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November 5, 2001
Volume 79, Number 45
CENEAR 79 45 p. 43-44
ISSN 0009-2347
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Members re-create Priestley commemoration, celebrate ACS anniversary in Pennsylvania


To celebrate the society's 50th anniversary in 1926, American Chemical Society members in Philadelphia chartered a train to take them to Northumberland, Pa., where they paid their respects at the home and grave site of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who discovered oxygen and is now considered to be the father of modern chemistry. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania chemists took to the rails once more to re-create the 1926 tribute and celebrate ACS's 125th anniversary.

HISTORIC HOUSE Built between 1794 and 1798, Joseph Priestley's home is now a landmark of early American chemical research.
PARADE OF ROSES Moore and Heindel lead the procession to Priestley's grave.
On Oct. 14, roughly 150 participants from the ACS Central Pennsylvania, Lehigh Valley, and Susquehanna Valley Sections boarded the Lackawanna Railroad's vintage passenger train at the Joseph Priestley House museum in Northumberland and rode to nearby Danville, enjoying bag lunches and views of fall foliage before turning around in their seats and riding straight back. The tour guide told of the area's once-booming pig iron industry and how, in its heyday, the train line ran straight into lower Manhattan.

The original 1926 riders had good reason to head to that little mill town on the Susquehanna River's north branch. Chemists from 15 states, Canada, and England--fewer than 100 in all--met there on Aug. 1, 1874, to commemorate Priestley's Aug. 1, 1774, discovery of oxygen and discuss subjects relevant to their science. This meeting, held at a local school, is now recognized as the first National Chemistry Congress, and many ACS historians believe it led to ACS's formation two years later on April 6, 1876.

Kicking off the Oct. 14 presentations at the Priestley House was Col. David Taggert, played by local actor John Moore. Just as he did at the National Chemistry Congress in 1874, Taggert, a Civil War veteran and a member of a prominent Northumberland family, welcomed the visitors on behalf of the town. In fact, Taggert even said the same words, as he read from the original transcripts from the 1874 address.

ANOTHER FIGURE from chemistry's past, Charles F. Chandler, also addressed the visitors. Chandler was a professor at Columbia College School of Mines who served as president of the 1874 chemistry meeting in Northumberland and later worked with colleagues in New York City to establish ACS. Ned D. Heindel, a chemistry professor at Lehigh University and ACS president in 1994, played the role of Chandler.

Reading from original 1874 transcripts, he said: "It was not until Priestley discovered oxygen, and not until Lavoisier became the interpreter of chemistry with his great analytical mind, that the daylight of chemistry truly dawned on the world.

"Previous to that time," he added, "it was little better than darkness."

ACS honors Priestley each year by awarding a gold medal that bears his name to an individual who has given outstanding service to the science of chemistry. As of the recent celebration, the Priestley House museum now has its own medals--gold and bronze replicas--to put on permanent display. ACS board member Anne T. O'Brien presented the medals to Brent D. Glass, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, which currently owns the museum.

O'Brien was back at the podium a few moments later, this time to receive a written commendation from Pennsylvania State Rep. Merle H. Phillips. Although Phillips was unable to attend, a representative from his office delivered the document, which praised ACS for its 125 years of service to science.

Priestley himself, played by ACS Susquehanna Valley Section member Ronald Bratchley, was on hand for the day's festivities. He entertained guests with demonstrations of his chemistry and tales from the late-18th century. Bratchley, dressed in period costume and using chemistry implements similar to those Priestley may have used, performed a little alchemy, changing the color of a penny first to silver and then to gold.

These were only a few of the day's chemistry demonstrations, however. Undergraduates from Pennsylvania State University's Nittany Chemical Society conducted hands-on chemistry experiments using household items, much to the delight of several children. Penn State chemistry professor Robert D. Minard and his students ignited gas-filled balloons and melted glass beakers in thermite reactions and conducted several other visually appealing reactions to entertain the adults, who enjoyed the show from a safe distance.

The final tribute of the day was a recreation of the 1926 "Parade of Red Roses," in which ACS members and guests made a solemn walk from the gates of nearby Riverview Cemetery to Priestley's grave, where they each laid a red rose. James J. Bohning, a visiting professor at Lehigh University and an ACS historian; Heindel; and Moore read excerpts from speeches made about Priestley in 1874.

ALCHEMY Participants pose in front of the antique train after their ceremonial ride to Danville. Priestley, played by chemist Ronald Bratchley, uses period implements to turn a penny's color from copper to gold.

PRIESTLEY CAME to Northumberland from England in 1794. Twenty years after he discovered oxygen, the renowned scientist and teacher had to flee his home because his ideas--namely, his Unitarian religious writings and open support of the French and American revolutions--enraged his countrymen. A friend, Benjamin Franklin, suggested relocating to Pennsylvania.

Priestley didn't give up his experimentation when he left England. In fact, in his new laboratory in Northumberland, which was rather sophisticated for its day, he became the first to isolate carbon monoxide. His library was equally impressive; he had amassed roughly 1,600 volumes of chemical research before his death in 1804. In 1920, Edgar Fahs Smith referred to Priestley's residence as "a Mecca for all who would look back to the beginnings of chemical research" in America.

"By the early 1900s, the house had passed through a number of owners," explained Penn State chemistry professor Roy A. Olofson, one of the celebration's organizers. "It had also greatly deteriorated, and it was believed that it would soon be demolished to make way for another railroad."

According to Olofson, Penn State Dean George (Swampy) Pond mobilized chemistry alumni to collect enough money to purchase the house in 1919 and then preserve it as a historic site.

Pond died shortly after the purchase. "When the alumni society got over the shock," Olofson said, "they decided to build the small brick museum on the site in memory of Pond." Its dedication was a component of the 1926 ceremonies.

Penn State owned the property and its two buildings until the 1950s, when it was deeded first to Northumberland and then to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

ACS designated the Priestley House as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on Aug. 1, 1994. Six years later, ACS and England's Royal Society of Chemistry designated the actual site of Priestley's discovery of oxygen--Bowood House in Calne, Whitshire--as an International Historic Chemical Landmark.

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