Chem 101 — a century-plus of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory

Four hundred Yale chemists gathered to celebrate the 101st anniversary of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory.
A group photo outside of SCL, recreating an image taken at the time of the building’s dedication.

Hundreds of Yale chemists gathered with university leaders recently to celebrate the 101st anniversary of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. (Photo by John Dempsey)

Like excited hydrogen atoms returning to the ground state, hundreds of Yale chemists, past and present, recently renewed their personal bond with a venerable campus lab building.

On May 10, multiple generations of scientists converged on Sterling Chemistry Laboratory (SCL), whose turreted facade has prominently peered over the Science Hill section of campus for 101 years. The celebration included campus tours, an exhibit of chemistry texts at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, a visit to labs at Yale’s West Campus, presentations of cutting-edge research, and reminiscences.

Many of you see your time in chemistry at Yale as being pivotal to your life and career,” said Andrew D. Hamilton, a former professor and chair of the department, former Yale provost, and former leader of New York University and the University of Oxford. “It certainly was for me.”

Hamilton and a roster of esteemed scientists addressed the assembled Yale chemists in SCL 110, an expansive lecture hall with rows of seats that rise in a semi-circle around a central stage. The scientists also posed for a group photo outside of SCL, recreating an image taken at the time of the building’s dedication.

Department of Chemistry Chair Kurt Zilm leads a facilities group tour during the anniversary celebration.
Department of Chemistry Chair Kurt Zilm leads a facilities group tour during the anniversary celebration. (Photo by John Dempsey)

That 1923 dedication event included the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) — heralding a new period of national attention for chemistry research at Yale. The chemical essays that emerged from the 1923 ACS meeting became the basis for the first two volumes of Chemical Reviews, a journal that remains influential in the research community to this day.

Oh, this place was a big deal,” said Kurt Zilm, the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Chemistry in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the department. “In many ways, it’s still the heart of the department.”

That department now also includes labs and offices at neighboring Kline Chemistry Lab and the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, all of which are interconnected.

During one session of last month’s celebration, emeritus professor J. Michael McBride offered a survey of the history of SCL and the department. His lecture highlighted stories about Yale chemists Treat B. Johnson, John G. Kirkwood, and Nobel Laureate Lars Onsager, the development of the department from the time of Josiah W. Gibbs to Benjamin Silliman, the design and construction of SCL, and the generations of faculty who followed.

An architect’s drawing of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory
An architect’s drawing of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. The building had its dedication event in 1923. (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

Originally built as part of John W. Sterling’s transformative 1918 bequest to Yale, SCL was the largest single building unit devoted to the study of chemistry at the time of its dedication. It had a teaching laboratory with a capacity of 900 students, facilities for elementary, organic, analytical, industrial, and physical chemistry, and lab desks fitted for gas, water, compressed air, electricity, and steam.

SCL was designed by architect William Adams Delano in Collegiate Gothic style and constructed with pressed red brick and Longmeadow brown sandstone. More recently, the building underwent a major renovation, reopening in 2016 with state-of-the-art teaching labs — part of a wave of science investment on campus that also includes the new Yale Science Building, the renovated Kline Tower and Wright Lab, and the planned Physical Science and Engineering Building.

I sense an optimism in this room and on this campus,” said Caltech chemistry professor Peter Dervan, who earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1972, became a Yale parent in the early 2000s, and is a former Yale Corporation trustee. “The buildings are here. The people are here. And 30 years from now, your legacy will play out.”

Hints of that future legacy were evident during the SCL anniversary event, as some of Yale’s next wave of chemists spoke about their work.

A student presents their work at a poster session in the SCL Teaching Labs hallway.
The celebration included a chemistry poster session in the SCL Teaching Labs hallway. (Photo by John Dempsey)

During the event, Tianyu Zhu, an assistant professor who joined the Yale faculty in 2021, gave a presentation about AI-accelerated quantum chemistry research; assistant professor Amymarie Bartholomew described the potential applications of modular molecular materials; assistant professor Caitlin Davis discussed her use of infrared microscopy as part of a larger effort to examine biological systems with new imaging techniques; and assistant professor Stacy Malaker gave an overview of her research on proteins called mucins, which are often markers for cancer.

It’s just been an incredible joy to be in a department where everybody is contributing to the field in a very large and broad way,” said Scott Miller, a Sterling Professor of Chemistry and former chair of the department. “This is, hopefully, a recipe for ongoing success as the field evolves.”

Miller was awarded the Harry Wasserman Prize for Excellence in Teaching Undergraduate Chemistry at the event.

Near the end of the day’s program, Yale President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel lauded Yale’s long chemistry tradition.

Strobel, who is also the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Professor of Chemistry, noted that every building represents a decision made by someone, at a specific point in time, about what will be important in the years to come. In this case, the decision to re-envision SCL for the 21st century symbolized Yale’s commitment to science research across a range of disciplines.

Salovey, whose father was a chemist, added that SCL stands as a testament to generations of teachers, scientists, and students.

A building is a metaphor — for you and the people who came before you,” Salovey said. “All of humankind has benefited from the discoveries made by Yale chemistry. And we’re not done.”

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