About Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley is best remembered for his pioneering work in chemistry and in particular for the discovery of oxygen. But he was also a prolific theologian, an innovative educator, and a liberal political philosopher.
Northumberland, Pennsylvania, his American home from 1794 until his death in 1804, encompassed about 100 houses when Priestley, age 61, emigrated from England, seeking haven from political and religious persecution.
Priestley was born of a cloth dresser in Fieldhead, an English village near Leeds, on March 13, 1733. From an early age the studious young man had aspired to the ministry. In 1752, he entered Daventry Academy where he began the religious journey that led him eventually to Unitarianism, which he was to endow with formative ideas. Priestley was foremost a Christian minister, and over half his published writing is devoted to theological discourse.
In 1755, he began his ministry at a small church at Needham Market, and in 1761 began teaching at Warrington Academy, the leading institute for Dissenters and nonconformists to the Church of England. Priestley publishes Rudiments of English Grammar. Priestley is unusual for his time in thinking that usage should determine rules rather than depending on rules from Latin. American grammarian LindleyMurray borrowed extensively from Priestley for his influential English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795). In 1762, Joseph (29) marries Mary Wilkinson (18), daughter and sister of iron masters. In 1765 publishes Essays on the Course of Liberal Education. Priestley’s emphasis on teaching contemporary, not just ancient, history remains his most enduring contribution to modern pedagogy. In the same year publishes Chart of Biography, which is the first use of a line to indicate the length of a lifetime.
Sample here is from A Description of a Chart of Biography. Courtesy Archives and Special collection at Dickenson College. Published as a wall chart of 2 feet by 3 feet it contains the lifelines of 2,000 famous persons.
Priestley, little taught in science, began in his early thirties to teach himself. By 1767, he had found a way to produce carbonated water, published The History and Present State of Electricity, and was named a Fellow of the Royal Society. By 1772, Priestley published another significant and widely read work - The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Optics, Vision and Colours. In 1773, he became librarian to the Earl of Shelburne, and with the leisure this afforded he made his most notable contributions to science, isolating eight gases – oxygen in 1774 – and describing the basic process of photosynthesis.
Priestley’s mind could never be confined. Discrimination against Dissenters drew his attention to politics and confirmed him as an exponent of liberty. His support for the American Revolution and for British reform and his continued criticism of the Anglican Church alienated many. Finally, his defense of the French Revolution, beginning in 1789, exposed him to the harsh retorts of the popular press. In 1791, Birmingham’s anti-French rioters destroyed Priestley’s house, laboratory and library. Escaping to London, he and his wife departed in 1794 for America, where they would be reunited with their three sons, who had emigrated in 1793. The Priestley’s daughter, Sarah, who was married, remained in England. Priestley’s destination was a proposed colony for English Dissenters to be settled near Northumberland. Though the colony did not become a reality, Priestley built a fine manor house in the village.
In his last 10 years, Priestley identified carbon monoxide as a distinct “air” and published more than 30 scientific papers. He also wrote more that a dozen religious works, including his six-volume History of the Christian Church. He conducted Sunday services in his home and gave impetus to the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. Joseph Priestley died February 6, 1804, at his home. He is buried in Northumberland’s Riverview cemetery along with other members of the family.
- Brown, Ira V. (1962). Joseph Priestley: Selections from His Writings. Penn State Press: University Park, PA.
- Clark, John Ruskin. (1994). Joseph Priestley: A Comet in the System. Friends of Joseph Priestley House: Northumberland, PA.
- Gibbs, F.W. (1965). Joseph Priestley: Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. Doubleday: Garden City, NY.
- Graham, Jenny. (1995). Revolutionary in Exile: The Emigration of Joseph Priestley to America 1794-1804. (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Volume 85, Part 2) The American Philosophical Society: Philadelphia, PA.
- Jackson, Joe. (2005). A World on Fire: A Heretic, An Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen. Viking: New York.
- Johnson, Steven. (2008) The Invention of Air: A story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America, Riverhead Books, New York.
- Schofield. Robert E. (1997). The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733-1773. Penn State Press: University Park, PA.
- Schofield. Robert E. (2004). The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1773-1804. Penn State Press: University Park, PA.
- Schwartz, A. Truman and John G. McEvoy, Eds. (1990). Motion Toward Perfection: The Achievement of Joseph Priestley. Skinner House Books: Boston.