Millar Wilson, Chemistry Chair

Jacksonville University’s Millar Wilson Chair in Chemistry

Terence H. E. Webb, date unknown

A short history of the Wilson Family.

Transcribed at National Park Service, Kingsley Plantation by Ken Jones on February 27, 2009.


"On October 27, 1958, at the annual meeting of the University Council, attorney Sam R. Marks announced that the university had signed an agreement with the trustees of the half-million dollar Gertrude Rollins Wilson Trust (1) establishing at the university a chemical research laboratory and the university's first endowed professorship. With funds provided by the trust the university would set up and equip a chemistry laboratory at the south end of the second floor of the Leah G. Swisher Science Building, a laboratory to be known as the Millar Wilson Laboratory of Chemical Research. The director of the laboratory would be known as the Millar Wilson Research Professor of Chemistry." (2)

John Millar Wilson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on January 30, 1860. He graduated, with honors, from Owens College at Manchester, England, where he studied chemistry under Professor Henry Thompson, FRCS. Millar was then made a Fellow off the Royal Society of Chemists. He became an American citizen after he was appointed analytical chemist at the Eddystone Print Works near Philadelphia, Pa. (3) It was there, in 1888, at the Ridley Park Hotel, that he met his future bride. Millar knew immediately that she would become his wife because of her eyes, he told his friends. (4)

Four years later, after he had become general manager of the Norwich Bleachery in Connecticut, Millar did marry Gertrude Weston Rollins in her father’s home town of Dover, N.H. The couple had planned to be married in Jacksonville, Fla., but the bride contracted malaria and the doctor sent her to a cooler climate to recover. Gertrude was born in the Kingsley plantation house on November 6, 1872. (4) Her father, John Frank Rollins, also a chemist, had been in the drug business with his brother, Senator Edward Henry Rollins (5) before moving to Florida and buying Fort George Island in 1869 (6), where he had orange groves and a perfume factory (7).

In Connecticut, the Wilsons lived in Benedict Arnold’s house amid four acres of land landscaped grounds where Millar converted the adjoining pasture into the Norwich Golf Course. (4) In 1901, in failing health, vice-president Wilson retired from the Bleachery in order to travel. (3) When Gertrude’s widowed mother, Hannah Breck Peters Follins, died in 1906 (8), the Wilsons moved to Fort George Island where they lived until moving to Jacksonville in 1912. (9)

During World War I, the Wilsons lived in Washington, D.C.. Gertrude was active in the Red Cross and Millar declined a commission as major to donate his services to the Council of National Defense. In the Clothing and Equipment Division of the Quartermaster Corps he directed research on waterproofing of army goods. (3) After the war the Wilsons returned to Jacksonville where Gertrude became a founder of the Garden Club, and, in 1924, published the book “In a Florida Garden”. (10)

Having no children, Millar provided in his will that if his wife died first, a trust be established. “The purposes of the trust hereby created are to found and endow at Rollins College –“

“(a) A chair for chemical research into the natural resources of the State of Florida for the benefit of the people of the State of Florida, to be known and designated as ‘J. Millar Wilson Chair’ hereinafter designated as ‘Chair A’.”

“(b) A chair for botanical research into the natural resources of the State of Florida for the benefit of the people of the State of Florida, to be known and designated as ‘Gertrude Rollins Wilson Chair’, hereinafter designated as ‘Chair B’,”(11)

Rollins College was selected because Gertrude’s third cousin. Chicago wool merchant Alonzo W. Rollins (12), had, in 1885, given the Congregational Church his orange grove in Winter Park, Fla., as the campus for a college which bears his name. He was treasurer and trustee of the college until his death in 1887. (13) It was he who first brought her father to Florida in 1867. (14)

Millar Wilson died on June 24, 1938 (3), leaving an estate worth about one-quarter million dollars in diverse stocks. (11) However, the two chairs were not created since he died before his wife. (10) Instead, the year after Millar died, Gertrude gave Rollins College all the property she still owned on Fort George Island. (15) Part of this became the John F. Rollins Plant and Bird Sanctuary nature study area which was to serve as a memorial to her father. (4)

In her will Gertrude Wilson asked that her estate be used to establish and maintain a laboratory for chemical research in Duval County, providing that $50,000 be used to establish it and the income from the remainder be used to continue it. (16) Two years after Gertrude Wilson died on March 1, 1956, leaving a half-million dollar estate, a chair for chemical research, in accord with the wishes of the Wilsons, was created at Jacksonville University because the estate was too small to establish and maintain a research facility independent from such an institution. (17)

Biochemsit Dr. Hal Barret was selected as the first ‘Millar Wilson Research Professor of Chemistry. (18) When he retired in 1971, his successor was natural products chemist Dr. Lee A. Porter, who presently occupies the Millar Wilson Chair. (19)


(1) Mr. Marks was one of the trustees of the Wilson Trust.

(2) Bald, Jr., R. D., “A History of Jacksonville University”, 1959, p 72.

(3) Millar Wilson Obituary, Florida Times-Union, June 25, 1938, p 1.

(4) Wilson, Gertrude Rollins, unpublished manuscript, Kingsley Plantation State Historic Site, Jacksonville, Fla.

(5) Lyford, J.O., “Life of Edward H. Rollins”, 1906, p 36.

(6) Duval County Fla. Circuit Court Former Records, p 57 (1869).

(7) Fort George Island Company Brochure, 1887, map & p 18.

(8) Hannah Rollins Obituary, Florida Times-Union, May 24,1906.

(9) Duval County Fla. Circuit Court Records, DB 243-335 (1923).

(10) Gertrude Wilson Obituary, Florida Times-Union, March 2, 1956, p 1B.

(11) Duval County Fla. Probate Record #13238-D (1938).

(12) Rollins, John R., “Records of Families of the Name Rawlins or Rollins”, 1874, p 141, 149.

(13) Hanna, A. J., “The Founding of Rollins College”, 1935, p 30-34.

(14) St. Augustine Examiner, Vol 5, No. 28, February 16, 1867.

(15) Duval County Fla. Circuit Court Records, DB 818-247 (1939).

(16) Duval County Fla. Probate Record # 22720-D (1956).

(17) Duval County Fla. Probate Record # 56-93075 (1956).

(18) Boehnke, Dr. Neal, personal communication.

(19) Porter, Mrs. Lee, personal communication. Terence H. E. Webb


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