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Portrait of Joseph Priestley
Joseph Priestley

Clergyman, theologist and political theorist, Joseph Priestley maintained his objection to prejudice and dogma in the face of persecution.

Priestley was born on 24 March 1733 only a few miles from Leeds. He was the eldest of six children but, when he was nine, his mother died and he was sent to live with his father’s sister. His aunt and uncle, Sarah and John Keighley, raised him as their own child and wanted the best possible education for him. The family were of dissenting faith (which means they disagreed with the Church of England) and Priestley’s early ambition was to become a Dissenting Minister, an ambition which came true after he graduated from Daventry Academy.

A true polymath

portrait of Joseph Priestly

In his early twenties he was already an accomplished scholar: he had been undertaking a lot of independent work and, beyond his theological studies, he was trained in philosophy and history, mathematics and science, and had mastered six ancient, and three modern languages. He became assistant minister at Needham Market, Suffolk, and then in 1758, took a ministry position at Nantwich, Cheshire. He promoted new educational ideas which were soon to influence the whole education system in the Dissenting Academies. The curriculum was not only built around classics and training for ministry, it also placed importance on subjects that would be useful to students who wished to start a career in commerce or industry. 

With his hard work and impressive success as a tutor, he soon became well known, and the famous Warrington Academy considered him for a position. He was introduced to John Cantor and through him, made further acquaintances in the scientific world, mainly at the Royal Society. He started a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin and began a new scientific career. He soon produced important works such as The History and Present State of Electricity, with original Experiments (1767) and On Air (1772). The former became the definitive textbook for researchers well into the 19th century and set the basis for the great advances in electricity made by researchers such as Volta, Davy and Faraday. After he published the article Different Kinds of Air (1773) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he was awarded the Copley Medal, the greatest scientific acknowledgment of the time.

In 1780, Priestley became minister at the New Meeting chapel in Birmingham, probably the most liberal congregation in England. Here he spent a lot of time with other members of the eminent Lunar Society of Birmingham, including James Watt, Matthew Boulton, James Keir, and Erasmus Darwin. They were fighting for the same causes, and Priestley became more and more prominent in religious and political controversies, supporting the causes of American independence and the abolition of slavery; urging the repeal of discriminatory legislation; and later supporting the revolutionaries in France. 

There were some powerful reactions to his non-conformity and, being identified as the icon of radicalism, Priestley had become hated and unpopular in some circles. On 14 July 1791 an angry mob destroyed his house, laboratory and chapels, in what are remembered as the Birmingham Riots. He and his family were no longer safe in Birmingham and were obliged to flee; they took refuge in London, and eventually left the country for America. While there, Preistley continued to work and update his science bestsellers, and it was to him that Thomas Jefferson turned for advice for the soon-to-be-opened University of Virginia. Joseph Priestley died in Northumberland on 6 February 1804, at 71 years old, and he is buried there in the Riverview Cemetery. 

A great scientist, a great communicator 

His scientific career is well known and celebrated, but it must not be forgotten that beyond being a brilliant chemist, he was also a fiery minister, a radical politician, a diligent historian and a passionate teacher. Priestley’s books have been largely responsible for the widespread public interest in scientific phenomena, and the effectiveness of his communication methods enhanced his reputation as a great public figure for science and culture. He was one of the first tutors to teach experimental science to schoolchildren and his pivotal role as a public figure and author helped the diffusion of his educational ideas. 

He introduced new teaching styles, produced wall charts as visual aids and had his lectures printed for the benefit of his pupils. He represented the apotheosis of the eighteenth century enlightened man, and is today represented on the badge worn by the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Words by Chiara Ceci
Images © Royal Society of Chemistry, Library
Published April 2014

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