Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

When Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is remembered today, it’s usually for his 1774 discovery, in England, of oxygen. Few know he was a noted theologian, political progressive, and prolific author whose scientific contributions include the development of the modern timeline, the carbonation process, the identification of carbon monoxide and other gases, early experiments in electricity and an early understanding of the inter-relationship of plants and animals mediated by gases: oxygen and carbon dioxide and the role of sunlight in photosynthesis.

He counted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Watt among his friends. Yet Priestley was also a controversial figure whose views were so odious to some of his countrymen that his house, Fair Hill in Birmingham, was burned in a riot in 1791, and he and his family fled to London and then left England in 1794. Priestley spent the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he continued his work in science, religion, and education. But even in this democratic republic his liberal ideas were frequently received with intolerance, and the peace that he so ardently desired was often elusive.

Joseph Priestley House and laboratory is an historic site that preserves and interprets the contributions and significance to American history of Joseph Priestley.  As a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Chemical Landmark, the site features Priestley’s manor house with its laboratory.  In the nearby Pond Building can be found the Joseph Priestley Timeline, a series of panels that present accomplishments during different periods of his life.


World Doll Day at Priestley House June 9, 2018

Posted March 7th, 2018

It’s a Merry Mary Celebration at Priestley House

Come meet Merry Mary at the Priestley House Museum on June 9 from 1 – 4 pm. A celebration of World Doll Day  on the site of the Priestley House Museum was inspired by the late Ruth Eleanor  McCorkill,  a Northumberland native and doll lover who volunteered at Priestley House during her retirement. Ruth Eleanor created Merry Mary to greet children at special Priestley House events, and Merry Mary will once again be greeting guests on June 9.

The creation of a World Doll Day celebration was the brainchild of Priestley House volunteer Hope W. Kopf, who sees the event as a way to honor the legacy of Ruth Eleanor McCorkill and showcase other aspects of the Priestley family heritage in Northumberland. “Ruth Eleanor was a devoted volunteer. She helped hand sew period clothes, dressed in costume for museum events, and typified the enthusiasm we want the community to feel for its history. An avid doll collector in her own right, Ruth Eleanor would have loved to see us combine dolls and the Priestley House,” Hope said.

Visitors are encouraged to bring their favorite doll to the day’s event. Once on the museum grounds, visitors will be able to view several doll collections and doll houses, including dolls that belonged to Anna Priestley, the great, great granddaughter of Joseph and Mary Priestley. There will also be opportunities to listen to stories about dolls, watch a play about Joseph Priestley, purchase doll clothes, and participate in a variety of activities.

The highlight of this child friendly day will be a Victorian tea for children of all ages. Participants are encouraged to dress up and bring a favorite doll to the festivities. Additional information about costs, reservations, and times is available at the Degenstein Community Library in Sunbury and the Priestley-Forsyth Library in Northumberland as well as on the museum website at and on the Joseph Priestley House Museum Facebook page.

Free admission to Priestley House for Doll Day.  There is a charge for the Victorian Tea.  Please use registration form below.

To register for the Tea please print and return this RSVP form Tea Party RSVP Form

Joseph Priestley’s Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland and its Neighborhood

Posted December 13th, 2017

Joseph Priestley reached out to his Northumberland neighbors in 1799 book
Sunbury Press Inc. has released a modern edition of a 1799 book that scientist/clergyman Joseph Priestley published to rebut propagandist William Cobbett and other 18th century critics who faulted his views on politics and religion. Priestley lived in Northumberland, Pa., at the time.

Released as a paperback, the new volume retains the title of the original – “Letters to the Inhabitants of Northumberland and its Neighborhood” – that was published by Northumberland printer Andrew Kennedy. The new volume features modernized typography, spelling and punctuation.

The reissue of the book was sponsored by the non-profit Friends of the Joseph Priestley House, which operates the state-owned Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland as a museum. Three members of the Friends organization – Deb Bernhisel, Susan Brook and Tom Bresenhan – transcribed the letters using OCR text from Google and a scan of the first edition.

“We are delighted to release this new edition,” said Bresenhan, who coordinated the effort. “The Friends of Joseph Priestley House plan to release an updated version of other books written by Priestley while he lived in Northumberland.”

World famous for discovering oxygen, Priestley was 60 when he left England in self-imposed exile in 1794, bound for Pennsylvania. He took up residence in the village of Northumberland, and intended to devote his remaining years in pursuit of new scientific discoveries and in writing about religious and political themes. Instead, Priestley frequently came under attack and devoted much time and energy to answering his critics.
“It is commonly said that when much dirt is thrown, some will stick,” Priestley said in one letter.

“When he found himself increasingly unpopular and misunderstood by the people of his new hometown, Priestley responded by writing these letters,” said Northumberland author John L. Moore, who edited the revised book and wrote the foreword. “He explained his political and religious beliefs, but also told how, why and when he had become an honorary citizen of France; listed the reasons why he admired the U.S. Constitution; and justified his decision not to become a U.S. citizen.”

Copies of the book are available at the Joseph Priestley House and the Northumberland County Historical Society, Sunbury, Pa. They may also be ordered online from Sunbury Press, an independent publisher based in Mechanicsburg, PA and  in print or digital form from


Discoveries of Joseph Priestley: the videos

Posted August 11th, 2016

Discoveries of Joseph Priestley:  videos on Carbon Monoxide,  Ammonia and Nitrous Oxide

The Friends of Joseph Priestley House have released videos of Priestley’s discoveries.  The videos include:  a review of his discovery,  a demonstration of the discovery process in a modern laboratory and a discussion of the hazards and uses of the gas.

Viewers of the videos are asked to complete a brief survey

Carbon monoxide


Nitrous oxide



Partial funding for the carbon monoxide discovery video was provided by the Susquehanna Valley Local Section through an American Chemical Society Local Section Innovative Program Grant (January 2013 round).

Partial funding for the Ammonia discovery video was from a Merck Cherokee Neighbor of Choice grant.

Partial funding of the Nitrous Oxide video was from Department of Anesthesiology, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

These videos  are used in the museum to explain Priestley’s achievements to visitors.