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Good Chemistry

Henry Holmes Croft established the university's first chemistry laboratory. It remains a place for another kind of alchemy - the mixing of ideas

University College (UC), that masterful rendering of Romanesque collegiate architecture by Frederick Cumberland and William Storm, is anchored on its southwest corner by the Croft Chapter House. Unlike in the Old World, where chapter houses were constructed to accommodate abbots and monks, the New-World Croft was built to accommodate scholars of chemistry. The Croft – one of U of T’s oldest buildings – was the first part of UC to be built, in 1857. It would soon operate as the School of Chemistry, presided over by Professor Henry Holmes Croft (1820-83). Croft received his scientific education at the esteemed University of Berlin before taking up a professorship in Toronto in 1844. In great mid-Victorian style he rejected the side of the angels and argued for the secularization of Anglican bishop John Strachan’s King’s College. Secularization occurred in 1849, and the next year, Croft was elected by the senate as vice-chancellor of the new University of Toronto.

Croft was a jack of all trades around U of T in those days. Vice-Chancellor, professor of chemistry, forensic scientist, founder of the University Rifles (a corps of volunteers determined to protect U of T from the Fenian scare) – no job seemed beyond the balding and bewhiskered Croft. And the base for this range of activities was the Students’ Laboratory, as the Croft Chapter House was called originally.

Cumberland & Storm modelled their laboratory on the one found at the University Museum at Oxford. Its architects (Deane & Woodward) had used the 14th-century abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey as a model. Cumberland & Storm followed suit but also made some modifications. The round laboratory they produced at UC was both larger than its Oxford prototype and better ventilated – a must in the gaseous world of chemicals. As Sir George Porter, an English Nobel Prize-winning chemist, remarked a few years ago, it is “the biggest fume hood of all time.” The chapter house was also isolated enough to protect it from a fire that broke out in University College on Valentine’s Day 1890. The fire ravaged much of the college, but the Croft remained standing.

The chapter house has long since surrendered its function as a laboratory of science. Now, it is favoured as a location for the alchemy of university departmental meetings where professors gather and argue at its enormous boardroom table. The only evidence of its former life is a portrait hanging above the fireplace of Professor Croft with his beakers; that is, now that the ghost of a workman killed during the construction of University College has disappeared. (It is said that another worker, in love with the same woman, attacked him with a dagger. When his bones were found and removed after the fire, the spectre disappeared.) Alchemy, indeed.

Brad Faught (PhD 1996) is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to University of Toronto Magazine.

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  1. One Response to “ Good Chemistry ”

  2. aaron fenton says:

    I have had two new faculty ask me where Croft Chapter House is. U of T maps, and the U of T index do not list it, but there are notices of all kinds of meetings there. Please add it to the U of T directory so people can find it.