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Priestley Medal Addresses

by A. Maureen Rouhi
March 25, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 12

To celebrate C&EN’s 90th anniversary, one Editor’s Page each month will examine materials from C&EN Archives. Featured articles are freely downloadable for one month.

Like C&EN, the Priestley Medal turns 90 this year. C&EN celebrates the medalists with a profile and publishes their award address in full. C&EN’s April 8 issue will feature 2013 Priestley Medalist Peter J. Stang, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Utah and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Stang will deliver his address on April 9 at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans.

C&EN’s tradition of publishing the Priestley Medal address appears to have started with the 1945 Priestley Medalist, Sir Ian Morris Heilbron. Awardees use the address in different ways. Many give a retrospective of their work. Others grapple with societal questions through the lens of chemistry. I found it strangely reassuring that many challenges facing the chemistry enterprise now are not unique, as the following excerpts show. If people have seen these problems before and have persevered and grown, so can we.

“The first aim of our Society since its very foundation has been the publication of chemical research. Let us not be diverted from this important and inspiring undertaking. Instead, let us redouble our efforts so that, in spite of the flood of manuscripts, we can publish promptly, clearly, and economically all the novel, valid, and significant research in chemistry that we receive!”—Arthur B. Lamb, 1949

“More young people are not studying science … because their minds, and those of their parents, have been poisoned by the insidious cloud of anti-intellectualism which hangs over this country like a great shroud.”—Charles A. Thomas, 1955

“Now more than ever, the public image of science has become the responsibility of scientists. The purposeful nature of our work needs to be understood. It is no longer enough to hope that people understand what we are doing—we must tell them and show them.”—William J. Sparks, 1965

“Sunshine and its conversion into chemical energy and material through the pathways of carbon reduction and quantum conversion in the green plant is our ultimate energy source; it is relatively free of political control, universally available on an annually renewable basis, and environmentally clean.”—Melvin Calvin, 1978

“It is a great help to basic chemical studies if some instrument useful in the basic or structural studies turns out to be useful analytically and commercially also; there is nothing like competition among instrument makers to develop greater convenience and sensitivity in instrumentation.”—Bryce Crawford Jr., 1982

“The slowing growth for scientific research ... and the current lack of new job opportunities are placing great stress on current graduate and postgraduate students.”—Howard E. Simmons, 1994

“The change from labor-based manufacturing to a knowledge-based manufacturing and service economy is reminiscent of the transformation from agriculture to the industrial age a century ago.”—Mary Lowe Good, 1997

“What lies directly ahead for basic science is a period of difficult funding and relative lack of respect.”—F. Albert Cotton, 1998

“Chemistry, including chemical synthesis, will be a key driver of progress in medicine and human health during the rest of the 21st century. ... Government support of high-quality research therefore needs to continue with emphasis on quality and minimization of political issues.”—E. J. Corey, 2004

“The question of the survivability of chemistry as a field in its own right has even been raised. Many people see chemists only as general molecular scientists or engineers.”—George A. Olah, 2005

“We are at a wonderful time for chemistry. It is, I believe, in the position of physics in the 1910s, just before quantum mechanics made the world impossibly strange, or biology in the 1950s, just before the double helix obliterated the old biology.”—George M. Whitesides, 2007

For the full source of these excerpts, go to C&EN Archives,

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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