Some beautiful writing in this news article and in this obituary about a man with an interesting and productive life.
Sophisticated, British-born and a legendary lecturer, Herbert Priestley came to Knox in 1952. His interests, like waves, are essentially unbounded, touching all space and time. He did more than just teach physics; he created courses: The Universe, Light and Color, The Physics of Music, Science and Society, and more.
When Priestley wrote, he took the long view. His 1958 textbook “Introductory Physics,” developed out of his lectures at Knox and was pointedly subtitled “An Historical Approach.” While the book was designed for the non-science major, the reviewer who said about the book that a physics major would have no need to study the discipline’s historical foundations may have missed the point.
Connect the Dots
In one of his lectures, the text of which is on file in the Knox College Archives, Priestley traces the development of the electromagnetic theory of light as described in a series of papers by physicist James Clerk Maxwell, written between 1855 and 1868.
Today, Priestley said in the lecture, we use only Maxwell’s fundamental equations, “not the models used to develop his ideas.” Yet the equations did not leap fully formed from Maxwell’s pen. Priestley lavishes attention on models and analogies, enabling the non-scientist to follow the process through which Maxwell refined his theory.
Priestley has been connecting the dots for six decades. During World War II Priestley was assigned to RAF intelligence. “We collected intelligence about the German air force, information from interrogation of prisoners, electronic intercepts,” including highly sensitive data from the famous Enigma project that broke German secret codes. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle.”
He later taught at a U.S. Army Air Force school in Pennsylvania, and after the war he joined the faculty of Ripon College, coming to Knox in 1952.
Praising Priestley’s Planets
In the classroom, Priestley is perhaps best remembered for his courses on astronomy, dubbed “Priestley’s Planets.” A former student, Priestley says, still greets him with “How are the planets doing today?”
Priestley cherishes the memories and relishes in the successes of his students — from the outstanding physics majors to those whose athletic achievements he followed as closely as their academics… to the one fellow who, as Priestley puts it, “had a good mind, but not brilliant… today he’s the CEO of a multinational corporation.”
Priestley retired from Knox in 1982, although it was not what he wanted to do at the time. So he continued teaching physics for another decade, first at Carl Sandburg College, and later at the Henry Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.
In the Obituary “Professor Emeritus Herbert Priestley: Knox physics professor for 30 years, dies October 13, 2005” (Knox News, 14 Oct 2005), they wrote:
Herbert Priestley, 92, 1616 N. Broad St, Galesburg, died in his sleep at 9:08 a.m., Thursday October 13, 2005.
He was born May 29, 1913 in Bradford, England, the son of Joshua and Violetta Dyson Priestley. He married Elizabeth Jane Vorhes in 1950. She died in 1985. He married Rossann Baker on October 22, 1988 in Avon, IL.
Dr. Priestley attended University of Leeds, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1933 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1935.
He served as an industrial research physicist and civilian education officer in the Royal Air Force prior to being called to active duty as an air intelligence officer in 1939, where he was responsible for the air defense of London and southeastern England during the Battle of Britain.
He came to the United States in 1942 as RAF liaison officer to the Army Air Force Air Intelligence School in Harrisburg. PA. In 1944 he was assigned as RAF liaison officer to the Director of Intelligence, War Department at the Pentagon.
Dr. Priestley was considered a leader in the World War II intelligence effort against both Germany and Japan. He was awarded The Order of the British Empire, and in 1945 the Legion of Merit by the United States Military Intelligence Service. The Award, which is given in recognition of “exceptionally outstanding conduct in the performance of meritorious service to the United States,” recognizes among other things, Dr. Priestley’s studies, knowledge and forecasts of the German air power during World War II — its aircraft, production, training and activation techniques — and his 500-page report “German Technical Aid to Japan.”
Following World War II, Dr. Priestley taught for six years at Ripon College then, in 1952, accepted the position of chairman of the physics department at Knox College where he taught until being retired in 1980. He was the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Physics at Knox and also served as Director of Deferred Giving for Knox College.
Dr. Priestley’s book “Introductory Physics” was written to confirm the importance of science in the lives of those students concentrating in areas outside of science. He was director/instructor of the Summer Institute in Science and Society for High School Teachers under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. In 1967 he spent six months at Harvard University, working on “Harvard Project Physics,” a curriculum for high school students. A dedicated teacher, he established the Physics Department at Carl Sandburg College and taught at Hill Correctional for Carl Sandburg College and Roosevelt University, retiring from active teaching in 1998.
Dr. Priestley was a member and past president of the Galesburg Exchange Club and 1990 Exchangite of the Year. He served as vice chairman of the Orpheum Theatre Renovation Project and served on the planning committee for Discovery Depot. He was also a guest editorialist for The Register Mail and active with Friends of the Library. In 2002 he was inducted into the Knox-Lombard Athletic Hall of Fame.
Surviving are his wife, two daughters; Susan (Hilary) Herbert, Bullhead City, AZ and Pam Feldman, Pittsburgh, PA; one son, Dr. Russell (Irene) Dieterich, St. Charles, MO; six granddaughters, Sheila (Monty) Holland, Las Vegas, NV, Angela Herbert and Jessica Pence, Belleville, IL, Katherine and Andrea Herbert, Bullhead City, AZ, and Laura Feldman, NYC; five grandsons, John (Nicole) Herbert, Burnsville, MN; Jared, Jacob Merlin, and Jordan Herbert, Bullhead City, AZ, and Nick Feldman, Pittsburgh, PA; five great-granddaughters, Nevaeh Holland, Diana Herbert, Abigail Pence, and Natasha and Brianna Herbert; and one great-grandson, Isaiah Herbert. He was preceded in death by his parents and brother.
Cremation was accorded. A memorial service will be held on the Knox College campus in May of 2006. Hinchliff-Pearson-West is in charge of arrangements.
Memorials may be made to Friends of the Galesburg Public Library, the Knox College Library Memorial Fund, or to a charity of the donor’s choice. Online condolences may be made at http://www.h-p-w.com, and friends may sign a register book at the funeral home, 1070 W. Fremont, Galesburg, IL.