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Alumnus donates rare chemistry textbook
5/22/14

When Alfred University (AU) alumnus Roger Eiss visited campus this spring, he brought with him a personally meaningful donation for the Scholes Library of Ceramics – an original copy of what is widely considered the first textbook in the field of modern chemistry.

“Traité Elémentaire de Chimie, Seconde Edition” was published in 1793 by Antione Lavoisier. The book’s two volumes have been in Eiss’s wife’s family for centuries, originally purchased by her great-grandfather, an avid book collector, in the 1800s.

Eiss, who earned a bachelor of science degree from AU in 1958 and a master of science in 1964 before going on to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry, studied inorganic chemistry under the late Samuel Scholes Jr. during his time as a student and remembers seeing the late Samuel Scholes Sr. frequently around campus. Eiss worked as a chemist (industrial and academic) in industrial management (finance and information systems), as a consultant on business use of computers, and as an adjunct professor teaching classes in urban development and industrial engineering.  

The decision to donate the Lavoisier volumes to Scholes Library was made with his wife, Francoise (Bourget), in order to make them available to the University community as well as experts in the field.

“I looked forward to handing off these very special historical items to a good permanent home,” said Eiss.

This unique donation has a colorful historical background. Lavoisier, known as the father of modern chemistry, made several major contributions to the field during his lifetime despite the fact that chemistry was only his hobby, as it was not yet considered a true profession. In addition to this book, Lavoisier was the first scientist to realize the significance of the newly discovered elements oxygen and hydrogen.

He also initiated the first agricultural periodical in France and helped to improve the gunpowder manufacturing process for the French army. In 1794, Lavoisier was guillotined during the “reign of terror” following the French Revolution for his previous work as a tax collector for the king.

“Traité Elémentaire de Chemie, Seconde Edition” was the first publication to outline the modern chemical elements and reactions and is the first known documentation of the principle of conservation of matter. It features detailed illustrations by Lavoisier’s wife, Marie-Anne, who studied chemistry under him and assisted in his laboratory. The two married when she was only 13 years old in order to protect her from a marriage to a powerful nobleman. Marie-Anne grew to become a well-known scientific illustrator and her drawings add significant worth to the book, valued at approximately $3,000.

Mark Smith, director of Scholes Library, looks forward to adding the volumes to the library’s collection.

“We like items with stories,” Smith said. “We see it as part of the Scholes Library mission to collect items that will be of interest 25 years from now.”

Smith noted the library has put renewed attention over the past several years into acquiring special items of scientific and artistic significance, such as the recent acquisition of a set of pottery drafting tools used by Charles Fergus Binns, the renowned scientist and ceramic artist for which Binns Merrill Hall is named.

“Historically, it’s been easier to collect items of artistic interest than scientific interest,” Smith said. “Items like these (“Traité Elémentaire de Chemie”) help us to keep a balance in our collection.”

The two volumes will be prominently displayed in the library’s special collections, with special archival encasements to protect them from further atmospheric exposure. Both are paperback and are in delicate condition, having been exposed to UV and atmospheric damage and decay over the years. Smith explained that the handling of items such as these requires a special level of care and access; no copying of the books will be permitted, and special precautions will be taken by library staff members to ensure the preservation of the books.

“We will take the responsibility for it, but we also want to be able to show it for people to use and see,” he said. Supervised access will be available to Scholes Library patrons during business hours.