornerstone of a great southern technical education. Some of his colleagues believed that had he continued his research, he might have gone down in history as one of the greatest chemists to ever live[2]. But those who knew him claim that he fell in love with shaping young minds and never regretted his choice[7].

The End of the Emerson Era

Dr. Emerson retained all three of his positions at the Georgia School of Technology until he died in 1924. In an effort to keep the Georgia Tech Department of Chemistry up to date with the times, Emerson had begun teaching the first physical chemistry class in the same year. Only two days before the 1924 Homecoming, the founding Dean and Professor of Chemistry at Georgia Tech passed away. He would influence the Georgia Tech students, who affectionately knew his as “Big Doc” or “The Commodore,” for thirty six years[5].

In his honor, Georgia Tech commissioned a portrait, which was to be hung in the Lyman Hall Chemistry Laboratory. The Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine claimed that the portrait “Succeeded in transferring to canvas not only the likeness, but the very character, resolution, honor and integrity" of Dr. Emerson. The portrait was to be unveiled at the 1924 Homecoming, but because of his death two days prior, the painting went missing. It was found in dilapidated condition in the library archives. Cherry L. Emerson later restored it, while he was the Dean of Georgia Tech. Sixty-eight years after it was intended to be dedicated; there was a formal ceremony in honor of the late Dr. Emerson. The painting now resided under the archway that led to Dr. Emerson’s former laboratory[5].

Noteworthy Family

Dr. Emerson was married in 1887. In 1888, Cherry Logan Emerson, Sr. was born. He would later graduate from Georgia Tech, become a notable engineer, and would hold titles of Dean and Vice President at Georgia Tech[5]. Cherry Logan Emerson, Jr., Dr. Emerson’s grandson would follow in his grandfather and become a notable chemist.


  1. "William Henry Emerson," in Georgia Tech Archives Digital Collections, Item #1258, http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1258 (accessed December 12, 2010).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 (December 5, 1924) In “William Henry Emerson” Science 60(1562) 517
  3. 3.0 3.1 (September 16, 1927) In “Ira Remsen” Science 66(1707) 243
  4. "Faculty - 1899," in Georgia Tech Archives Digital Collections, Item #991, http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/991 (accessed December 12, 2010).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 After 68 years 'Big Doc' Emerson's portrait officially unveiled. In “GT Alumni Magazine” Retrieved December 11, 2010 from http://alt.gtalumni.org/StayInformed/techtopics/win92/68years.html
  6. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. Living History Program., "John Baum, TE 1924," in Georgia Tech Archives Digital Collections, Item #3636, http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3636 (accessed December 11, 2010)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 (2002) ”Lessons for a Lifetime. In “The Georgia Tech Allumni Association’s First Person Accounts” Retrieved December 11, 2010 from http://web.archive.org/web/20080228123937/http://gtalumni.org/StayInformed/techtopics/spr02/firstperson.html
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 (November 24, 1911) in “The Technique” Retrieved Dec 11, 2010 from http://smartech.gatech.edu/bitstream/handle/1853/19207/1911-11-24_1_2.pdf?sequence=1
  9. 9.0 9.1 Cutter, H. D. “An Early History of Tech.” Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Retrieved October 2, 2010 from http://gtalumni.org/Publications/magazine/spr98/history.html
  10. "Lyman Hall Chemistry Laboratory," in Georgia Tech Archives Digital Collections, Item #1778, http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1778 (accessed December 12, 2010).
  11. In “The Annual Catalogue of the Georgia School of Technology” Retrieved December 11, 2010 from http://www.space.gatech.edu/danshiki/Tower/Catalogue.html#Equipment
  12. Georgia Institute of Technology. Public Relations Department, "Lyman Hall Laboratory," in Georgia Tech Archives Digital Collections, Item #1129, http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1129 (accessed December 12, 2010).
  13. 13.0 13.1 (1910) In “The General Catalogue of the Georgia School of Technology” Retrieved December 11, 2010 from http://books.google.com/books?id=Zmk9AAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA159&lpg=RA1-PA159&dq=%22Emerson+chemical+society%22&source=bl&ots=eZOnSU0zXD&sig=ne4GJoqWbbu54viviEwYCmS6zlI&hl=en&ei=v18ETZmhMsP6lwfa1u39Bw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CC8Q6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=%22Emerson%20chemical%20society%22&f=false
  14. 14.0 14.1 (December 1, 1911) in “The Technique” Retrieved Dec 11, 2010 from http://smartech.gatech.edu/bitstream/handle/1853/19207/1911-11-24_1_2.pdf?sequence=1
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