Mallet was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1832, the eldest son of Robert Mallet (1810-81), a civil engineer and seismologist who was well known for bridge design and for his work cataloging world earthquakes.(1) The young John grew to love science as a schoolboy, partly from extensive reading in his father's library. He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1849, and in 1851 he traveled to Göttingen, where he studied with Friedrich Wöhler. He earned his PhD in 1852, with a thesis on the chemical composition of antiquities in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. He returned to Trinity to finish his Bachelor of Arts in experimental physics, with Gold Medal, in 1853.
That same year he traveled to the United States to assist with his father's earthquake research. He would spend the rest of his life in America, though he never took U.S. citizenship. He taught chemistry briefly at Amherst College in 1854. In 1855 he became professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama, where he began a lifelong association with the South. In 1857 he married Mary Elizabeth Ormond (1837-86), daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice. Their first child, John Ormond, was born in 1858, and their second, Robert William, was born as the Civil War was beginning in 1861. A daughter, Mary Constance Helen, followed in 1864.
Mallet enlisted as a private in the Confederate army in the fall of 1861, but was quickly recruited by officers who recognized his value to the South as a scientist. He was eventually appointed Superintendent of the Confederate Ordnance Laboratories, and made major contributions to the development of munitions and explosives for the rest of the war. Based in Macon GA, he supervised research on small arms and artillery ammunition production.
After the war, Mallet taught at Tulane University, then in 1868 was appointed professor of chemistry and later chair of chemistry at the University of Virginia. There he designed the first course on industrial chemistry offered in the U.S. In 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes named him one of the commissioners to the International Exposition in Paris, but when someone pointed out that he was still a British subject, he was disqualified from the job. In 1882 he was elected president of the American Chemical Society, which he had helped to found just a few years earlier.
He was lured to Texas by the challenge of building a new chemistry department literally from the ground up, and also partly out of concern for the declining health of his son John. It was believed that the warm, dry climate in central Texas would help the younger Mallet's tuberculosis. In November 1882 he was appointed Professor, with a temporary additional assignment as Chair of Physics, with a handsome salary of $4,000 per year -- despite the fact that UT as yet had no permanent building and would not begin classes until the following year. Mallet arrived in Austin at the end of August 1883, and was instrumental in setting up and equipping the new department and establishing its library.
One of the first students to matriculate at UT recalled Mallet some years later:
As chairman of the Faculty and professor of physics and chemistry, Dr. Mallet presided. He was an Englishman [sic] by birth, without the "cockney" or any suggestion of a brogue, physically so straight and methodical that one was inclined to think his body a manakin [sic] that he was using temporarily, as a convenience. He was a brilliant lecturer and ill-suited to teach the immature and undeveloped minds crowding to his lecture room.
Mallet was at heart an optimist, and found many things to admire about Texas and his eager new students, although Austin was a rough and hot place compared to Charlottesville. But the challenges of establishing a new university were not small. There was immediate friction between Mallet and the Regents over funding for the infant university, which at that time existed largely on paper. Progress on the new university building was achingly slow. (Classes during the first academic year were held in the state Capitol building, a mile south of the campus.) The death of his son in February 1884 was the final straw. He resigned to return to the University of Virginia after the spring term in 1884. Some were sorry to see him go, and the regents addressed a memorial resolution to him on the occasion of his resignation, expressing "the deepest obligation to him for the invaluable services already rendered by him in the successful inauguration and conduct up to this time of the University...."
John Mallet remained at Virginia, with brief interruptions, until his death in 1912 at the age of 80. He is chiefly remembered for his work on the atomic weights of lithium, aluminum, and gold, but he was a respected authority in many areas of general, analytical, and applied chemistry. He was elected fellow of the Chemical Society in 1857 and the Royal Society in 1877.
The Library in the newly constructed Chemistry Building (now Welch Hall) was named in his honor in 1931.
Collins, Steven G. "System in the South: John W. Mallet, Josiah Gorgas, and Uniform Production at the Confederate Ordnance Department." Technology and Culture 40 (3) 1999 517-44.
Dunnington, F.P. "A sketch of Dr. John William Mallet, as a chemist and a teacher." Journal of Chemical Education 5 (2) (1928) 183-88.
Echols, William H. "John W. Mallet: scholar, teacher, gentleman." Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia 6 (1913) 4-47.
Eisenschiml, Otto. "John W. Mallet : ACS President in 1882." Chemical & Engineering News 22 (2), Jan. 8, 1951, 110-11.
Hoole, W. Stanley. "John W. Mallet and the Confederate Ordnance Laboratories, 1862-1865." Alabama Review 26 (1973) 33-72.
Mallet, John W. "First Year." The Alcalde 1 (April 1913) 16.
[Obituary] New York Times, Nov. 8, 1912.
Red, S.C. "The Birth of a Great University." University of Texas Magazine 13 (1) (1897) 3.
Reese, K.M. "British chemist played big role in Civil War." Chemical & Engineering News, March 25, 1991, p.64.
Reilly, Desmond. "John William Mallet (1832-1912): his earlier work in Ireland." Journal of Chemical Education 25 (1948) 634-36.
------. "John William Mallet, 1832-1912." Endeavour 12 (45) (1953) 48-51.
Richards, Theodore W. "John William Mallet." [Obituary] Journal of the Chemical Society 103 (1913) 760-63.
Sharkey, John B. Mallet, John W. American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000.
Vandiver, Frank E. "John William Mallet and the University of Texas." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 53 (1950), 422-42.
For a bibliography of Mallet's publications, see: Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia 16(4) (Oct 1923), 432-52.