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Foote, Albert Edward

Published onAug 04, 2021
Foote, Albert Edward

(February 4, 1846 - October 10, 1985)

Quick Facts

A.E. Foote, a mineralogist and physician, was the first professor of Chemistry at Iowa Agricultural College and established the strong beginnings of the curriculum that gained such renown as the college grew.


From the outset at Iowa Agricultural College (IAC, now Iowa State University), chemistry was included as "one of the most important subjects to be taught in the institution." But facility problems plagued the chemistry curriculum from the start.

In the first year of operation, President A. Welch reported to the General Assembly that "There is an appropriation of $2,000 made by the trustees for chemical apparatus but no room in the building for a laboratory. The only relief from this dilemma is to fit up a rough structure that is now used as a carpentry shop and to occupy it temporarily until a small brick building can be put up. Such a building, sufficient for present needs of the College and capable of enlargement at a later day, might cost $5,000."

In early 1870, $5,000 was appropriated. The resultant "small brick building" was 30 x 60 feet with one story above ground and another half below with footings adequate to hold two more stories. During its construction, the carpentry shop was used as the Chemistry Laboratory. After its completion, the brick building served the college as the Chemistry Building for many years.

Chemistry started in the sophomore year and extended for two-and-one-half years. A special 'Domestic Economy' Chemistry course for ladies was also taught during the third and fourth terms. Agricultural Chemistry was taught during the fifth term (Senior Year).

Remarkably, all these courses were taught by a single person: Professor Albert Edward Foote. From the onset, Foote introduced the laboratory method of instruction to augment and supplement lecture and recitation material. Ultimately, more than 360 experiments were performed by each student. All of this was done in the former carpentry shop. It was only during the last two years of his tenure that Foote enjoyed the luxury of the "small brick building."

Foote's advanced degree was an M.D. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, he had shown such proficiency in Chemistry that he had been given an assistantship in that department after graduation. At age 21, he was the choice over several other candidates by Iowa State Agricultural College, where he was to be an Assistant Professor in charge of organizing and developing the Chemistry Department.

His teaching chores required inordinate time and energy. Funds were low and progress in establishing and equipping the laboratory was slow and frustrating. In addition to his teaching chores, he was also a proctor for men students in one of the dormitories. After a full day of teaching and advising students in classrooms and laboratories, he had to cater to the pranks and mischief of young men fresh off the farms.

For his success at organizing the Chemistry Department during the two years he had been at the College, in 1871 he was named a full professor and his salary raised to $1,600. In 1873 Foote and his new bride moved into a house on the campus assigned to him by the Board of Trustees.

At the same time, Foote was avidly collecting minerals and had already accumulated more than 5,000 specimens on field trips.

In 1871, President Welch approached the General Assembly for funds to build an addition to the chemistry building to accommodate Physics and Mechanics (Civil Engineering and Architecture) students. This addition was to be three stories above ground and continue the half below-grade basement of the original structure.

Physical and Chemical Laboratories are added to the east side of Chemical Laboratory at a cost of $16,000.  The Laboratory is located near where Pearson Hall is today. Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Foote agreed with this idea since moving the students from the ex-carpentry shop had already crowded the "small brick building." Funds were approved, but appropriated in piecemeal fashion over several years. When finally completed in 1875, the addition was 70 feet long and 40 feet wide and "afforded commodious apartments…."

The original brick building and the first floor of the addition were occupied by the Chemistry Department. The Physics Department occupied the second floor of the addition. A room on the third floor was lighted by skylights and made an excellent drawing room for the Mechanical Department. There was also an astronomy observatory.

Professor Foote continued to teach all Chemistry courses in the brick building during the construction of the addition, even adding a course in mineralogy to his already wearisome schedule.

However, the fledgling College was being attacked for various reasons throughout the state and Welch was criticized for all of the "unnecessary teaching" that was going on. Foote was troubled by the close restraints of academic routine and was criticized for his temper and casual bookkeeping. People wanted him fired. There were petitions to reorganize the College, oust Welch and get rid of any staff that was considered to be detrimental to its success. Some members in the 15th General Assembly were concerned that "the college is drifting away from its original intent." At the November 12th meeting of the Board of Trustees in 1873, other staff was retained but Foote and two others were let go.

In 1875 Foote and his family moved to Philadelphia where he was invited to exhibit his mineral collection, the largest in the country, at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. The exhibit caused so much interest in minerals that he was soon selling them. After the Centennial Exposition closed on November 10, 1876, Foote decided to exploit his knowledge of minerals to support his family. He set up a business supplying minerals to schools, colleges, museums, and anyone else who wanted them.

Dr. Foote exhibited his prized mineral collection all over this country and the world, and made collecting sorties. A naturally occurring hydrous copper sulfate he found is named “footeite” and he named many other minerals that he discovered.

On November 10, 1895, Foote died at age 49 in Atlanta, Georgia, the result of a debilitating illness. In his more than 30 years of collecting, he placed several million mineral specimens in storage and display cabinets all over the world.

His son Warren carried on his father's legacy, founding the Foote Mineral Company, a purveyor of materials containing elements not in common use at the turn of the 20th century and even today considered to be somewhat exotic.

E.R. Hutchins, M.D., of Cedar Rapids replaced Foote as temporary head of Chemistry until Thomas E. Pope took the position in 1876 and built upon and modernize Foote’s curriculum.

Selected Sources

Excerpted from Harry J. Svec’s Chemistry at Iowa State University: Some Historical Accounts of the Early Years, edited by Katherine Svec

“Albert E. Foote, The Naturalist - A Michigan Alumnus” in Quarterly Review of the Michigan Alumnus, Volume 64, Autumn 1957, pp. 342-347

Charles R. Toothaker (1951) “The Days of A. E. Foote,” Rocks & Minerals, 26:9-10, 460-463, DOI: 10.1080/00357529.1951.11768231

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