Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Monument to Joseph Priestley

Posted by Darin Hayton on 06/26 at 11:25 AM

In the history of science Joseph Priestley’s name evokes images of the chemical revolution, different kinds of air (published in two volumes Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (London, 1775)), and the identification of phlogiston, the “alkaline principle.” Phlogiston was liberated whenever a flammable material was burned. Phlogiston both had weight and rendered the air incapable of supporting further combustion. Ultimately, Priestley’s phlogiston gave way to Lavoisier’s oxygen.

Joseph Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (London, 1775)

Priestley did not focus simply on chemistry. He was a Unitarian minister and devoted equal or more energy to theological, political, and historical works (see the useful bibliography at the Joseph Priestley website: here). Unsurprisingly, then, the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia looks to Priestley not simply as one of the founders of chemistry but as an inspiration for their church, which they established in 1796. In 1885 the society moved from its original building to the church at the corner of Chestnut and 22nd Street in Philadelphia. The elegant new church was designed by Frank Furness, the architect who also designed the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the stained glass windows are from Tiffany & Co. At the back of their new church, the society added a small chapel:

The small chapel at the back of the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut.

This otherwise nondescript addition is the society’s monument to Joseph Priestley:

Plaque that identifies The Joseph Priestley Chapel at the First Unitarian Church in Philaelphia.

Recently, the Priestley Chapel appears to have been converted into a day care center. Perhaps the “curriculum” focuses on chemistry. Then again, probably not.

UPDATE: For those interested in Priestley, this recent dissertation looks interesting: “The studies of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) on the theory of electricity” by Elisa Cristina Oliosi.

Tags: chemistry, joseph priestley, monuments