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"If," says Mr Frederic Harrison, "we choose one man as a type of the intellectual energy of the eighteenth century we could hardly find a better than Joseph Priestley, though his was not the greatest mind of the century. His versatility, eagerness, activity and humanity; the immense range of his curiosity in all things, physical, moral or social; his place in science, in theology, in philosophy and in politics; his peculiar relation to the Revolution, and the pathetic story of his unmerited sufferings, may make him the hero of the eighteenth century."[1]

History recognizes Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) as a prominent English contributor to the developments in science, theology, political philosophy, and pedagogy in England and the European continent in the 18th century's "Age of Reason and Enlightenment". History recognizes him most for his discovery of oxygen and numerous other gases, his history of and discoveries in electricity, and his contributions to the founding of Unitarianism.

Priestley discovered the component gas of Earth's atmosphere subsequently named oxygen by the French chemist, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794). Learning of the details of Priestley's signal experiments that led to the discovery of the gas critically influenced the future course of Lavoisier's career as a chemist, one that led to a revolution in the principles of chemistry and the beginnings of modern chemistry—a new understanding of chemical science that contributed importantly in enabling the Englishman, John Dalton (1766-1844), to formulate a chemical atomic theory, the bedrock of modern chemistry.[2][Note 1][Note 2]

The hub of Priestley's life, from which radiated manifold spokes of diverse contributions to the eighteenth century enlightenment's development, was his role as a freethinking learned Protestant nonconformist clergyman, a member of the Dissenting religious groups differing in beliefs and practices from the powerful and controlling established Anglican Church of England, of which the King of England was its head, and which oppressed the Dissenters by edicts denying them participation in government and academe.

Early life: Birstall, Fieldhead, and Heckmondwike, 1733-1752

Joseph Priestley entered the world in England (13 March [old style] 1733)[Note 3], and, after a distinguished but turbulent career, died in exile in America (1804), age 72 years. He was born in the house of his father, Jonas Priestley, and his mother, Mary (née Swift), the first of six children, four sons and two daughters, the homestead, Fieldhead, located in Birstal Parish, in the West Riding district of Yorkshire, about six miles from Leeds northeast and some fifty miles from Manchester southwest.[3] [4] Fieldhead had been the Priestley family home for generations. Early on as infant or toddler, Priestley was sent to the care of his maternal uncle living in Shafton, near Wakefield, and thereafter saw his mother infrequently. He was returned home when his mother died in late 1739, Priestley age 7 years. In 1742, he was 'adopted' by his father's sister, Sarah Keighley, a wealthy woman who had no children of her own. Aunt Sarah looked to his education, as Priestley describes in his autobiography:

By this truly pious and excellent woman, who knew no other use of wealth, or of talents of any kind, than to do good, and who never spared herself for this purpose, I was sent to several schools in the neighbourhood, especially to a large free school, under the care of a clergyman, Mr. Hague, under whom, at the age of twelve or thirteen, I first began to make any progress in the Latin tongue, and acquired the elements of Greek. But about the same time that I began to learn Greek at this public school, I learned Hebrew on holidays of the Dissenting minister of the place, Mr. Klrkby; and upon the removal of Mr. Hague from the free school, Mr. Klrkby opening a school of his own, I was wholly under his care. With this instruction. I had acquired a pretty good knowledge of the learned languages at the age of sixteen. But from this time Mr. Klrkby's increasing infirmities obliged him to relinquish his school, and beginning to be of a weakly consumptive habit, so that it was not thought advisable to send me to any other place of education, I was left to conduct my studies as well as I could till I went to the academy at Daventry, in the year 1752 [age nineteen or twenty years].

From the time I discovered any fondness for books, my aunt entertained hopes of my being a minister, and I readily entered Into her views. But my ill-health obliged me to turn my thoughts another way, and, with a view to trade, I learned the modern languages, French, Italian, and High Dutch, without a master; and in the first and last of them I translated and wrote letters for an uncle of mine who was a merchant, and who intended to put me into a counting-house in Lisbon. A house was actually engaged to receive me there, and everything was nearly ready for my undertaking the voyage; but getting better health, my former destination for the ministry was resumed, and I was sent to Daventry, to study under Mr. Ashworth, afterwards Dr. Ashworth.

At the age of 19 years, Priestley, with the encouragement of his aunt and sometime teacher, John Kirkby, minister of the Independent Chapel of Heckmondwike, applied for membership in the Chapel, the church of his family, but was rejected on the basis of independent views he had already form concerning the tenets of Christianity, views considered unsound by the church elders. A traumatic rejection he had to face with his family. He had established himself as a freethinker early on.

Daventry Academy, 1752-1755 (age ~19-22 years)

Language and rhetoric

Liberal education, history, biography


Needham Market And Nantvich, 1755-1761 (age ~22-28 years)

Warrington Academy, 1761-1767 (age ~28-34 years)

Leeds, 1767-1773 (age ~34-43 years)


Natural religion

Religious polemics






Pyrmont water



==Afterword: 1733-1773 (age birth-43 years)

Warrington Academy

(PD) Diagram: Wikimedia Commons; au: Joseph Priestley
Add image caption here.

Hx.[5][Note 4]


Included among the Notes below are annotations to some of the references, the applicable references shown in boldface.

  1. Jackson J. (2005): Full biographies of Joseph Priestley and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.
    • Chapter titles: Prologue: God in the air. The cloth-dresser's son. The sums and receipts of parallel worlds. The gas in the beer. The prodigy. The goodness of air. The problem of burning. The sentimental journey. The mouse in the jar. The twelve days. The language of war. "King Mob". The world out of joint. The new world. Epilogue: the burning world.
    • See review of Jackson's book in American Scientist: A Tale of Two Chemists by Seymour Mauskopf.
    • Joe Jackson Homepage

  2. Joseph Priestley OR site:gov OR site:edu OR OR

  3. England did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1751. Joseph then apparently celebrated his birthday on March 23, as he wrote in a letter dated March 23, 1783, that he had completed his first half century. See Thorpe TE. (1906)

  4. Bright HA. (1859): A brief history of the birth and demise of the Warrington Academy, with an encomium to Joseph Priestley.
    • Excerpt: "In 1761, Dr. Aikin was promoted to the Theological Tutorship, which was now vacant by Dr. Taylor's death. Mr. (afterwards the celebrated Dr.) Priestley was chosen to succeed Dr. Aikin as Tutor of Languages and Polite Literature. Of Dr. Priestley it must be unnecessary for me to speak. Eminent as a chemist, a philosopher, a politician and a theologian, he was one of the most remarkable men of his day. It is Coleridge who addresses him as Patriot, and Saint, and Sage," and whether we agree with, or differ from, his views on Philosophy or Theology, we am have but one opinion of the vastness of his learning, and the purity of his life. He was the greatest of the many worthies of the Warrington Academy...In 1767 the Academy lost the services of Dr. Priestley, and in 1770 the no less valuable services of Mr. Seddon. Dr. Priestley resigned, be tells us, partly on account of bis wife, and partly because the salary of £100 per annum with a bouse, and £15 a year for boarders, was insufficient for the maintenance of his family."


  1. Thorpe T.E. (1906) Joseph Priestley. London: E. P. Dutton & Co. | Google Books Free eBook
  2. Jackson J. (2005) A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen. New York: Viking. ISBN 0670034347; Penguin USA About Book. ISBN 9780143038832. | Google Books preview.
  3. Birstall
  4. About Leeds
  5. Bright HA. (1859) A historical sketch of Warrington Academy. T. Brakell. 30pp.


  • F.W. Gibbs. (1965) Joseph Priestley: Adventurer in Science and Champion of Truth.
    • A biography of Joseph Priestley, his life, work, and the worlds of science, religion, politics, education in which he lived. Presents detailed descriptions of Priestley's most important experiments studying the properties and chemistry of gases.
    • From book jacket: ”Frederick William Gibbs is a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and Honorary Lecturer in the History of Technology at University College, London… a Foundation Member of the British Society for the History of Science, a Corresponding Member of the International Academy of the History of Science and a 'Member of the Association for Science Education."
  • Priestley J. (1966) A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804): Selected Scientific Correspondence. Edited With Commentary by Robert E. Schofield. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.
  • Robert E. Schofield. (1997) The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-01662-7. | Google Books preview.
    • From Preface: "This work was begun some thirty years ago as a labor of love and intense interest, when I first discovered there was no definitive biography of Joseph Priestley, one of the most distinguished polymaths of eighteenth-century England. It soon became painfully clear just why this was the case: Priestley was simply too many persons for any one easily to comprehend them all into a single study. Yet, in the long run, thoroughly to understand Priestley and his age, it must sometime be necessary to join those varied manifesta­tions of his life into a study that might begin to integrate and illuminate the extraordinary career of this exemplar of British Enlightenment. Prop­erly done, the subject of middle-class, Dissenting, intellectual achievements in eighteenth-century England would also be illuminated, as had not previ­ously been done."
  • Robert E. Schofield. (2009) The Enlightened Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1804. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 9780271024592.| Google Books preview.
    • From Preface: "Nunc dimittis! A project begun some forty years ago is now completed. And if it is not the definitive biography (whatever that might be) of Joseph Priestley that I had originally intended, it is, in at least one sense, a complete one. So far as I have been able to do so, I have consulted and described every published writing of Joseph Priestley and attempted to place every bit of it in its historical context. I suggest that this is unique...This is an intellectual biography, not a psychological personality study or a sociological history of middle-class Britain in the eighteenth century...Priestley was a man of the Enlightenment; he seems always to have maintained a decent reticence and did not display his emotions to public scrutiny. Only rarely, in correspondence or publications, did he express his feelings. Even his Memoirs dwell more on his friends, his benefactors, and his work than on himself. But intellectually is also how I see him. Priestley is important because of his ideas, and it is ideas that I chiefly describe and discuss."

External Links

  • Joseph Priestley Online
    • "Joseph Priestley Online features a Where to Start section, a Biography section, Research Resources section, images of the Priestley house, and web site links. Other areas of importance are: the Massive Bibliography section, places to access Priestley material, information on the Joseph Priestley House, information about David Hartley, and John Towill Rutt's works.