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85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal

C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor

by Linda R. Raber
April 7, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 14

Credit: C&EN
Champions of Chemistry Bryce Crawford (left) receives the 1982 Priestley Medal from then ACS President Robert Parry, who received the award in 1993.
Credit: C&EN
Champions of Chemistry Bryce Crawford (left) receives the 1982 Priestley Medal from then ACS President Robert Parry, who received the award in 1993.

In 1923, the American Chemical Society inaugurated the Priestley Medal, its highest award, and presented it to Ira Remsen, a pioneer in advanced chemical education in the U.S. Also in 1923, ACS launched C&EN's predecessor, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry News Edition, which was mailed weekly to each of the society's approximately 14,000 members.

During the past 85 years, the Priestley Medal has been bestowed 72 times. In the beginning, ACS planned to present it every three years; since 1944, however, the medal has been presented annually. Each medalist has been written up in the pages of C&EN, usually with his or her picture on the magazine's cover and publication of the Priestley Medal address along with a profile. This year is no different. A profile of 2008 Priestley Medalist Gabor Somorjai begins on page 15, and his address, on page 21.

Priestley Medalists have won 15 Nobel Prizes, and 56 of the medalists have been admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. Twenty-six medalists have served as ACS president.

The Priestley Medal is given for a lifetime of accomplishments and usually goes to people far along in their careers. The average age of recipients is 68. Three medalists—Thomas Midgley Jr. (1941), James B. Conant (1942), and William O. Baker (1966)—brought down the average age, each receiving the medal at age 51. Robert S. Mulliken (1983), at 87, was the oldest to receive the medal. The names of the award recipients make up a list of chemistry's giants.

The medal's namesake, Joseph Priestley, was born 275 years ago in England. He discovered oxygen, which he called "dephlogisticated air." In 1874, a small group of chemists gathered at Priestley's home in Northumberland, Pa., to commemorate the discovery's centennial. Two years later, as a result of the contacts made there and the feeling of fraternity it engendered, ACS was formed in New York City. Chemical Heritage Foundation historian Mary Ellen Bowden has written an essay on the life and times of Priestley, focusing specifically on the praise and opprobrium that he received during his life span-and the medals or medalets cast commemorating his honor or infamy, depending upon who was striking the coin.

Also for this issue, C&EN invited recent Priestley Medalists to reflect on what receiving the medal has meant to them and how it has (or hasn't) changed their lives. Most responded with short vignettes.

A special online feature looks at the lives and contributions of 20 of the medalists who received awards between 1923 and 1989. Each C&EN writer participating in this project sought to unveil something personal and memorable about these giants of chemistry. We hope you enjoy reading them.

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