Prof. John P. Emmet.

John Patten Emmet (1796–1842)

John Patten Emmet was a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia from 1825 until his death in 1842. Born in Ireland, he was the nephew of the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet. He came to the United States with his family in 1805 and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After studying medicine and developing an interest in chemistry, Emmet accepted a faculty position at the University of Virginia as chair of the School of Natural History. He appeared to thrive in Charlottesville, even in the midst of student unrest that forced a pair of colleagues to resign, and purchased land on which he built a house, Morea, of his own design. There he planted gardens and experimented with silkworm cultivation. Emmet's health had always been frail, however, dating back to childhood bouts with smallpox, measles, and whooping cough. In 1842, ill health forced him to take a leave of absence from which he never returned. He died that year at the New York home of one of his brothers. MORE...

 

Early Years

Emmet was born on April 8, 1796, in Dublin, Ireland. His uncle, the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet, led a rebellion against English rule in 1803 and was executed for treason. His father, Thomas Addis Emmet, an attorney and member of the Society of United Irishmen, was arrested following the 1798 uprising and spent several years in prison. After his release, he lived for a time in Brussels and in Paris before departing for the United States in 1804 with his wife, Jane Patten Emmet, and their older children. John Patten Emmet and his two younger siblings remained with other family members in Dublin until March 1805, when they left to join their parents in New York. Shortly before sailing Emmet contracted smallpox, measles, and whooping cough in rapid succession, which left his health permanently impaired.

Emmet enrolled at an academy on Long Island, New York, and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1814 to 1817, part of the time as acting assistant professor of mathematics. Poor health prevented him from completing his studies. Emmet spent the next year abroad, primarily in Italy, devoting his time to music, painting, and sculpture. From 1819 to 1822 he studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York, and developed a keen interest in chemistry. His thesis was published as An Essay on the Chemistry of Animated Matter (1822). Emmet began practicing medicine in Charleston, South Carolina. Having distinguished himself as a lecturer on chemistry, he attracted the attention of the founders of the University of Virginia.

At the University of Virginia

In the spring of 1825 the new university's board offered Emmet the chair of the School of Natural History, which embraced botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology. Emmet accepted and began teaching after the opening of the first term. In 1826 he also served as secretary of the faculty. By 1827 his teaching duties primarily focused on chemistry and materia medica. The new university faced many challenges, not the least of which was the recurrence of student misbehavior and unrest. Following a string of student uprisings, including assaults on faculty members, two professors resigned, but Emmet remained. His students evidently liked and respected him, even though they often had trouble understanding him when he became excited during lectures and spoke too fast and his brogue broadened.

Emmet married Mary Byrd Farley Tucker, the niece of George Tucker, another faculty member, on July 21, 1827. They had one daughter. Of their two sons, one died young and the other, Thomas Addis Emmet, became a distinguished New York physician and antiquarian. Having purchased 106 acres of land adjacent to the university grounds in 1831, Emmet built Morea (1834–1835), a house of his own design, and planted a wide variety of botanical specimens as well as mulberries in order to experiment with silkworm cultivation and silk production. He exploited local natural resources to engage in viticulture, horticulture, pottery, and porcelain making, and he also developed cements and weatherproof roofing materials and paints. Although Emmet's interests and experiments were many, his attention was often quickly diverted from one subject to another so that he seldom followed his inquiries to their termination. One of his investigations resulted in an unpublished essay questioning Isaac Newton's theory of refraction. He contributed several articles to Benjamin Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts.

Later Years

Suffering again from poor health by January 1842, Emmet took a leave of absence. While visiting Saint Augustine, Florida, he became so pleased with the climate, environment, and agricultural possibilities that by late in April he was planning to move there. But the experience of a stormy return voyage north proved too much for Emmet, whose frail health failed. He died on August 13, 1842, at the country home of one of his brothers near New York City and was buried in the New York City Marble Cemetery. A major thoroughfare adjacent to the University of Virginia and a twentieth-century residence hall bear his name.

Major Work

  • An Essay on the Chemistry of Animated Matter (1822)

Time Line

  • April 8, 1796 - John Patten Emmet is born in Dublin, Ireland.
  • March 1805 - John Patten Emmet and two of his siblings leave Dublin, Ireland, to join their parents in New York.
  • 1814–1817 - John Patten Emmet attends the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
  • 1818 - John Patten Emmet lives in Italy, devoting his time to music, painting, and sculpture.
  • 1819–1822 - John Patten Emmet studies medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York.
  • 1822 - John Patten Emmet's college thesis is published as An Essay on the Chemistry of Animated Matter.
  • 1822–1825 - John Patten Emmet practices medicine in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Spring 1825 - John Patten Emmet is hired as chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia.
  • 1826 - John Patten Emmet serves as secretary of the faculty at the University of Virginia.
  • July 21, 1827 - John Patten Emmet and Mary Byrd Farley Tucker marry. They will have one daughter and two sons.
  • 1831 - John Patten Emmet purchases 106 acres of land adjacent to the University of Virginia.
  • 1834–1835 - John Patten Emmet builds a house, Morea, of his own design.
  • January 1842 - By this date John Patten Emmet has taken a leave of absence from his teaching duties at the University of Virginia due to poor health.
  • August 13, 1842 - John Patten Emmet dies at the country home of one of his brothers near New York City. He is buried in the New York City Marble Cemetery.

References

Further Reading
Emmet, Thomas Addis. Memoir of John Patten Emmet M.D. New York: Privately printed, 1898.
Runk, B. F. D. "John Patten Emmet." Magazine of Albemarle County History 13 (1953): 54–67.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Francavilla, L. A., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Patten Emmet (1796–1842). (2016, February 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Emmet_John_Patten_1796-1842.

  • MLA Citation:

    Francavilla, Lisa A. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Patten Emmet (1796–1842)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Feb. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: December 17, 2015 | Last modified: February 4, 2016


Contributed by Lisa A. Francavilla and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Lisa A. Francavilla is managing editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at the International Center for Jefferson Studies.