Renovated Science Building Honors19th-Century Scientists Maury and Brooke
LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 11, 2013 – In a brief ceremony earlier today connecting VMI’s past in the sciences with its efforts toward further advancement in that area, Maury-Brooke Hall was rededicated after a complete renovation. The rededication took place on Founders Day, which this year marks the 174th anniversary of the Institute’s founding.
In attendance were a number of descendants of the two 19th-century scientific luminaries for whom the building was named, Matthew Fontaine Maury and John Mercer Brooke. Both men taught at VMI after the Civil War, bringing with them to the Institute newfound knowledge in the then-nascent field of oceanography and, in Brooke’s case, ironclad ship building.
Also present at the ceremony was Lt. Gen. John W. Knapp ’54, superintendent emeritus, who dedicated the then-newly constructed building on Founders Day 1989, an occasion that commemorated the 150th anniversary of VMI’s founding.
Speaking at today’s dedication, Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, superintendent, said that the renovation of Maury-Brooke Hall would help advance a key goal of the VMI’s first superintendent, Gen. Francis Henney Smith. Smith, said Peay, was adamant that the Institute produce scientifically literate graduates. It was Smith who recruited both Maury and Brooke, pre-eminent scientists of their day, to teach at VMI.
“This magnificent newly renovated building provides us with the facility to continue toward that goal represented by Maury and Brooke, and advanced by Smith, and representative today of our national academic reputation,” said Peay.
The $19.5 million renovation, which was completed this fall after a year and a half of work, brought all new electrical and mechanical systems to the 24-year-old building. The improvements include centralized utilities, including laboratory gases, deionized and reverse osmosis water, laboratory vacuum, and compressed air, all of which will benefit the teaching and research labs. As it did before the renovation, the building will continue to serve as home to VMI’s biology and chemistry departments.
At the dedication ceremony, Peay remarked on the upgrades to the building, saying, “Some may ask why such a relatively new building needed such extensive renewal. The reason is simple. Progress in the sciences and changes in health and safety standards in the past 25 years had rendered outdated many of the laboratories and classrooms and equipment of those earlier years.”
Peay continued, “Today we dedicate a truly state-of-the art science education facility that will serve our cadets for the next quarter-century or more.”
Thanks to the renovation, the building now features 11 teaching labs, 14 research labs, 20 offices, five classrooms, and a three-bay greenhouse. Faculty of the biology and chemistry departments had much input into the renovation plans, and the building’s overhaul was conducted with their needs in mind.
The first building on post to bear the Maury-Brooke name was the structure now known as Shell Hall, constructed in 1906 as the Institute’s first science building. From the time of its dedication in 1989 to 2010, the current Maury-Brooke Hall was known simply as the New Science Building. It was renamed Maury-Brooke Hall in 2010, perpetuating the memory of the two men who helped to build VMI’s science program after the Civil War.
At the rededication ceremony, Col. Keith Gibson ’77, executive director of the VMI museum system, spoke about the many contributions of both Maury and Brooke.
Gibson explained that the two men were working together at the U.S. Naval Observatory in the 1850s when they accomplished a goal that seemed almost impossible for their time: the laying of a trans-Atlantic cable so messages could be transmitted via telegraph between the United States and Europe. By 1858, after years of mapping the ocean floor with a device Brooke had invented, the cable was laid.
Gibson drew laughter from the audience when he described the first telegraphic correspondence between Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan as “the tweet heard around the world.” Gibson observed, “The world became a smaller place in that instant,” even as he added that the sending of the messages – the queen’s to Buchanan and his reply to her – took 16 hours.
Because of his accomplishments in oceanography, and especially with charting ocean currents, Maury became known as the “pathfinder of the seas.” Gibson observed that Maury’s legacy lay in “discovering the relationship between the seas and the land.”
Maury taught at VMI from 1868 until his death on Feb. 1, 1873. At the time of his death, at his home on the VMI post, Maury was completing the first ever physical survey of Virginia, which assessed the natural resources of the state.
“Matthew Maury brought international attention to this tiny, struggling school,” said Gibson of Maury’s contribution to VMI.
In addition to his work with Maury at the Naval Observatory, Brooke also played a key role in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War.
Brooke was the primary designer of the ironclad warship CSS Virginia, also known as Merrimack, which fought the USS Monitor to a draw in the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads. It was the world’s first meeting of ironclad ships. “Brooke had yet again altered the course of history,” said Gibson.
After the war, from 1865 to 1899, Brooke taught physics and astronomy at VMI. He died in Lexington in 1906.
“[Brooke] became an innovator of higher education,” Gibson observed, as the famed inventor not only established the modern physics department, but also founded the electrical engineering department.
Since Brooke’s death, a number of his descendants have maintained ties with the Institute. Brooke’s grandson, the late George Mercer Brooke Jr. ’36, taught history at VMI for 38 years, retiring in 1980. Brooke's great-grandson, George Mercer Brooke III '67, taught part-time, also in the history department, for six years after retiring as a colonel from the Marine Corps. Brooke’s great-great grandson, Lt. Col. George Mercer Brooke IV ’94, is currently associate professor of physics and astronomy at VMI.
The next generation of Brookes was represented at the rededication ceremony by Lt. Col. Brooke’s son, 6-year-old John Mercer Brooke, who afterward donned his father’s hat and posed for photographs in front of a painting depicting the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia – a historic event made possible by the child’s great-great-great grandfather.