ENTRY

Emmet, John Patten (1796–1842)

SUMMARY

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.

Early Years

Death Mask of Robert Emmet Taken by the Older Petrie.

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

John Patten Emmet—Scientist and Professor

  • Ground Plan of a Chemical Lecture-room & Laboratory
    Ground Plan of a Chemical Lecture-room & Laboratory

    University of Virginia professor John Patten Emmet drew this architectural plan for a chemistry lecture hall to accommodate about 210 students and an adjoining laboratory measuring twenty by forty feet. A note on the reverse side of the sketch says that the lecture hall and laboratory would be "situated near the anatomical Hall" and would cost $3,000. Emmet served as a chemistry professor at the university from 1825 until 1842.

    Citation: Papers relating to the University of Virginia, 1827–1840. Accession #8553, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Geological Sketches
    Geological Sketches

    A page from an 1823 notebook kept by John Patten Emmet depicts the various geological strata found in coal and chalk basins in England. In 1825 Emmet became the chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia, a position that embraced the disciplines of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology.

    Citation: John P. Emmet Notebooks, 1825–1841. Accession #12713-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Anatomical Drawings
    Anatomical Drawings

    This page from an 1823 notebook kept by John Patten Emmet features detailed anatomical drawings. In 1825 Emmet became the chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia, a position that embraced the disciplines of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology. Emmet's scientific interests, however, also extended to anatomy.

    Citation: John P. Emmet Notebooks, 1825–1841. Accession #12713-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Insect Parts
    Insect Parts

    This section of a page from an 1823 notebook kept by John Patten Emmet features detailed drawings of insects. In 1825 Emmet became the chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia, a position that embraced the disciplines of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology.

    Citation: John P. Emmet Notebooks, 1825–1841. Accession #12713-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Drawings of Flowers
    Drawings of Flowers

    This page from an 1823 notebook kept by John Patten Emmet features detailed drawings of flowers. In 1825 Emmet became the chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia, a position that embraced the disciplines of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology.

    Citation: John P. Emmet Notebooks, 1825–1841. Accession #12713-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Bird Notes and Sketches
    Bird Notes and Sketches

    This page from an 1823 notebook kept by John Patten Emmet features detailed drawings of two types of vultures. In 1825 Emmet became the chair of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia, a position that embraced the disciplines of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and zoology.

    Citation: John P. Emmet Notebooks, 1825–1841. Accession #12713-a. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • John Patten Emmet's Appointment as a Professor at the University of Virginia
    John Patten Emmet's Appointment as a Professor at the University of Virginia

    This is a copy of the April 8, 1825, letter appointing John Patten Emmet as a professor of the School of Natural History at the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, the founder and then-rector of the university, signed the letter. The university seal is appended at bottom right.

    Citation: The Emmet Family, With Some Incidents Relating to Irish History and a Biographical Sketch of Prof. John Patten Emmet, M.D., And Other Members. CS71 .E54 1898.  Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

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.

John Patten Emmet’s Home and Family

  • Morea
    Morea, The Residence of Dr. J. P. Emmet, Near the University of Virginia.

    This is a sketch of Morea, the house where John Patten Emmet, a professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia from 1825 until 1842, resided with his family. Emmet designed the house after he had purchased 106 acres of land adjacent to the university grounds in 1831. Thomas Addis Emmet, the professor's only surviving son, drew this scene on January 10, 1879. The younger Emmet notes on the sketch that he created it "from memory after an interval of 34 years." Two African American workers, perhaps slaves, are portrayed—one with a wheelbarrow, the other standing next to a broom on the second floor balcony. This sketch was published in an 1898 history of the Emmet family.

    Citation: The Emmet Family, With Some Incidents Relating to Irish History and a Biographical Sketch of Prof. John Patten Emmet, M.D., and Other Members. CS71 .E54 1898. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Mary Byrd Tucker Emmet.
    Mary Byrd Tucker Emmet.

    Mary Byrd Tucker Emmet, the wife of the University of Virginia chemistry professor John Patten Emmet, is the subject of this portrait published in an 1898 history of the Emmet family. 

    Citation: The Emmet Family, With Some Incidents Relating to Irish History and a Biographical Sketch of Prof. John Patten Emmet, M.D., and Other Members. CS71 .E54 1898. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Jane Emmet (left) and Eliza J. Tucker (right)
    Jane Emmet (left) and Eliza J. Tucker (right)

    Jane Emmet, daughter of John Patten Emmet and Mary Byrd Tucker Emmet, poses with her maternal grandmother, Eliza J. Tucker, in this photographic portrait. Jane's father, John Patten Emmet, was a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia from 1825 until his death in 1842.

    Citation: Papers of John Patten Emmet, 1842–1979, n.d., Accession#12713. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Thomas Addis Emmet
    Thomas Addis Emmet

    Thomas Addis Emmet (1828–1919), a distinguished New York physician and antiquarian, is the subject of this portrait published in an 1898 history of the Emmet family. Emmet was the son of John Patten Emmet, a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia from 1825 until 1842, and Mary Byrd Tucker Emmet.

    Citation: The Emmet Family, With Some Incidents Relating to Irish History and a Biographical Sketch of Prof. John Patten Emmet, M.D., And Other Members. CS71 .E54 1898.  Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

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

Memorial Plaque for John Patten Emmet

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)

MAP
TIMELINE
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.
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, Lisa. Emmet, John Patten (1796–1842). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/emmet-john-patten-1796-1842.
MLA Citation:
Francavilla, Lisa. "Emmet, John Patten (1796–1842)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 25 Oct. 2021
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