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Blast from the Past: John Mallet

Blast from the Past: John Mallet
first faculty UTWhen The University of Texas at Austin first opened in September 1883, the faculty was only eight people, each one a professor in a different department.

One of these men was John William Mallet, a professor of physics and chemistry, who was collectively elected as Chairman of the Faculty. (The office of university president was not created until 12 years later.) Mallet made several important contributions to the university, including helping to establish the university and its chemistry department.

Mallet was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1832 as the eldest son of a well-known civil engineer and seismologist, which might explain his early interest in science. In 1853 he graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in experimental physics, then set off to the United States to help his father in earthquake research.

It was the challenge of building a new chemistry department from scratch that drew Mallet to Texas, but part of the draw was also the hope that the warm and dry climate of Central Texas would alleviate his son's tuberculosis. His position as faculty chairman earned him a hefty salary, at the time, of $4,000 a year.

As things turned out, not everything went smoothly. The university was without a permanent building, and the process of completing the first building was so slow that classes for the first academic year were held in the state Capitol building, a mile south of the university. Mallet also had some disagreements with state authorities regarding the way the university was funded.

Though he struggled to remain optimistic, Mallet’s son died in 1884 and he resigned from the university, returning later that spring to Virginia. Mallet had been in Austin for less than a year, but his contributions did not go unnoticed. The regents addressed a memorial resolution to him, expressing their deep obligation to him for his "invaluable services" in the university's initial success.

Mallet is best remembered for his work on the atomic weights of lithium, aluminum and gold. In his honor, the library in Welch Hall, then known as the Chemistry Building, was named after Mallet in 1931. He lived in Virginia until his death in 1912.

Written by Daniel Ting. This article also appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Focus magazine.
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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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