Dr. St. Julien Ravenel and his never ending ambition left an undeniably mark on the Lowcountry, and during his time, he helped shape the region’s economy and the geographic landscape itself.
St. Julien Ravenel, educated in Charleston and Morristown, New Jersey, persuaded his father for consent to read on his own for two years rather than attend college. During that time his interest in medicine perked, leading him to study in the office of Drs. Holbrook and Ogier.
Ravenel would eventually graduate from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1840 and continued his education in Philadelphia and Paris. Upon his return to Charleston, he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at the Medical College.
In addition to his medical education, he privately pursued research in natural sciences, even becoming the Treasurer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science upon the organization’s 1850 visit to Charleston. His passion for natural science grew, leading Ravenel to abandon his thriving medical practice in 1851.
During the Civil War, Ravenel’s medical, scientific, and business acumen were called upon. In addition to being commissioned to head a Confederate hospital in Columbia, he operated a lab that produced nearly all of the South’s medical supplies. He provided the Confederacy with most the lime used during the war and even created the initial design of a semi-submersible torpedo boat to help break the Union blockade.
After the war, Ravenel resumed his scientific interests, concentrating on improvements in agricultural production. He harnessed his knowledge of the benefits of phosphate in farming, and quickly founded the Wando Phosphate Company, with a group of partners, after a large deposit of the mineral was discovered in the Lambs area on the Ashley River. He helped spark an industrial revolution that transformed Charleston into the world’s largest producer of fertilizer.
The economic impacts of fertilizer production were profound. Recently freedmen were provided employment, planters unable to farm leased their land, merchants and shipping companies resumed their trades, and as a consequence, the economy of Charleston fared better than much of the South.
Phosphate mining created large mounds of earth in strips that can still be seen today with Ashley Phosphate Road still bearing the name of the first major industry of the area, apart from farming and agriculture. Prior to the construction of the Boeing Company’s 787 Final Assembly facility, scars to the earth from phosphate mining were a key feature of the topography.
Another of Ravenel’s valuable contributions was his understanding of the importance of safe drinking water, particularly Artesian Wells. He later became known as the “Father of Charleston’s Artesian Well System,” constructing wells on Wentworth Street, the Citadel Green, and at Sineath’s Station.
As stated in the published Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1882, “By the death of Dr. Ravenel, Charleston loses one of her most devoted and eminent sons, who has perhaps done more to develop the native resources of South Carolina than any other single individual.”