Robert Empie Rogers

Robert Empie Rogers was born on March 29, 1813, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Blythe. His father, an Irish immigrant, worked as a public lecturer and a physician for Baltimore’s Hibernian Society. In 1819, after learning that Thomas Jefferson planned to establish the University of Virginia, Patrick applied to teach natural philosophy and chemistry at the “new academical institution.” The university, however, was still under construction, and Jefferson politely declined the application. Undaunted, Patrick secured a position at the College of William and Mary later that year and moved the family to Williamsburg, Virginia. 

Rogers received his early education from his father, and in 1826, he enrolled at a preparatory school operated by his brothers. From 1828 until 1831, he attended William and Mary, where he studied to become an engineer. After leaving college, he helped conduct a survey for the Boston & Providence Railroad, but he quickly grew disillusioned with the work. “Engineering,” Rogers observed in 1833, “holds out but very few inducements, for only those who have been educated at West Point stand in the way of promotion.” Instead, he planned to “follow, in some measure, in the track of my brothers—to become a teacher.”

Rogers delivered a series of chemistry lectures in early 1833, and later that year he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his medical degree in March 1836 and published his thesis—“Experiments on the Blood”—in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. He secured a job as a physician to the Philadelphia almshouse but gave it up to help his brothers Henry and William conduct geological surveys in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Then, in 1842, the University of Virginia’s chemistry professor, John Emmet, fell gravely ill and requested a leave of absence. William Barton Rogers, UVA’s natural philosophy professor, convinced officials to hire his brother Robert as a temporary replacement. Robert made a strong impression on his students, and when the session ended, they organized a meeting to express their “high appreciation of his abilities.” After Emmet died in August 1842, the Board of Visitors hired him as UVA’s professor of chemistry and materia medica.

On March 13, 1843, Rogers married Fanny Montgomery, the daughter of a Pennsylvania civic leader. They did not have any children together. Robert and Fanny lived in Pavilion VIII at the University of Virginia, where they occasionally became the targets of students’ riots and revelries. One night in the spring of 1845, students paraded down the lawn, beating drums, blowing horns, and tapping on professors’ windows. The commotion frightened Fanny, and Rogers went outside to investigate. When the revelers returned, Rogers seized one student by the cloak and carried him into the house to confront him. He forced the other students to return to their rooms, warning them that he was armed and prepared to defend his family. The crowd dispersed without incident, and the captured student faced minor disciplinary charges the following day.

In August 1852, Rogers accepted a position as chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1855, and the following year, he became dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s medical faculty. The secession crisis of 1860-61 left the university deeply divided and caused Rogers “considerable anxiety.” It “required unusual vigilance,” he reported, to “prevent collisions between [students] coming from different sections.” In January 1861, with medical students on the verge of fighting, Rogers pleaded with them to “respect the University” and keep their “political quarrels [from] its halls.”

In the summer of 1862, Rogers became an acting assistant surgeon in the United States Army, assigned to manage a ward in the West Philadelphia General Hospital. Although he worked long hours, he found his “interest and satisfaction in the work” increasing daily, and he took great pride in helping patients who were “utterly broken down” regain their health and return to their regiments. On January 10, 1863, while showing a laundry worker how to operate a new steam mangle, his hand was crushed in the machinery and “burned to the bone.” Surgeons amputated his hand, and his brother William reported that the “interest manifested for his safety reached through every circle of Philadelphia.” Rogers’s “manliness, humanity and gentleness, combined with great practical talent,” gave him a “noble place” in the city’s affection.

Soon after Rogers’s accident, his wife Fanny suffered a severe sore throat, which “assumed a malignant and unmanageable form.” She died a few days later, on February 21, 1863. Rogers continued to oversee his hospital ward until the summer of 1863, and he spent the rest of the war lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania. He supported Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1864, and the Republican Party’s triumph brought him “unmixed, exultant satisfaction.” With the Union’s armies “sure to triumph…in the field,” he observed, “may we not with fuller heart glory in our inheritance [as Americans]?”

Rogers married Delia Elizabeth Saunders on April 30, 1865, in Philadelphia’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The couple had no children of their own, but they remained close with Delia’s brother Frederick, who named his son Robert Rogers Saunders. In 1872, the Treasury Department asked Rogers to help improve the melting and refining process at the Philadelphia Mint. Over the next few years, he also investigated the San Francisco Mint and the gold mines in Nevada. He continued working at the University of Pennsylvania until 1877, when he accepted a position at the Jefferson Medical College.

Delia died on January 9, 1883, after a “brief illness,” and her death reportedly devastated Rogers. His own health began deteriorating, and he retired from the Jefferson Medical College in July 1884. He died on September 6, 1884, in Philadelphia, and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Image: Robert E. Rogers (Courtesy University of Virginia Visual History Collection)


Robert E. Rogers to William B. Rogers, February 3, 1861

Robert E. Rogers to William B. Rogers, November 12, 1864

Name:Rogers, Robert Empie
Alternative names:
  • Soldier
  • UVA (Union)
U.S. Army Medical DepartmentF&S
Branch of service:Army
Residence at UVA:Charlottesville, VA
UVA Begin Year:1842
UVA End Year:1852
Residence at enlistment:Philadelphia, PA
Rank In:Acting Assistant Surgeon
Rank Out:Acting Assistant Surgeon
Highest rank achieved:Acting Assistant Surgeon
Birth date:1813-03-29
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Baltimore, MD
Death date:1884-09-06
Death place:Philadelphia, PA
Causes of death:
Occupations:Professor, Surgeon
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Rogers, Fannywife ofRogers, Robert Empie
Rogers, Deliawife ofRogers, Robert Empie

1850 and 1860 United States Federal Census; “Robert E. Rogers,” Pennsylvania Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, accessed on; Patrick Kerr Rogers to Thomas Jefferson, 21 May 1819, and Thomas Jefferson to Patrick Kerr Rogers, 23 June 1819, Founders Online, accessed on; Board of Visitors Minutes, July 1, 1842, September 19, 1842, and July 4, 1843, Jefferson’s University: The Early Life, accessed on; The Pennsylvania Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 28, 1842; January 11, 1883; and September 8, 1884; Regulations of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: John C. Clark & Son, 1860); Emma Savage Barton and William T. Sedgwick, eds., Life and Letters of William Barton Rogers, Vols. 1-2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896); “Sketch of Robert E. Rogers,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 49 (1896), 837-841; A Provisional List of Alumni, Grammar School Students, Members of the Faculty, and Members of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, From 1693 to 1888 (Richmond: n.p., 1941); Patsy Gerstner, Henry Darwin Rogers, 1808-1866: American Geologist (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1994); J. Angulo, William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Lisa A. Francavilla, “John Patten Emmet (1796-1842),” Encyclopedia Virginia (