From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

The two hundredth anniver­sary of Joseph Priestley’s arrival in Pennsylvania presents a time to reflect on the life and work of an individual who was truly a unique citizen of our state, nation, and the world. During his lifetime, Priestley was the representative man of the Age of Enlightenment in England and America. His discovery of oxygen in 1774 established his reputation worldwide as the father of modern chemistry. As a Unitarian minister in an Anglican country, he became equally well-known as a champ­ion of free speech, religious toleration, and political liberal­ism. His support of the ideals of the French Revolution provoked a riot in his home city of Birmingham and eventually led to his decision to seek asylum in North America in 1794.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) selected Pennsylvania because of his friendship with Ben­jamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, and because of the Commonwealth’s tradition as a safe haven for religious and political dissenters. Although he spent only the last decade of his life in a remote village along the Susquehanna River, his impact upon the fields of science, religion, and politics continued unabated. His opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts earned him harsh criticism from Pres. John Adams but the warm support of Thomas Jefferson. Priestley assisted Jefferson in designing the first liberal arts curriculum for the University of Virginia and he lived long enough to enjoy Jefferson’s election as president in 1800.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) plans to mark the Priestley Bicentennial in a variety of ways. In recent years, the PHMC has under­taken a series of rehabilitation and research projects at the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, including foundation and roof repairs, exterior painting, and archaeo­logical excavations. These projects will continue through 1994 with the goal of the complete restoration of the scientist’s laboratory. In addition, we plan to develop a new interpretive program focusing on Priestley’s scientific and philosophical work in America.

Our research and interpre­tive programs will be presented in a number of forms. We will host an international meeting of the British Oxygen Corpora­tion and the Royal Society of London’s Chemistry Division, along with a reunion of Priestley’s American descen­dants. The American Chemical Society will hold its biannual education meetings at nearby Bucknell University in Lewisburg. Special exhibitions honoring Priestley will open at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, and Bucknell University. His special relationship with Franklin and to Philadelphia will be duly recognized through humani­ties seminars at the Joseph Priestley House and the Franklin Institute. Corporate sponsors and local elementary and secondary schools have also made commitments to participate in commemorative and educational programs.

Although contemporary historical scholarship properly emphasizes the collective experience of groups of people who have been excluded from history textbooks, there are a handful of figures in history who are of transcendent importance. Without question, Joseph Priestley is such an individual. The Priestley Bicentennial is the most ambitious and far-reaching program our Commission has mounted since assuming responsibility for his North­umberland County residence in 1959. Joseph Priestley’s singular and unique legacy certainly makes him worthy of this tribute.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director