Investigating the marl deposits along the Cooper River, Ravenel ascertained that the marl could be converted into lime. In 1856 he secured a patent to use carbonate of lime for the production of artificial stone, and a year later he established the first stone lime works in the state at Stony Landing, which would go on to supply most of the lime used by the Confederacy.
Physician, chemist, inventor. Ravenel was born in Charleston on December 15, 1819, son of the merchant John Ravenel and Anna Elizabeth Ford. He was educated at schools in Charleston and Morristown, New Jersey. He then persuaded his father to let him read on his own for two years rather than attend college. During that period he made the acquaintance of Dr. John E. Holbrook, a professor at the Medical College of South Carolina. Ravenel began the study of medicine in the office of Drs. Holbrook and Thomas L. Ogier. He graduated from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1840 and then studied in Philadelphia and Paris before returning to Charleston. Ravenel was appointed a demonstrator of anatomy at the Medical College, but his mentors, Holbrook and Louis Agassiz, encouraged his interest in natural history and physiology as well as agricultural chemistry. He married Harriott Horry Rutledge on March 20, 1851, and the couple had four daughters and five sons. He withdrew from the active medical practice in 1851.
Investigating the marl deposits along the Cooper River, Ravenel ascertained that the marl could be converted into lime. In 1856 he secured a patent to use carbonate of lime for the production of artificial stone, and a year later he established the first stone lime works in the state at Stony Landing, which would go on to supply most of the lime used by the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Ravenel served with the Phoenix Rifles at Fort Sumter and then was commissioned a surgeon. He was placed in charge of the Confederate hospital at Columbia in 1862 and later headed the laboratory that prepared drugs and medical stores for the army. Ravenel also helped design the semisubmersible torpedo boat David, which in October 1863 attacked the Federal warship New Ironsides.
After the war, Ravenel returned to Charleston and experimented with the phosphate deposits along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers for the purpose of producing fertilizers. In 1868 he and several other investors organized the Wando Mining and Manufacturing Company to manufacture fertilizers with a process that made phosphate rocks soluble with the addition of ammonia to animal matter. Ravenel next produced phosphate fertilizers without ammonia and developed a process for adding marl to counteract the acid, which had previously destroyed the bags in which the fertilizer was shipped. Ravenel also helped establish the Charleston Agricultural Lime Company at Woodstock. While working as a chemist at this lime works, he found that using lime made from marl combined with silica prevented caustic action on the plants it was fertilizing. In April 1871 Ravenel received a second patent for an improvement in an apparatus used to produce sulfuric acid used in fertilizers.
Ravenel also directed the drilling of a system of artesian wells in and around Charleston, which greatly improved the quality of the city’s water supply. At the time of his death he was working on plans to irrigate abandoned rice fields and use the lands to cultivate grasses for hay. Ravenel’s work had an enormous impact on the health and economy of the South Carolina lowcountry. He died in Charleston on March 16, 1882, and was buried in the cemetery of the Huguenot Church.
“Dr. St. Julien Ravenel.” Charleston News and Courier, March 18, 1882, p. 2.
State Agricultural Society of South Carolina. Memorial to Dr. St. Julien Ravenel, April 13, 1882. Charleston, S.C., 1882.