Chemistry, Department of

Part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the chemistry department is one of the oldest on campus and has produced a number of academic leaders and major donors to the university in addition to distinguished graduates in the discipline. Chemistry dates its founding to 1818, when UNC hired Denison Olmsted (1791—1859) from Yale to teach the subject. A formal department was organized around 1890 under Francis P. Venable (1856—1934), first department chair and the university's first faculty member to hold an earned PhD. He led the department, and the university as president from 1900 to 1914, as both developed more rigorous academic and research programs.

An earlier chemistry professor was at the center of a major controversy. Benjamin S. Hedrick, an alumnus and professor of agricultural chemistry, supported the Republican Party antislavery candidate in the 1856 presidential election. In a university comprising mostly slave-owning students, faculty, and trustees, Hedrick was attacked on campus and in the press for this position. He was fired for engaging in political conflicts.

Chemistry has had various homes over the years. It was first housed in South Building from the early 1820s until the 1850s. With the need for a laboratory space to conduct experiments, the department took over basement space in Smith Hall (now Playmakers Theatre) in the 1850s. When the university reopened in 1875, chemistry moved into Person Hall, where it stayed until 1906. That year, the legislature made the first ever appropriation for a university building —for chemistry, which was later named Howell Hall. In 1925 the department moved into Venable Hall. In 1971 and 1985, respectively, the department added Kenan and Morehead Laboratories. They are named for two chemistry graduates, John Motley Morehead and William Rand Kenan Jr., who would become two of the university's most consistent and generous donors. The old Venable Hall was replaced in 2010 by the new Venable and Murray Halls.