Campus Currents

A Chemical Landmark

The American Chemical Society celebrated UNH's role in modern chemistry on Oct. 29 when it designated Conant Hall as its first National Historic Chemical Landmark in New England.

One of three surviving original academic buildings on the Durham campus, Conant Hall was the home of the chemistry department from 1893 until 1929. It was also the headquarters of the American Chemical Society from 1907 until 1911, when Professor Charles Parsons was both head of the department and secretary of the society. He left UNH in 1911 to become chief chemist of the Bureau of Mines.

Parsons' successor as head of the department was Professor Charles James, an Englishman who was affectionately known as "King" James to students and faculty members. When he arrived at the college in 1906, he already had an international reputation for his expertise on the rare earth elements. He developed what became known as the James Method of fractional crystallization—a new way to separate rare earth elements from their ores, which made it possible to process significant amounts of rare earth compounds, which he supplied to research labs around the globe.

Highly dedicated, James expected the same from his students. One recalls grinding minerals only to be told, "This material has the consistency of road gravel. I want you to get it to the consistency of the rouge on a lady's cheek."

James served as head of the chemistry department from 1911 until his death at the age of 49 in 1928. He is one of three chemists credited with the discovery of lutetium, the 16th of 17 rare earth elements, in 1907.

In the last two years of his life, James was busy designing a new chemistry building for UNH, but he died just before its completion. In 1929, that building was dedicated as Charles James Hall.

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