Offices & Resources

Joseph Burnett: A 19th Century Visionary and a 21st Century Role Model

Whatever presents itself for you to do, do it with [all] your might, because there is no work, planning, knowledge, or skill in the grave where you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, persistent in prayer.

Romans 12:11-12

Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.

Galatians 6:9-10

We have all seen the portrait of our School's founder, Joseph Burnett, on the far wall of the Dining Room, and I trust you have also noticed the relief sculpture on the wall just outside the entrance to Belmont Chapel.[1] As with so much that becomes familiar, we can pass by these objects without giving them much thought. I hope that by telling you a bit about Joseph Burnett today you will develop the same respect and admiration I have gained for him. As I will explain, Joseph Burnett subscribed to certain admirable values that are familiar to all of us as St. Markers. Most importantly, though, he walked the talk: he acted in accordance with these values, leading a life of consequence and leaving a positive legacy that continues today.

The first value to associate with Joseph Burnett is Age Quod Agis, do what you do (well), give 100% effort to your every endeavor. Although we do not have Burnett to thank for the motto's adoption by St. Mark's, the importance of that principal to Burnett, and its emphasis in the early St. Mark's curriculum he helped devise, made the phrase logical to the person who actually thought of it, our second headmaster George Herbert Patterson. Age Quod Agis, taken from the Bible passage Ecclesiastes Chapter 9, verse 10, that you heard a minute ago, was associated at the time with not simply working hard but with working hard for honorable causes. Burnett's belief that character--as well as intellect--must orient a St. Mark's education also informed the decision he and other Trustees made in 1869 to include the motto in the School's first official seal.[2] I am proud that we have continued that tradition.

Burnett exemplified the spirit of Age Quod Agis impressively in many aspects of his life. First of all, he showed great determination in gaining an education. While education was highly valued in his family, the family did not have the financial wherewithal to make gaining that education easy. Starting at age fourteen, in 1834, he made his way every day from Southborough to Worcester and back to attend school. He traveled on the Turnpike Road (now Route 9) walking, occasionally riding a horse, and most often hitching a ride on the back of a merchant's wagon drawn by a horse or an ox. Burnett graduated from the Worcester Scientific and Technical College, an extension of the Boston College of Pharmacy, at age seventeen in 1837. Burnett then moved to Boston and furthered his education by apprenticing with one of city's leading chemists and pharmacists, Theodore Metcalf.[3]

Burnett also exemplified the spirit of Age Quod Agis as an entrepreneur. In 1844, he opened, with his mentor, a store in downtown Boston, the Metcalf & Burnett Chemical Company. Burnett developed such a stellar reputation as a chemist that in 1846 when William Morton convinced John Warren (yes, an ancestor) to use ether for the first time in a surgery, Morton went to Burnett for the sulphuric ether compound that Morton then transformed into gas to anesthetize the patient. Dr. Warren's successful pain free surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, aided by the chemical compound created by Joseph Burnett, transformed the medical profession.[4]

The spirit of Age Quod Agis that made Burnett the "go to" chemist to provide the ether used in the first anesthetic surgery is also exemplified in his invention of vanilla extract. In 1847, a wealthy Boston woman came into Burnett's store and asked if he could develop a vanilla flavor that she had enjoyed in France. She described a product a few French chefs made from vanilla beans that could flavor foods. Although imperfect, the French product was better than anything known in America. Intrigued by the challenge, Burnett experimented in his laboratory with the best vanilla beans he could procure, which he found in New York. After extensive trial and error, Burnett extracted a flavor and infused it into a liquid that met the woman's exacting standards. She then enthusiastically spread the word among her friends, and the business took off.[5]

Periodically, graduates give me Burnett Vanilla Extract bottles, which they find in their attics or elsewhere. You are welcome to come by my office or Choate House to see these bottles.

While Burnett may be best known at St. Mark's for his invention of vanilla extract, always seeking to do more and better, Age Quod Agis, Burnett also invented a product that, theoretically, slowed down hair loss (that piqued my interest), and cured dandruff: Burnett's Cocoaine (coco-een). This product was in fact among his most profitable and longest selling, on the market for over 40 years. In naming his product Cocoaine (coco-een), Burnett might have been hoping to capitalize on the popularity of various medicinal products available at the time containing cocaine, then associated with "modern medicine." However please be assured that our founder's Cocoaine (coco-een) contained no cocaine, featuring coconut oil as its primary ingredient.[6]

Burnett continued to exhibit the spirit of Age Quod Agis leading his business, and an Age Quod Agis company culture continued once he turned the business over to his sons and long after. In 1858, Burnett formed Joseph Burnett & Company, and found a world-wide market for an ever expanding product line that eventually included, according to the Southborough Historical Society, "33 extract flavorings, 7 different food colorings, 14 color pastes & tablets, 18 different spices, 11 ice cream & sherbet liquid mixes, (and) 3 instant pudding flavors."[7]

One could buy products bearing the Joseph Burnett Company label until 1951. A history of the company Joseph Burnett founded describes the Age Quod Agis spirit when telling us that their policy "was to make the very finest extracts that could be made and advertise the fact to the consumer. The wisdom of this policy can be discerned in the steady growth of sales, which by the 1920s necessitated the building of a fine new factory, equipped with all the latest machinery for manufacturing, packaging, and handling the various products."[8]

The second value Joseph Burnett held that I find admirable and that resonates with St. Mark's in 2018 is advocacy for social justice. A fundamental principle of the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church characterizes its advocacy for social justice today as seeking "to build and enhance communities committed to transforming unjust structures in society."[9] The work of the St. Mark's Society fits that description as does the work of the Global Citizenship Office, and The Community and Equity Office, in particular with the initiatives of many of our affinity groups.

Joseph Burnett demonstrated his commitment to social justice in his actions while he lived in Boston and after he returned to Southborough. While in Boston, Burnett was active in—and generous to—a newly formed Episcopal Church, the Church of the Advent. The Advent supported social justice with its then radical practice of allowing parishioners to sit wherever they wanted during services. Most churches, by contrast, employed unequal treatment, charging rent for the good seats, thus requiring anyone without sufficient means to sit in the back or stand during a service.[10} Burnett also participated in the Advent's outreach program by offering his expertise about medicines to those who could not afford an appointment with a practicing physician.[11]

Once he returned in 1850 to live in Southborough, Burnett was instrumental in creating St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Main Street which, he insisted, employ the same approach as the Church of the Advent. Consecrated in 1863, the St. Mark's Church Charter states that participation is "free to all, with no distinctions as to wealth, color, race or station."[12] While far from the most diverse community in Massachusetts, Southborough did possess considerable socio-economic diversity in the mid-nineteenth century because of employees at Sawin Mill owned by an ancestor of our very own Samantha Sawin Brennan, and employees at Southborough's largest employer, Deerfoot Farms, another business venture Joseph Burnett owned. A number of these employees were Irish Anglican, and worshipped at St. Mark's Church. Southborough African-American residents joined St. Mark's Church in the 1890s.[13]

Burnett's commitment to social justice was mirrored by Southborough friends. Abolitionist Moses Sawin, Ms. Brennan's ancestor, went so far as to make his homea stop on the Underground Railroad.[14]

In our School's early years, St. Mark's students heard and saw advocacy for the social justice that Burnett valued so highly because they attended St. Mark's Church. I am proud of the way the commitment to social justice Burnett possessed has continued to be evident at our School, especially with consistent efforts since the mid-nineteenth century to get students beyond our campus in order to see firsthand--and think about the implications of--the privileges we enjoy.

A third value Joseph Burnett displayed in his actions that I find admirable and is certainly reflected in our School throughout its history is an embrace of meaningful innovation. Though appearing four years after his death, I am confident that Burnett would have heartily approved the innovative academic schedule St. Mark's adopted in 1898 that featured class periods of different lengths, quickly adopted by many peer schools. He would have also approved the trendsetting 1930s curriculum that featured elective courses, and I can imagine him smiling upon us from somewhere as he observes Lion Term, St. Mark's Saturdays, and our Monday to Friday long block schedule.

Both in Boston and in Southborough, Burnett's innovative habit of mind, and a related commitment to seeking continuous improvement, led to admirable accomplishments that have been widely celebrated. Some would have been satisfied with one commercial success, vanilla extract. Burnett, however, expanded his company's product line extensively as I noted earlier. At his farm in Southborough, Burnett used his chemical expertise to develop a tasty sausage, and the resulting product made Deerfoot Farms Company world famous.

As with Burnett & Company, one can see Joseph Burnett's admirable values reflected in the culture of Deerfoot Farms. An innovative spirit prompted the path-breaking use of a centrifugal separator to create cream, a machine that became the industry standard. The Smithsonian Institute, in Washington D.C., thought so much of the separator that it added the separator to its collection of inventions. Deerfoot was also one of the first dairies to use glass bottles for milk and cream, more convenient than pails, certainly, and also healthier since bottled milk can be sterilized.[15]

It took an innovative habit of mind to start a school, so thank you, Joseph Burnett, and Burnett's innovative habit of mind was also instrumental in creating the design of the school we know today, a physical plant far different from the school he started in 1865. Swelling enrollment by the 1880s made the original school building, located on the corner of Route 30 (Main Street) and Route 85 (Marlboro Road) inadequate. The land at the top of the hill seemed like the perfect location for a new school building and Burnett was influential in convincing his fellow Trustees to approve that move.

Developing the physical design for a new school provided the opportunity to think deeply about the principles that should orient the design. Leading this thinking was Headmaster William Peck, who having been on the faculty since 1871 and having been head since 1882, believed deeply in the educational benefits that came from a School under one roof. Peck argued that the quality of community which developed when students and faculty lived and learned together in the same building brought about extraordinary academic and personal growth.[16] What Peck wanted to replicate then, was the defining character of Burnett's original school, only on a far larger scale.

The choice to construct a school building in 1890 that contained both academic and residential spaces differentiated St. Mark's from peer boarding schools, including Groton, which separated those spaces into individual buildings around a green, in the style of a New England village.[17] The St. Mark's design, I would argue, was courageous and innovative.

Burnett's innovative habit of mind certainly served as a model for Peck and the project's twenty year old architect, St. Mark's graduate Henry Forbes Bigelow. Extreme care went into every aspect of the planning of the new building, with Peck and Bigelow as visionary thought partners, and Burnett offering feedback, encouragement, and financial support. Following the latest educational theory that faculty should be organized into academic departments, with each department located in its own space, the new building had groups of classrooms designated for science, for classical language, for English and for history. Arts classrooms would soon follow.[18] Peck and Bigelow believed that creating and sustaining community required the existence of three distinctive gathering spaces, each with its own purpose and each that would fit the entire student body and faculty: the Chapel, The School Room (now the Center), and the Dining Hall. Affirming Peck and Bigelow and Burnett's wisdom, every Trustee discussion about Main Building renovation over the past twenty years has prioritized ensuring that these spaces remain at the core of the School's program.

Regrettably, Joseph Burnett was only able to see his school in operation under its splendid new roof for a few years. In the summer of 1894, while engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, a carriage ride, Burnett's horse was startled by a trolley car, causing Burnett to be thrown from the carriage. Hitting his head on a rock, Burnett died instantly at age seventy three. Who knows what other innovations he would have championed if he had lived longer!

I find what Joseph Burnett accomplished in his life inspiring. He certainly took his talents and his passions and employed them to live a life of consequence. I find even more inspiring that Joseph Burnett relied on the values of Age Quod Agis, social justice, and an embrace of innovation to guide his life choices. These three values are right and worthy and can guide each of us to use our talents and passions to make a difference in the way that makes the greatest sense for us, just like they guided Joseph Burnett to use his talents and passions in the way that made the greatest sense for him.

Thank You



[1] Thank you to Richard E. (Nick) Noble for providing many of these images, and thank you to Laura P. Appell-Warren for organizing the images Nick provided, as well as others she found on the internet to accompany this talk. Thank you also to Dr. Warren for her editing advice about this Chapel Talk.

[2] Richard E. Noble, The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark's School, Hollis, New Hampshire: Hollis Publishing, 2015, p. 19, Richard E. Noble, Fences of Stone: A History of Southborough, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Peter E. Randall, 1990, pp. 194-95.

[3] Noble, Echo, p. 2

[4] Noble, Echo, p. 2, https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/joseph-burnett-company-boston-ma/, John Hudson Tiner, Exploring the History of Medicine: From the Ancient Physicians of Pharaoh to Genetic Engineering, 1999: https://books.google.com/books?id=mTAEAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=joseph+burnett+ether&source=bl&ots=bEI13bKxrX&sig=Sf_joXXqf0bXD6-5bdVL6g0PQQ0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwidnaHz76zYAhXH5SYKHeGMDMMQ6AEIUjAO#v=onepage&q=joseph%20burnett%20ether&f=false

[5] https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/joseph-burnett-company-boston-ma/

[6] http://www.odysseysvirtualmuseum.com/products/Burnett's-Cocoaine-Hair-Product-Bottle.html

[7] https://southboroughhistoricalcommission.weebly.com/uploads/3/0/0/5/30050123/joseph_burnett_history.pdf

[8] https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/joseph-burnett-company-boston-ma/

[9] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/office/social-justice-and-advocacy-engagement?page=5

[10] https://www.theadventboston.org/a-brief-history-of-the-parish/

[11] Noble, Echo, p. 3

[12] http://stmarkssouthborough.org/history/

[13] Noble, Fences, pp. 268-69

[14] Noble, Fences, pp. 157-58

[15] https://southboroughhistoricalcommission.weebly.com/uploads/3/0/0/5/30050123/joseph_burnett_history.pdf

[16] Noble, Echo, P. 59

[17] Noble, Echo, P. 59

[18] Noble, Echo, P. 56

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