Judging by the white mortar and pestle and the assortment of Mason jars, just right of center, or the glass bell jars and small dishes, at left, this scene might appear to be one of a Maine pharmacist compounding a variety of chemicals and extracts into capsules or tablets. But the work that James M. Bartlett is shown performing here improved the health of people statewide, as he and the other research chemists at the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station in Orono were in fact charged with safeguarding the very food that Maine families were putting on their tables. One of the earliest experiment stations in the country when it was established in 1885, two years before the federal Hatch Act funded such centers nationwide, the laboratory in Holmes Hall on the University of Maine campus tested the seed, feed, and fertilizers that were being put into Maine fields.
In this photograph from the 1890s, likely taken by a station director and used for publicity purposes, Bartlett uses forceps to adjust small weights on a scale inside a glass enclosure that keeps drafts from disturbing his tests. Using this scale and the larger one at upper right on the table, the young chemist would test imported guano, for instance, to see if it was suitable for fertilizer or if it had been adulterated with limestone or other contaminants. (Interestingly, Bartlett uses a garter clip on his sleeve, visible at left, to keep his cuffs from disturbing the weights; the chemist's trademark white overcoat would not come into fashion until a few years later.) The Mason jars likely contain rye or wheat seed that would be tested in an attempt to prevent blights like the one that had decimated Maine crops as recently as 1860, while the low, glass dome in the foreground serves as a desiccator, beneath which some samples are drying before further tests.
Bartlett, who joined the experiment station when it first opened and worked as chief chemist for the next fifty years, always preferred to have his hands on an experiment rather than on an administrative report. He turned down the chance to serve as the station's director in 1921, and in later years took part in testing shellfish and even carbonated beverages, as experiment stations like this one served as predecessors of the federal Food and Drug Administration. Even with such national attention, though, Bartlett's work continues in Maine, and today the university operates more than a half-dozen research stations across the state, exploring everything from pests in blueberry fields to pathogens in potato stock. While the beakers and wash bottle on the table in front of this turn-of-the-century chemist have long since turned into centrifuges and electron microscopes, the scientific method that Bartlett demonstrated more than a hundred years ago remains a vital piece of the food chain in Maine.