Henri Erni, Tennessee's first consulting chemist, was born in Switzerland in 1822. Erni studied at the University of Zurich, where he excelled in chemistry, although he may not have received a degree. In 1849 Erni emigrated to the United States, and Yale University hired him as an instructor in botany and as a laboratory assistant in chemistry at its newly established Sheffield Scientific School. In 1850 Erni moved to Knoxville, where he taught chemistry, mineralogy, geology, botany, French, and German at East Tennessee University. In 1852 he accepted a position in Massachusetts and then moved to Vermont. The University of Vermont awarded him honorary A.M. and M.D. degrees in 1857.
Erni returned to East Tennessee University in 1857. Two years later he accepted a professorship in chemistry and medical jurisprudence at Shelby Medical College in Nashville, where he remained until the Civil War closed the school. The college permitted him to use its laboratories to establish a private consulting practice. Erni specialized in the chemical analysis of urine.
In 1863 Erni relocated to Washington, D.C., where he had a long and varied career as chemist, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, and author. Married to Mary MacFarlane of Knoxville, Erni gave Tennessee as his permanent address. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1885.
Erni's work in Tennessee included the publication of twenty-two papers in academic journals, seven of which were summaries of chemical papers that had appeared in foreign journals. His high level of scholarly productivity, as well as his teaching and consulting, did much to advance science in antebellum Tennessee.
James X. Corgan, “Offbeat Pioneers,” Journal of the Tennessee Medical Association 70 (1977): 873-76