Chemical Laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, 1857, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image No. SIA_000095_B31A_F16_001.

Spotlight: Oscar Loew, Office of the Chemist

We’re taking a closer look at Oscar Loew, the first person to hold the Office of Smithsonian Chemist.

Born in Bavaria in 1844, Oscar Loew developed an early interest in chemistry. As the son of a pharmacist, Loew was exposed to nature research and chemical experimentation at a young age. After completing an apprenticeship at his father's pharmacy, he studied chemistry and plant physiology at the University of Munich under renowned chemist Justus von Liebig, a principal founder of organic chemistry. Between 1867 and 1871, Loew was an assistant in plant physiology at College of the City of New York.

 Portrait of Oscar Loew

Loew's tenure at the Smithsonian began in 1872, while he was a member of the Wheeler Survey, formally known as the Geographical and Geological Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. In his role as chemist for the survey, Loew was primarily tasked with noting mineral resources and agricultural potential of the southwestern United States. When not participating in expeditions for the survey, Loew's home base was the chemical laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle.

 Chemical Laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle

While the Castle had always been equipped with a chemical laboratory, it was not always equipped with a chemist. The Smithsonian instead maintained informal relations with a number of chemists who were free to conduct their own work using the Castle's facilities as well as carrying out some analysis for the Institution. Oscar Loew holds the distinction of being the first person to officially hold the Office of Smithsonian Chemist between 1872 and 1876. In the chemical laboratory, Loew performed analyses on such things as minerals, mineral waters, soil, plants, ores, rocks, and lake and river deposits. While much of this chemical analysis was on behalf of the Wheeler Survey, a portion of his time was dedicated to Smithsonian and other U.S. government interests.

Oscar Loew went on to hold positions in Germany, Japan, and Puerto Rico, where he continued to make notable contributions to the field of agricultural chemistry.

Related Collections:

Smithsonian Institution, Photograph Collection, Record Unit 95, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Related Resources:

Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1874, p. 47. Retrieved from Internet Archive.

Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1875, p. 42. Retrieved from Internet Archive.

Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1876, p. 37. Retrieved from Internet Archive.

Hoppe, Brigitte, "Löw, Oscar" in: Neue Deutsche Biographie 15 (1987), pp. 72-74

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.