Talking Priestley

Blatchley as Priestley (Carmen Drahl/C&EN) Blatchley at PHMC meeting (Linda Raber/C&EN)
Blatchley as Priestley at the Philly ACS meeting (Carmen Drahl/C&EN) ...and at this month's PHMC-organized gathering (Linda Raber/C&EN)
Retired chemistry teacher Ronald Blatchley has been reenacting Joseph Priestley's experiments for over 25 years, but soon, he may be out of a home base. Cuts to Pennsylvania's budget might shutter the historic Joseph Priestley House, where Priestley, an 18th-century scientist who shares part of the credit for discovering oxygen, lived out his final days, and where Blatchley works as an unpaid volunteer doing chemistry demonstrations. We recently covered the announcement in C&EN. I had great memories of watching Blatchley, dressed as Priestley, make a racket in the expo hall at 2008's Philly ACS meeting with those very demos. So I checked in with him to get his thoughts on the situation. On April 9, Blatchley attended a public discussion about Priestley House's future held by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC), which runs the site. He was impressed by the show of support at the meeting and is optimistic that some arrangement can be made to keep the house open. "There are a lot of people who think that [Priestley House] deserves to be open. The operating costs really are not prohibitive, less than $150,000 a year," he says. "It seems like we should be able to raise that amount or a significant portion of it, and perhaps the PHMC could reduce its funding." "My main concern there is that the PHMC will choose to 'mothball' the house rather than relinquish any control over its operation," Blatchley notes. "But if the PHMC does not wish to operate the house they need to turn it over to someone who will," he says. The house is the only one of Priestley's residences that's survived intact until today, and it may not get the care it needs to stay that way without somebody playing an active role in its upkeep, he adds. Priestley House gets the fewest visitors out of any of the sites PHMC runs, which is one of the main facts PHMC cited in its proposal to cut funding to the House. "The problem is as the real estate people say, 'location, location, location,'" Blatchley says. "If Priestley had built his house in Philadelphia we'd get ten times as many visitors." But Priestley House is located in Northumberland, Pa., a town of about 4,000 people that's a three hour drive from Philly. "It's kind of remote," Blatchley admits. "You could move Priestley's story to Philly or Harrisburg, but it just wouldn't be the same story," he says. To me, the saddest thing about this whole situation is that, thinking purely in terms of saving money, the cost of running the Priestley House seems like a drop in the bucket even in the current economic climate. The Daily Item, the local newspaper in the central Pennsylvania area where Priestley house is located, writes that the budget for Priestley House has been in the range of $150,000 a year, just as Blatchley had said. Compare that with the budget deficit that the state of Pennsylvania is trying to make up: $2.3 billion, according to documentation from the governor's budget office. What likely happened is that the state of Pennsylvania asked each individual agency to come up with its own cost-cutting measures. For PHMC, proposing to cut funding for Priestley House was a logical choice since the house loses money year after year. It's just a shame that chemistry ended up getting the short end of the funding stick. Any ideas out there? What do you think should be done about the situation? UPDATE 4/23: Added link to Priestley House website.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. It’s always easier with someone else’s money, but I’m guessing the ACS local section could make a certain contribution…

  2. Blatchley was great at the ACS meeting in Philly! I loved his impersonation of Priestly and the demonstrations–it’s was I remember most about that meeting. I’m reading a book about Priestly now (The Invention of Air) that is excellent. I haven’t had a chance to go to the house, but I think it would be a great loss for that house to be closed. Allowing it to be taken over by a private interest sounds like one good idea.


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