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
John Patten Emmet’s Home and Family
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.
- An Essay on the Chemistry of Animated Matter (1822)