Schunck Building, University of Manchester

By James Sumner

Schunck Building (present day)
Schunck Building (present day)

Halfway down Burlington Street stands the Schunck Building, part of a 1904 extension to the University of Manchester. Its unusual history captures how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the focus of scientific activity was shifting from private individuals to large institutions.

Edward Schunck, the building’s first user, was born in Manchester in 1820. The son of a German textile merchant, he received his earliest chemical training from William Henry, a leading manufacturing chemist, who brought him into the laboratory attached to the works where Henry’s Magnesia and other pharmaceuticals were made.

There were, of course, no University facilities near Manchester at this time, but Schunck’s background gave him an easy passage to the well-equipped research laboratories of Germany. After studying briefly at the University of Berlin, he moved to Giessen to study with the immensely influential Justus von Liebig, receiving his doctorate in 1841.

The Schunck family owned a textile works near Rochdale involved in calico printing, bleaching, fulling, and other processes, and in 1842 Edward returned to become chemical manager at the works. Over the next few years, however, he gradually withdrew from the factory and concentrated full-time on research. He investigated industrial materials such as dyestuffs, but also a range of other substances including chlorophyll, which he suggested played a similar role in plants to that of haemoglobin in animals (carrying carbon dioxide, rather than oxygen, around the organism).

Schunck established himself as one of the leaders of Manchester’s chemical culture in the years following the 1844 death of its long-term figurehead, John Dalton. He was repeatedly President of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and was closely connected with many of the organisers of Owens College, founded in 1851 and increasingly a centre for chemistry teaching.

Schunck, however, had no need of the College’s facilities. In the 1870s, he inherited the family fortune and built a superb private laboratory at his home on Kersal Moor, to the north of Salford, together with an extensive library of chemical literature. Late in life, he transferred around £20 000 to Owens College, to be used for promoting chemical research.

Schunck died in 1903, bequeathing the laboratory and library to the College. The bequest was taken literally. Not only were the contents of the library brought to the College, then in the process of becoming the University of Manchester: the entire physical laboratory was removed from Kersal and reconstructed on Burlington Street under the supervision of the Professor of Chemistry, H B Dixon.

Contemporary accounts suggest a faithful brick-by-brick reconstruction, but this is difficult to establish from the official records. Pevsner’s architectural guide points out that the brick of the building matches its neighbours, implying that this was really a partially new construction to a similar shape. The internal fixtures of the laboratory, however, were transferred directly.

Under the influence of German industrial success, the University’s chemical activities in this period were focused increasingly on the organic side of the discipline, which had applications in dyestuffs, food and explosives. The re-erected Schunck Laboratory forms one corner of what became a small quadrangle devoted entirely to organic work, filling the space between Henry Roscoe’s original Chemistry Building and the Medical School.

The organic expansion had already begun in 1895 with the Schorlemmer Laboratories (now hemmed in on all sides, and barely visible from the street). These were named in honour of Carl Schorlemmer, a former pupil of Robert Bunsen (of burner fame). In 1874, Owens College had given Schorlemmer the first Chair in Organic Chemistry in Britain. He was followed in 1892 by William Henry Perkin, Junior, son of the London chemist remembered for discovering mauve, the first synthetic dye. The younger Perkin’s students included Robert Robinson, a future Nobel Prizewinner and President of the Royal Society, and Chaim Weizmann, future President of Israel, whose work on fermentation processes proved crucial to the British war effort around 1915.

Further down Burlington Street, where the extensions to the John Rylands University Library now stand, were further chemical laboratories built in the 1940s and 50s. These were short-lived, as chemistry migrated – like almost all the University’s scientific activities – to new, larger buildings on the east side of Oxford Road. Following the path round to the right, however, reveals a collection of gloriously un-redeveloped outbuildings, giving a good flavour of what this end of the campus must once have been like.

The Schunck Building itself is now home to facilities including a vegetarian café and the Burlington Society, the postgraduate and mature students’ society for the universities of Greater Manchester.

Access: no formal public access to the interior. Good views of the frontage from Burlington Street, which is publicly accessible.

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