Curriculum Vitae: Joseph Priestley 1733 – 1804

August 9, 2007 § Leave a comment

Joseph Priestley
by Ellen Sharples, probably after James Sharples
circa 1797
National Portrait Gallery London UK NPG 175

A native of West Yorkshire, Joseph Priestley was a natural philosopher, chemist, educator and Dissenting clergyman, and he is credited with the discovery of the existence of oxygen. A clergyman-chemist, Priestley called the gas he discovered, “dephlogisticated air.” It was French physicist Antoine Lavoisier, a great admirer of Priestley’s, who named it oxygen. Priestley, a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, experimented with electricity before turning his attention to chemistry in the early 1770s. It is crucially important to note that his 1769 publication The History and Present State of Electricity contains one of the first defences of the study of the history of science and many reflections on scientific method. While Priestley’s writings in chemistry and theology have tended to overshadow his work on electricity, The History and Present State of Electricity is testament to the fact that by the late eighteenth century early modern science had emerged as an object of historical inquiry. His discoveries include hydrochloric acid, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and sulfur dioxide, and he invented soda water.

Priestley’s contributions to education were as important as those to science. He was the first British educator to insist on the value of modern history as a subject and that a thorough understanding of history was necessary not only to worldly success but also to spiritual growth. Priestley was innovative in the teaching and description of English grammar, particularly his efforts to disassociate it from Latin grammar, and the founder of the first liberal arts curriculum. Priestly was a very close correspondent of Thomas Jefferson’s and their letters include plans for the Jefferson Bible and the University of Virginia. He communicated with Jefferson regarding the proper organization of a university and when Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, it was Priestley’s curricular principles that dominated the school. No wonder it’s so awesome.

Priestley helped found the Unitarian church and was a supporter of the French Revolution, and due to his nonconformist views, in 1791 a mob destroyed his house and laboratory in Birmingham. This episode and subsequent troubles made him decide to emigrate to the United States, where he died in 1804 in Pennsylvania. His house on Priestley Avenue, Northumberland PA, with the first scientific laboratory in America is sadly now closed to the public.

The history and present state of electricity:with original experiments 1769 by Joseph Priestley

A plate from The history and present state of electricity:with original experiments by Joseph Priestley 1769

An educational chart of Joseph Priestley


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