Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lovecraft in Context (Sitz im Leben): John Howard Appleton

It is no coincidence that Lovecraft was swet up into chemistry as a child. The organization of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society began just a few years before HPL met John Howard Appleton, a cofounder of the group. Here is the historical description of how this happened, and came to Providence.

The Organization of the Northeastern Section

Note: We have since received via email some information that differs from that presented below. If you are interested in reading it, go to the ACS History Rebuttal page.

The first page in the Secretary’s book bears the date: February 4, 1898, but this was not the beginning. The American Chemical Society was founded more than twenty year before that, on April 12, 1876. Nor was that a starting date, either, Most observers agree that the real beginning of everything was a suggestion made by Dr. H. Carrington Bolton of the Columbia College School of Mines in April 1874. He wasn’t thinking about forming a society at all: serendipity was in charge of things then, even as it is now. What Dr. Bolton wanted to do was to somehow commemorate the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestly, one hundred years earlier. It was on August 1, 1774 that the good Doctor Priestley had heated his "mercurius calcinatus per se" with a twelve inch burning lens and for the first time had released some "dephlogisticated air". Because this discovery, followed by Lavoisier’s quantitative treatment of it, had led to the oxygen theory of combustion and the subsequent development of all modern chemistry, Dr. Bolton thought that the centennial deserved some sort of observance. After all, because of his rashly liberal views, Dr. Priestley had been driven by an unruly mob from his home and his laboratory in Birmingham, England. He fled with his family to the United States, and so became an American chemist, by adoption, if not by birth.

Enter a woman chemist. Professor Rachel L. Bodley of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania proposed that the centennial celebration should be held at Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Priestley had lived and where he was buried. This suggestion was immediately adopted, and plans went forward for a three-day meeting beginning on July 31, 1874. This was the sequence of events that brought seventy-seven of the most influential American chemists, some with wives and children, together in a peaceful little village in the valley of the Susquehanna. There was no hotel there: the participants were quartered overnight by the villagers, some of whom were direct descendants of Joseph Priestley, himself. Historical papers and technical papers were presented in the tiny public schoolhouse. Cablegrams were exchanged with Birmingham, England, and the commemorative exercises were held beside Priestley’s grave. It was a remarkable affair. The friendliness and fellowship and excitement were so great, that there was a strong sentiment to carry on with such meetings. On the second day, the Centennial Day, to be exact, a group met to consider the feasibility of forming a national American Chemical Society with this purpose in mind. There were pessimists present, but nearly everyone went home with great hopes, expecting that a society would soon be formed.

Unaccountably, there was a two year delay, but the plan would not die. Professor Charles F. Chandler, also of the Columbia School of Mines, who had presided at the Centennial Program, finally set thing moving again. He uncovered more than one hundred chemists in New York and nearby cities, whose work and training rendered them eligible for membership in a chemical society. With seven confederates, he finally sent out a notice for an organizational meeting to be held April 6, 1876. That meeting was called to order with thirty-five chemists present, and the Society began operations.

Naturally, a society created in this way was a New York based organization. It had non-resident members, but the monthly meetings were held in New York, and there were not many benefits for the out of towners. A Journal was published, but few cared to submit papers, and the Society was most successful as a local organization. Small wonder that other quite similar local organizations sprang up in other parts of the Country. There was a constant agitation to get a truly national organization going: for a while it seemed likely that some of these upstart outsiders might be strong enough to take over. But the New York group had the name and they had the charter and it was apparent that the best solution was to put some new direction in this ineffective organization. The turnabout came in 1889, when the officers sent out a letter asking for suggestions as to the best way that the Society could become more useful to their non-resident members.

Upon receiving this letter, Profesor Charles E. Munroe, of Newport, Rhode Island, a charter member, sat down and wrote a detailed and lengthy response. He viewed, quite critically, the situation as it existed for outsiders, and made a number of valuable suggestions. These included the ideas that local Sections should be formed, and that General Meetings should be held outside of New York. Others had independently proposed the same ides, or at least concurred in them, so on June 6, 1890, the Constitution was changed to legalize such practices. One would have thought then that immediate action would have been taken, but that was not the case. According to Professor Munroe’s article in the Fifty-Year History, the Directors waited until July 22 of that same year to decide that (1) there would be e General Meeting outside of New York, that (2) it would be two weeks hence, August 6 and 7, 1890, that (3) it would be in Newport, R.I., and that (4) Charles E. Munroe would be in charge of arrangements! Then they let him know. Instead of collapsing under such summary treatment, he scrambled around, firmed a local committee of fourteen and began to make plans. His colleagues included a couple of Harvard Professors with summer residences in the area, some army and navy officers stationed nearby, the local high school principal, the secretary of the Newport Natural History Society, and a few younger chemists working in the area.

This group put together a remarkable program without any idea who, or how many, would attend. As a matter of fact, until the final day, when the Fall River Line boat from New York came plowing into its Newport berth, the only registrants known to be coming were the three guests whom Professor Munroe had invited to stay at his home. However, there proved to be a large and congenial group aboard, headed by Professor Chandler himself, and the meeting got off to a great start. Rhode Islanders from Providence and Kingston appeared, and there were distant visitors from Medford, Cambridge, New Haven, Ithaca, and points even further afield. Seventeen papers, covering almost every possible branch of chemistry were presented. The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station permitted an inspection of its laboratories and workshops, and its personnel presented an extensive series of demonstrations of high explosives. Not to be outdone, the personnel of the U.S. Naval Training Station put on a parade honoring their distinguished guests. On the second day of the meeting the registrants had their choice of relaxation: they could take a leisurely tour of Newport Harbor in the inspection launch, or they could select a thirty mile run around Conanicut Island in the high speed torpedo boat, "Stiletto".

With this successful venture completed, the chemists of Rhode Island wasted no time in getting behind Professor Munroe, and his colleague, Professor John Howard Appleton of Providence to form the Rhode Island Section. Their charter was granted on January 21, 1891, a full nine months before the New York group could get around to applying for its own local section charter on September 30, 1891.

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