Biography of Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley was an eighteenth century chemist and one of the discoverers of Oxygen.

When and Where Was he Born?

13th March 1733, Birstal, Fieldhead, near Leeds, Yorkshire, England.

Family Background:

Joseph Priestley came from a family of handloom weavers and cloth-dressers.

Education:

Local Grammar School. Nonconformist Academy, Daventry. He became a gifted scholar in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and many other languages.

Timeline of Joseph Priestley:

1740: Death of Priestley’s mother. He goes to live with his nonconformist Aunt. Although his time at Grammar School was fairly short due to ill health he had the benefit of local tutors and became proficient in physics, philosophy and mathematics as well as several foreign languages.

1749: Whilst at Daventry Academy Priestley studies history, science and philosophy. He is particularly taken by the philosopher David Hartley’s ideas on education of man and free will.

1755: He becomes a Minister at the Presbyterian Church at Needham Market.

1758: He moves to Nantwich in Cheshire where he opens a small school hoping to put some of his ideas on education into practice.

1761: Priestley is appointed a tutor at the Warrington Academy in Lancashire which was a major nonconformist organisation. He makes several trips to London and there meets Benjamin Franklin.

Warrington Academy
Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel, Warrington, Lancashire  where Priestley was married and taught as part of the Warrington Academy (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1762: He marries Mary Wilkinson, sister of John Wilkinson the famous iron founder. The ceremony took place at the Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel in Warrington.

1767: He begins discussing the theory of science education and states that the history of science was important because it showed how human beings interpret and direct the forces of nature. He becomes a Minister of the Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds, where he begins to study Chemistry.

1768: Priestley turns his attentions to politics and his works were to have a major influence on the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

1772: He is elected to the French Academy of Sciences.

1773: He is created librarian of the Bowood Circle by Lord Shelburne.

1774: He discovers Oxygen for the first time but it is a while before he can work on it to be sure of its properties. He accompanies Lord Shelburne on a tour of the Continent. In a pamphlet he attacks the British Government for depriving the American Colonists of their rights and liberties.

1780: He is elected to the St. Petersburg Academy in Russia. He moves to Birmingham where he becomes friends with and worked with many prominent members of the Lunar Society including Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

Priestley Meeting House
The original Meeting House built by Priestley in Moor Street, Birmingham. Now a Catholic church. (copyright James Yardley)

He also continues his interest in politics and forms a group called the Rational Dissenters which attracts suspicion from the government and the local people. He also attacked the ideas of Edmund Burke.

Statue of Priestley, Birmingham
Statue of Joseph Priestley formerly outside 
the old twentieth century Birmingham Central Library
 (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1791: Priestley’s writings defended the French Revolution and he forms the Constitutional Society in Birmingham. His ideas were just as inflammatory as those of Tom Paine and local politicians attacked Priestley, which leads to an angry mob breaking into his house and burning most of his papers and equipment. He flees the city and moves to London where he takes up a teaching post at New College in Hackney. He is among a number of radicals that preach in the Newington Green Unitarian Chapel. He is, however, just as unpopular with the local population in London as he had been in Birmingham.

Newington Green Unitarian Chapel
Newington Green Unitarian Chapel, London with a banner outside proudly proclaiming Mary Wollstonecraft and it as the birthplace of feminism (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1794: Priestley decides to emigrate to America and settles in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He continues to write on religious topics and forms the first Unitarian Church in America.

When and Where did he Die?

6th February 1804, Northumberland, Pennsylvania, United States of America.

Age at Death:

71.

Written Works:

1755: “The Scripture Doctrine of Remission.”
1765: “Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life”.
1766: “History and Present State of Electricity.”
1767: “The History of Electricity”.
1768: “The First Principles of Government and the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Liberty”. “Essay on Government”. (This work provided Thomas Jefferson with ideas fore the American Declaration of Independence).
1774: “The State of Public Liberty in General and of American Affairs in Particular”. “Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever”.
1777: “Disquisition relating to Matter and Sprit”.
1782: “The History of the Corruptions of Christianity.”
1786: “History and Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ”.
1791: “A Political Dialogue on the General Principles of Government”.

Marriage:

1762: To Mary Wilkinson, sister of John Wilkinson the famous iron founder. The ceremony took place at the Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel in Warrington.

Site of Grave:

Riverview Cemetery, Northumberland, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.

Places of Interest:

BIRMINGHAM:

Meeting House where he gave lectures is now St Michael’s Catholic Church on Moor Street Queensway.
Statue in Chamberlain Square (now removed).

LANCASHIRE:

Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel, Warrington.

LONDON:

Newington Green Unitarian Chapel.

WILTSHIRE:

Bowood House, Calne. Priestley discovered Oxygen gas in the laboratory in 1774.