Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Appleton, John Howard

John Howard Appleton (1844-1930), professor of chemistry, was born in Portland, Maine, on February 3, 1844. Although his family moved to Providence while he was a child, he liked to attribute his fondness for the sea to his birth in Portland. He graduated from Brown with a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1863 and was immediately appointed instructor in chemistry. He was appointed professor of chemistry applied to the arts in 1868 and remained until his mandatory retirement at the age of 70, as head of the Department of Chemistry for half a century and the first Newport Rogers Professor of Chemistry. He was fondly remembered by many students as “Johnny Ap.” His chemical knowledge was also called upon by the community. He was State Sealer of Weights and Measures and also chemist for the State Board of Agriculture. His advice was sought when Providence established its water works. He wrote a number of chemistry textbooks. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1928 was elected an honorary member of the American Institute of Chemistry. His connection with Brown from student to retirement lasted sixty-three years. All six of his children graduated from Brown. At the time of his retirement in 1914 members of the faculty presented him with an inscribed loving cup. He lived almost seventeen years after his retirement and continued to meet daily for lunch with his friends at the “round table” (actually an oval table) at the University Club, where he was the recognized leader of the congenial group. He spoke little of chemistry, but if the subject came up, gave evidence that he kept up with progress in that science. He talked more of his favorite interests, General Grant and the Civil War, and the plays of Shakespeare which he reread every few years. He was also, as Henry Robinson Palmer, editor of the Brown Alumni Monthly and a regular member of the round table, noted, “fond of embroidering a slight anecdote into an elaborate tale.”

At a testimonial dinner for Appleton held on June 19, 1922, President Faunce, his former student, said of him, “No student ever had to ask him to put a question a second time. No listener ever questioned as to what he meant. He speaks as he stands – upright, downright and forthright.” Appleton was immensely pleased with his assistants and students who became chemists and professors, while modestly disclaiming credit for their success. At the testimonial dinner, he singled out one, John Brown Francis Herreshoff 1870, whom he called “the leading industrial chemist in the United States,” saying, “You notice that I do not say that I am proud of him – I would be if I had created him – but as his teacher I only shine with a pale reflected light.” The John Howard Appleton Club, of which all friends of the Department Chemistry were considered members, was founded on Class Day in 1927 and held annual dinners. Appleton died in Providence on February 18, 1930.