Sunday, July 26, 2009

Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of Joseph Priestley's Death

Joseph Priestley died on February 6, 1804 at his home in Northumberland, PA.  My wife and I, having long admired this extraordinary individual, traveled to Northumberland from Connecticut on February 5, 2004 to pay our respects to him the following day on the 200th anniversary of his death.

 He is buried in the Riverview Cemetery quite near his home there.  It was still wintertime and quite a bit of  snow was on the ground.  We visited the Priestley House, went to his graveside nearby, and went to the Priestley Memorial Chapel of the Unitarian Church in Northumberland for a special service in his honor that Sunday.  He is buried with a simple headstone with his wife, Mary, at his side. His headstone reads:
       "Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the

Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
I will lay me down in peace and sleep till
I awake in the morning of the resurrection"

There were no other visitors at the House or the cemetery that weekend.  Except for the scaled down staff at the House most people who have any interest in Priestley were paying their respects to him in Leeds, England. The place of his birth. I thought that a bit odd, but no matter where it was, it was an awesome occasion. We were quite impressed with the level to which his house had been restored to its original condition.  The staff were incredibly well versed in the history and significance of the site and offered every amenity of cordiality to us.  The service at the Priestley Chapel was inspiring.  The Unitarian Minister from Philadelphia gave the sermon to a packed house which was a well rounded account of Priestley's life and the extraordinary contributions that he made to civilization.  That was the first time I have heard of Priestley referred to as "Gunpowder Joe", a reference to his explosive involvement with the political issues of the time when he was in Birmingham.

It was at Priestley House on August 31 through July 1, 1874, that a group 75 chemists made a pilgrimage to celebrate the centennial of chemistry.  This was the date chosen to mark the 100th anniversary of the date that Priestley performed the experiment that produced oxygen by heating mercuric oxide with sunlight using a "burning glass", a device made of lenses to concentrate the sun's light. The meeting in 1874 is recognized as the first National Chemistry Congress and led to the formation of the American Chemical Society.

We can highly recommend a pilgrimage to this site if you have the opportunity. It is awesome.

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