Albert C. Barnes – Chemist and Art Collector

Albert C. Barnes – Chemist and Art Collector

Author: Haymo Ross

Philadelphia, PA, USA, is currently hosting the 252nd American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition. If you are attending the congress, you might also want to go to some places of interest outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center and in this respect, Philadelphia certainly has a lot to offer. Specifically, if you are interested in art you should visit the Barnes Foundation, a large collection of impressionist and early modern art including masterpieces by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, van Gogh, and Renoir.

There is a connection here between art and chemistry: Albert Coombs Barnes, who established the Barnes Foundation, was born in Philadelphia in 1872 and became a medical doctor at the age of 20, however, after a couple of internships in hospitals he realized that he was actually more interested in chemistry. To study chemistry he went to Germany, where he met Hermann Hille.

Together with Hille, Barnes later founded the “Barnes and Hille, Chemists” company, best known for the production of the antiseptic Argyrol (“mild silver protein”). It is a colloidal suspension that liberates silver ions and, according to the Barnes Foundation visitor guide, it was used “to prevent blindness in newborns”. However, it probably was more often applied to cure gonorrhea (which can cause this blindness).

Barnes bought out Hille after a few years and eventually sold the firm, then called “A. C. Barnes Company”, in 1929. By that time he had already become a millionaire – and art lover. He established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 and sent his schoolmate William J. Glackens, a painter inspired by Manet, to Europe to purchase works of art that would become the basis of the collection. Some of Glackens’ paintings are exhibited in the Barnes Foundation. Entrance to the gallery was restricted during Barnes’ lifetime, but it is now open to the public.



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