The Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry, University of Cincinnati
The History of the Oesper Collections
The Oesper Collections are a direct result of the legacy of Ralph Edward Oesper. Born in Cincinnati in 1886, Oesper was educated in the public schools of Cincinnati and first became interested in chemistry as a high-school student through the influence of his high-school chemistry teacher, Herman Newman, who had received a Ph.D. in Germany for work done under the direction of the famous German chemist, August W. Hofmann. Oesper began his university training in chemistry at Purdue, but later transferred to the University of Cincinnati, from which he received his A.B. degree in 1908, followed by an A.M. degree the next year. After two years working as an analytical chemist and as a high-school chemistry teacher, Oesper returned to the University of Cincinnati, where he completed his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1914 for work done under the direction of Lauder Jones. While finishing his doctorate, he also served as Assistant Professor of Chemistry and German at the Ohio Mechanics Institute. After graduation, Oesper taught at New York University and Smith College before returning once again to the University of Cincinnati in 1918, first as an associate professor and then as a full professor. Though Oesper retired in 1951, he remained active until his death 26 years later at age 91.
As a chemist, Oesper specialized in the field of analytical chemistry, where he is best remembered for his introduction of a new titrametric agent known as Oesper’s Salt and for his translations of several important German monographs. His specialty in the field of history of chemistry was chemical biography. This led to an extensive series of biographical portraits of famous chemists, which he published in the Journal of Chemical Education during the 1940s and 1950s, based on materials he had collected during various trips to Europe, to his receipt of the first Dexter Award for the History of Chemistry in 1956, and to the publication of his book of chemical anecdotes, The Human Side of Scientists, in 1975.
Upon his death in 1977 Oesper left a substantial endowment to the Chemistry Department at Cincinnati for the support of activities in the history of chemistry. The department decided to use this fund to support a faculty position in chemical education and history of chemistry, and in 1986 William B. Jensen was appointed Oesper Professor of Chemical Education and History of Chemistry. Jensen decided to use the endowment to start a new American journal for the history of chemistry, known as the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, and to expand the small collections of rare books, journals, and portraits which Oesper had accumulated over the years. In addition, Jensen, who had been an avid collector of antique chemical apparatus since his days as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, decided to add a third collection devoted to the history of chemical apparatus. During the next 14 years, the book, journal, portrait and apparatus collections were increased more than a hundred fold, much of the apparatus being acquired as donations resulting from the many lectures on the history of chemistry which Dr. Jensen gave during these years at various small colleges and schools. In 2000, a doubling of the endowment resulting from the death of Oesper’s son, Dr. Peter Oesper, allowed the collections to acquire space for the separate housing of the books, journals and prints, as well as a museum area, with an accompanying work area and store rooms, for the antique apparatus. Currently the book and journal collections, which span the period 1600-1960, contain more than 17,000 volumes, whereas the portrait collection contains more than 2,500 portraits, prints and photographs related to the history of chemistry, and the apparatus collection more than 4,000 artifacts.
In addition to Dr. Jensen, who acts as the curator, the Oesper Collections are heavily dependent on the talents of the Chemistry Department Demonstrator, Rudy Thomas, who is responsible for the many excellent restorations and reproductions in the collections and who has also used his skills to clean and refurbish many of the original artifacts, and to John Tebo, the Senior Librarian Emeritus, Chemistry-Biology Library, who is primarily responsible for overseeing the tremendous expansion of the book, journal, and portrait collections.