Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Priestley was born in the year 1733 to Jonas Priestley and Mary Swift in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He hailed from a well-established English family who were cloth makers. They were dissenting Christians, which meant they didn’t conform to the Church of England. They had six childrens, Joseph being the oldest one.
Priestley lived with his grandfather for some time but returned home when his mother passed away. After her death, his father remarried and sent him to live with a wealthy but childless uncle and aunt.
He was quite a bright student from his childhood days. He learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew in the local schools.
Later for higher studies, he went to the Dissenting Academy at Daventry, in Northamptonshire. Dissenters, who got the name as they refused to conform to the Church of England, were not allowed to attend regular English universities. Despite this, Priestley received an excellent education in several subjects such as philosophy, literature, as well as science.
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Joseph Priestley had a great passion for teaching, and after completing his studies in 1761, he moved to Warrington and started working at the town’s Dissenting academy. He taught modern languages along with rhetoric, though according to him, he preferred to teach mathematics and natural philosophy more.
In 1765, he wrote ‘Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life’ and dedicated it to the governing board of Warrington Academy, where had started working as a tutor. According to the arguments he presented in the essay, education should anticipate the practical needs of young people, but the universities were not doing so, and instead focused on a traditional classical education.
According to him, the universities didn’t allow the students to learn skills that would be of use in the lives. Instead of classical languages, he wanted the universities to teach English and modern languages, along with practical mathematics, as well as teach about the laws of England, instead of focusing too much on ancient history.
After meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1765, Priestley’s interest in science increased to a great extent. Having been inspired by Franklin, he published the 700 page ‘The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments’ two years later. In this work, he used history to show how progress in the field of science depended not on the insights of a few intelligent men, but was more dependent on the accumulation of new facts that could be discovered by anyone.
Since this book was not for the general public, he wrote another one ‘A Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity’ though the book failed to sell well.
Later Joseph Priestley moved with his family to Leeds, where became the minister of the Mill Hill Chapel. However, because of his views, he was considered a heretic by some. But according to Priestley, he wanted to return Christianity to its pure form, by getting rid of the corruption which had been accumulating for a long time. He even published a book on the topic ‘A History of the Corruptions of Christianity’. According to him, it was the most significant of all his works.
He published six volumes of ‘Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air’ between 1772 and 1790. In this work, he wrote about the experiments he made using different kinds of air. It was these experiments that established his reputation as a chemist.
In 1774, with the help of his friend Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestley held the first ever Unitarian service in Britain. In his defense, he said that he had altered only the way of worship, and not the substance. For the rest of his life, he strongly supported Unitarianism, and wanted it institutionalized, and also supported the building of foundations of new Unitarian chapels throughout Britain, as well as other countries.
He had written to many people about a new ‘air’ he had discovered. He called this new substance “dephlogisticated air.” He had made this air by focusing the rays of the sun on one sample of mercuric oxide. After experimenting on mice and later, on himself, he found that this particular kind of air was five to six times better than normal air, for purposes like respiration and inflammation. Thus, oxygen gas was discovered.
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Having already made several controversial publications, when Priestley spoke in support of the French Revolution, there was a huge negative reaction against him both from the public and the government, which led to a mob burning down his house and church. He fled to Northumberland County, in Pennsylvania, in the United States, where he spent the last years of his life.
Later, with the help of the American philosophical society, he tried to continue his research and investigations in America too. He made significant contributions to chemistry during his time in America as well.
‘The Rudiments of English Grammar’ was a popular grammar book which was written by Joseph Priestley in 1761. He had established a local school while he was also serving as a minster in a congregation in Nantwice, Cheshire. He believed that before children proceeded to learn any other language, having a good grasp of English grammar was very important. The book became very successful and popular and for more than fifty years, it continued to be reprinted.
‘The History and Present State of Electricity’ was published by Priestley in 1767. It focused on his early experiments and discoveries which were heavily inspired by the famous Benjamin Franklin. Not only this work became the standard history of electricity for over a hundred years, but it had also helped inspire famous scientists such as Alessandro Volta and William Herschel.
Joseph Priestley’s work ‘A History on the Corruptions of Christians’ was regarded by him as the most important of all his works. The book, which was published in the year 1782, challenged basic Christian orthodoxies like divinity of Christ, as well as the Virgin Birth. He believed that many lies and corruptions had accumulated in the religion, and he wanted to return it to its pure form.
Personal Life & Legacy
Joseph Priestley got married on 23 June 1762 to Mary Wilkinson. According to him, she was quite affectionate, generous, and supportive, which allowed him to peacefully focus on his work. They had four children.
He died at the age of seventy on 6 February 1804 and was buried at Riverview Cemetery.
Several statues of Priestley have been built all over Britain in order to memorise him.
The Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, US, started presenting the Priestley Award from 1952 to any scientist who makes discoveries that would contribute to the welfare of humanity.