The story of the Seybert Commission begins in 1793, when young Adam Seybert received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 20. This was followed by additional education in Europe, and by the start of the new century Dr. Seybert had established himself as a prominent chemist and minerologist. Dr. Seybert was also a successful Philadelphia pharmacist and chemical manufacturer, and even branched out into national politics, serving three terms in the House of Representatives.
Adam Seybert's son Henry was born in 1801. His mother died in childbirth, a common tragedy in that time. Henry and his father bonded closely, and Henry was on his way to a distinguished career in minerology in his own right when his father died in 1825. The loss of his father affected Henry deeply; he had lost both parents by the age of 24, and he never resumed his scientific studies after this second loss.
Henry was fortunate in that his father left him a sizeable inheritance, an inheritance that Henry felt morally obligated to invest wisely and put to use for charitable and philanthropic purposes. Henry traveled widely, but always maintained his connection to the city of his birth, Philadelphia, settling there permanently in 1846. Having abandoned his scientific career, Henry pursued no definite profession or business. In city directories, his occupation was listed as "Gentleman."
Not long after his father's death, Henry developed an interest in "modern spiritualism", the relatively new philosphical and religious movement devoted to the idea that the dead can communicate with the living (even physically interacting with them) through the efforts of individuals endowed with special powers as "mediums." Henry Seybert became an enthusiastic adherent of this movement, and remained one until his death.
Nearing the end of his life, with his inherited wealth having grown substantially, Henry set up his estate so as to support both his philanthropic activities and his devotion to spiritualism. His most enduring philanthropic legacy is the "Seybert Institution," a still-active foundation which provides grants in support of cultural, educational and charitable activities. Physical mementos of Henry Seybert's life are the bell and clock that grace the tower of historic Independence Hall in Philadelpia; he donated them in clebration of the 1876 centennial of American independence.
In promotion of his spiritualist beliefs, Henry set up a bequest to the University of Pennsylvania to fund a scientific study of spiritualism, and to endow a professorship in moral philosophy to be named after his father. The study was conducted by a commission made up of professors and officials of the university, commencing in 1883 and concluding with a final report in 1887*. The endowed professorship is still in place, currently held by Dr. Gary Hatfield.
The Commission's report would have been most distressing to Henry Seybert had he seen it; the investigators found no scientific evidence to support the doctrines of the spiritualist movement, but did uncover numerous examples of fraud carried out by the mediums they investigated. These findings did not, of course, bring the movement to an end; mediums claiming to produce overt physical manifestations of spirit communication remained active and prosperous until well into the twentieth century. And the core doctrine of spiritualism -- routine communication with the dead facilitated by the specially endowed medium -- remains alive and well, spread far and wide by the power of television and other electronic media. Today's mediums simply refrain from claiming that they can produce visible physical manifestations of spirits in action.
J. M. Duffin, University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center.
Professor Gary Hatfield, Adam Seybert Professor in Intellectual and Moral Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy of the University of Pennsylvania.
Frazier, Arthur H, "Henry Seybert and the Centenniel Clock and Bell at Independence Hall," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 102: 40-58 (1978).