Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Northumberland, Northumberland County
Author Joseph Priestley, often referred to as the Father of Modern Chemistry, lived in Northumberland from 1794 until his death in 1804.
Born on March 13 1733 in Birstall, England, Joseph Priestley is one of the outstanding scientists of the eighteenth century. During his life in England, Priestley published works about education reform in grammar and history studies, religious equality for Dissenters, and the scientific inquiries into the nature of dephlogisticated air, now known as oxygen. Priestley authored over one hundred and fifty texts articulating his intellectual investigations, which influenced philosophers over the next century. Forced to flee England in 1794, he spent the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, PA. Joseph Priestley died on February 6, 1804.
Joseph Priestley was born on March 13, 1733, to Calvinist parents Jonas and Mary in Birstall, County of York, England, the eldest of five children. His mother died in a subsequent childbirth during the winter of 1739—40, the year of the "Great Frost" in England. When his father remarried the following year, in 1741, young Joseph Priestley was sent to live with his father's sister at Heckmondwike. With his aunt determined to spoil her bright nephew academically—and thus avoid the family cloth making trade—Priestley flourished in the study of language and religion. As F.W. Gibbs relates in Joseph Priestley, "by the age of thirteen, Joseph had read most of [John] Bunyan's works and other religious books, as well as the familiar Latin authors, and he made a practice of writing out the sermons he heard." This early fascination with writing, both religious and secular, would define Priestley's later life.
Religious freedom was difficult for the Priestley family, as they were acknowledged Dissenters living under the authority of the Church of England. In The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley, Robert E. Schofield defines "Dissenters" as "not only nonconformist Protestants who could not conscientiously subscribe to the articles of the Anglican Church, but also Catholics, Jews, and Quakers." Because of their religious disagreement, Priestley and other Dissenter males were unable to attend the universities of the Church of England like Oxford or Cambridge. Instead he enrolled at the new Dissenter academy at Daventry in 1752. His education emphasized language and religion for the goal of later joining the ministry. Gibbs describes the incredible range of subjects Priestley studied: "in addition to his theological studies he was well versed in philosophy, had read fairly widely in history, mathematics, and science, and had acquired a working knowledge of six ancient and three modern languages.". However, despite these academic pursuits, Schofield's Enlightenment describes how Priestley's memoirs show a carefree student that enjoyed his spare time, including "evening parties at a private home, playing at crambo, cross-questions, or blindman's bluff with the daughters of the house and their guests...'feasts' in student rooms...and even horseplay in anatomy class." This ability to mix serious academics with his personality would enable future happiness in personal and public affairs.
In 1755, three years after arriving at Daventry Academy, Priestley left for Needham Market, Suffolk, where he was offered an assistant ministership to a congregation in a small, rural town. Priestley wanted either to start a school or to study further, but the location was unsuitable for both options due to dwindling parish numbers. In 1758, Priestley left Needham for Nantwich, Cheshire, where he would find a happier atmosphere that was not particular about the fine points of his Dissenter faith. While teaching the reading and writing of English, Priestley strongly objected to the lack of an authoritative grammar book. He was not interested in grammar's intricacies or the inflated language of writers like Samuel Johnson, but rather in the "typical" use of English. Consequently, Priestley authored his own grammar book, The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761). It included examples of devices of language, some of them humorous, including couplet lamenting marriage:
"Beneath this stone my wife doth lie: She's now at rest, and so am I."
During Priestley's lifetime, his grammar manual went through nine editions. Later cited by important grammarians like Englishman Lindley Murray and American Noah Webster, Priestley's work in Rudiments of English Grammar was one of the most influential linguistic observations of the eighteenth century.
With the success of this publication and his work at the Nantwich school, Warrington Academy, Cheshire, invited him to become a tutor in 1761. The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley tells that when Priestley left Nantwich, "he carried with him pleasant memories, useful experiences, and the manuscript of his book on grammar to launch him on the national scene as an educator" (86). He found many friends around his new home. Priestley was ordained a minister in 1762, partially out of concern for his future wife; he married Mary Wilkinson of Wrexham on June 23, 1762. The following year, in 1763, the couple had their first child, Sarah, named after Priestley's influential aunt. The Priestleys had three sons: Joseph, Jr., in 1768; William in 1771; and Henry in 1777.
At Warrington, Priestley continued his individual reform of education. As with his work in English grammar, he became absorbed in history, believing that a thorough history education would create an effective politics of citizenship for the developing generation. As a result, Priestley developed an extensive history course, resulting in his Lectures on History, and General Policy (1788). The material was published first as a course synopsis in 1765, then as an outline two decades later. To accompany his work on history, Priestly created A Chart of Biography (1765), a vast historical timeline that charted the lives of about 2000 names divided into six groups: Statesmen and Warriors; Divines and Metaphysicians; Mathematicians and Physicians; Poets and Artists; Orators and Critics; Historians and Antiquarians. The chart's impressive size and organization used chronology, biography, and geography to explain and contextualize history.
John McLachlan's article, "Joseph Priestley and the Study of History," is critical of Priestley's moral and religious view of history. He criticizes the chart's perspective as flawed because "it makes a leap of faith from past and present experience to a future which, pragmatically, is not only unsure, but remains unsubstantiated by observed fact and general human experience." McLachlan perceives a religious bias affecting a secular interpretation of history. However, despite this criticism, McLachlan does praise Priestley's ambitions as a "forerunner of the social historians," mentioning that he was "one of the first teachers to show real appreciation of social and cultural phenomena relating to everyday things and affecting the life of ordinary men and women." His sophisticated approaches that emphasized scope and context earned him respect in contemporary education studies.
The Warrington trustees, greatly impressed by his contributions to the English language and modern history education of their tutees, arranged for Priestley to receive an honorary degree. On December 4, 1764, the University of Edinburgh presented Joseph Priestly with the degree of Doctor of Laws. Rather than considering it a reward for his past endeavors, Priestley interpreted the degree as permission to continue his education reform. Encouraged by his history of human events, he considered undertaking a history of science. In Joseph Priestley, Gibbs points out the atypical nature of this proposed project, identifying it as an unusual historical task, for the subject itself was scarcely half a century old and many of the chief discoverers were still alive."
Under these circumstances, Priestley set out to meet the contemporary great men of science. He traveled to London and arrived at the house of John Canton, who introduced him to several budding scientists in the Royal Society, including Richard Price, William Watson, and the visiting Benjamin Franklin. After this initial meeting, Priestley and Franklin maintained an epistolary friendship throughout much of latter's life, including Priestley's support for the American Revolutionary War. The Royal Society scientists nominated Priestley for membership based on his manuscript drafts. He was elected into the Royal Society on June 12, 1766. The following year, Joseph Priestley published The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments (1767). The seven hundred page book was divided into two sections, with the first half for a history of the science and the second half for contemporary theories, including some of Priestley's own small discoveries. This complex text would serve as the standard for studying the history of electricity for the next century.
In 1767, Priestley moved his family from Warrington to Leeds, where he accepted a minister position at Mill-Hill Chapel. From his discussions with friends about the injustices to Dissenters, Priestley wrote Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768). The essay defended the rights of Dissenters to disagree with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, which defined Anglican Church doctrine. Priestley argued a distinction between political and civil liberties, believing that the English government should only control the public sphere and not dictate matters of education or religion. Because of his defense against the English crown, Priestley's religious beliefs were quite controversial. His next major text, Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (1772-74), continued this religious contention. The three-volume work explained Priestley's outlook on religious instruction. However, Gibbs's Joseph Priestley describes the complicated reception to the text, saying that "it played an important part, not only in the Unitarian movement, but also in the attacks that eventually drove [Priestley] from England." The volumes encouraged a re-evaluation of the roots of religious belief, similar to that of the Protestant Reformation.
At Leeds, Priestley's further experiments with electricity led to his study of light and vision. He published a critical approach to these fields, titled History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colours (1772). This text was intended as the first volume of the history of experimental philosophy, with the next subject to be magnetism. However, because this book was not nearly as popular as his prior history of electricity, Priestley abandoned the rest of the project. An unexpected result of his study of light was an invitation to be the astronomer aboard the second voyage of Captain James Cook. Although he initially accepted the offer, some members of the Board of Longitude objected to Priestley's candidacy because of his Dissenter beliefs. While he remained in Leeds rather than on Cook's ship, Priestley's thoughts traveled to the potential experiences of the sailors. He developed an interest in creating "soda water," which was thought to prevent scurvy for sailors on long voyages. By combining science with invention, Priestley devised an apparatus to "impregnate" water with fixed air (carbon dioxide), creating soda water. His pamphlet, Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air (1772), explained the carbonation process, including his experiments with a shallow dish of water placed over a vat in a brewery. Although Priestley's interests were not beyond scientific inquiry, J.J. Schweppe and other businessmen would eventually develop soda water for commercial profit.
In recognition for his scholarship on science and history, William Petty, the Second Earl of Shelburne, offered Priestley a position in his service. The duties included tending Shelburne's growing library, supervising the tutoring of the Earl's two sons, and collecting papers about information discussed in Parliament. The proposition publicly appeared as employment but quietly doubled as patronage for further scientific discoveries. In December 1772, Priestley resigned his position as minister at Mill-Hill Chapel. The following year, in 1773, he accepted Shelburne's offer, agreeing to a town house near Shelburne House in Berkeley Square and a house and laboratory on the Bowood estate at Calne, in Wiltshire. While here, the Royal Society awarded Priestley the Copley Medal, an annual medal for outstanding scientific achievement, for his papers about water and air on November 30, 1773.
For several months of 1774-75, Priestley travelled with Shelburne throughout the European continent, staying in Holland, Germany, and France. While in Paris, Priestley first met Antoine Lavoisier, a French noble well versed in chemistry and biology. Here, Priestley repeated some of his new experiments about dephlogisticated air. His discovery sparked international interest; other scientists, particularly Lavoisier, continued Priestley's research into this new discipline.
In addition to these scientific investigations, Priestley remained active in the English religious debate, particularly against the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Unwilling to remain in bad conscience, Theophilus Lindsey, a close friend of Joseph Priestley, seceded from the Church of England and proposed a new faith that would place arbitrary limitations on its members. To raise money for Lindsey, Priestley and his friends organized a subscription for expenses, found a chapel location, and filed the registration papers. On April 17, 1774, Lindsey opened the first Unitarian chapel in England. A proud Dissenter, Priestley worshipped at the new chapel when he was in the area. As described in Schofield's The Enlightened Joseph Priestley, "during the time he spent in London in Shelburne's service, he attended the chapel nearly every Sunday and usually spent that evening with the Lindseys." As a defense and subtle recruitment for this new faith, Priestley anonymously published "Letter to a Layman, on the Subject of the Rev. Mr. Lindsey's proposal for a Reformed English Church," which argued that only the form of religion had changed, not the content.
During this decade (1770s), Priestley authored a series of metaphysical treatises, one of which was The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated (1777). In these texts, he argued for "philosophical necessity," which enabled materialism to agree with religious belief. Philosophical Necessity claimed that humans have no free will; instead, the God-created laws of causality dictate man's mind. Because of this divine influence, man will eventually be perfected. Although it attempts to bridge materialism with religion, Philosophical Necessity contains an inherent paradox for the materialist-reformer. Priestley both "claimed mankind to be the passive product of circumstances" and preached "active intervention in controlling and changing circumstances," as Isaac Kramnick notices in his article, "Eighteenth-Century Science and Radical Social Theory." Despite this paradox, the determinism of these metaphysical works would later influence philosophers like Herbert Spencer's "survival of the fittest" and Immanuel Kant's transcendental determinism.
At the end of this productive decade, Priestley and Shelburne had a falling out for unknown reasons. Priestley initially considered a move to America, but decided to accept a minister position at New Meeting in Birmingham. In July 1780, the Priestley family began their move to Birmingham. While working as a preacher, Priestley's scientific experiments earned him an invitation into the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a provincial group of natural philosophers and manufacturers. Schofield describes the Lunar Society as an "extraordinary collection of people" in his article, "The Industrial Orientation of Science in the Lunar Society of Birmingham." The Lunar Society took its name from its full moon meeting dates—the bright light of a full moon enabled the safest walk home. The group included physician Erasmus Darwin and chemist James Keir, with Priestley's friend Benjamin Franklin as an occasional visitor and Antoine Lavoisier as a regular correspondent. Despite his active involvement with such intellectuals, Priestley witnessed his downfall in science when his relationship with Lavoisier turned into a competition—and a chemical revolution.
As described in The Enlightened Joseph Priestley by Robert E. Schofield, Lavoisier, the primary architect of the Chemical Revolution, "defined a new theory of combustion in opposition to that of phlogiston." His formal attack against the alchemical phlogiston theory supported by Priestley began in 1777 with the publication of Sur la Combustion en G??n??ral [On Combustion in General], which studied how certain metals increased in weight when burned. Through his experiments, Lavoisier replaced the idea of "dephlogisticated air" with a theory around "oxygen," an "element" that he defined as a substance that could not be broken down into components. Lavoisier's elemental chemistry explained the growing anomalies within Priestley's phlogiston theory, creating what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn describes as a "paradigm shift" in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An important consequence of this paradigm shift is the complete and irrevocable change of scientific thought; anyone that still accepted phlogiston, like Priestley, could not be taken seriously. Although he would continue to defend it, Priestley's phlogiston theory--and his scientific reputation--dramatically disappeared in light of elemental chemistry.
During the 1780s in Birmingham, the Priestley family enjoyed a peaceful early decade that eventually witnessed dangerous mob violence. While he was still engaged with fellow scientists, Priestley primarily spend the decade writing controversial theological texts. Two of his incendiary writings were the pamphlet The Importance and Extent of Free Enquiry (1785) and the four volume An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786). In the pamphlet, Priestley argued that the relatively recent Reformation had not effectively reformed the Church, so future changes were still necessary. In the four volume study, Priestley wrote several controversial arguments, one of which rejected the Doctrine of the Trinity. While encouraging these religious reforms, he also voiced encouragement for the recent revolutions in America and France. After several failed attempts to repeal the anti-Dissenter legislation in Parliament, Joseph Priestley and his fellow Dissenters came under suspicion for a potential revolution in England. Political cartoons depicted Priestley as "Gunpowder Joe," one of the leaders of the suspected revolution. The tension escalated through the end of the decade.
Priestley and several acquaintances decided to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille at a hotel on July 14, 1791. When word of this explicit celebration of the French Revolution spread throughout the local county, which feared revolution, a riot mob gathered outside the hotel. Fortunately, friends persuaded Priestley, the figurehead of the pro-revolution gathering, to remain at home. However, once the mob gathered, local officials were unable to control the escalating violence. After attacking diners leaving the hotel, the Birmingham rioters burned the Old Meeting and New Meeting churches and several Dissenters' houses to the ground. Unable to return to Birmingham amid such violence, Priestley and his family turned down several offers to live in France and instead settled at Hackney. The Priestleys spent three years in Hackney, but their lives were full of difficulty and stress. Shortly before the 1794 Treason Trials, which likely would have arrested and tried him for high treason, Priestley moved his family to America.
After an eight week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the Priestleys landed in New York City. No longer interested in being a political celebrity in the new country, Priestley was determined to settle quietly in the countryside of Northumberland, Pennsylvania. During the first years in Northumberland, Priestley travelled several times to nearby Philadelphia, where he visited several Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. On one of these journeys, Priestley met with the influential trustees at the University of Pennsylvania. Even though his phlogiston theory died the previous decade, Priestly was unanimously elected chemistry chair at UPenn in 1794, an opportunity which he turned down.
Although he desired to live a quiet life in the Northumberland countryside, Priestley suffered political scandals and family tragedies during the late 1790s. He was accused of revolutionary plans again, which he denied in print. One of Priestley's sons, Henry, died in 1795; his wife died the following year in 1796. With increased spare time, Priestley reinvested himself in adolescent education, helping found the Northumberland Academy and donating his impressive library to it. His educational aspirations also included theorizing about the structure of a university. Priestley corresponded about a proper university with Thomas Jefferson, who based his University of Virginia around these discussed principles. No longer intimately connected to European scientific discoveries, his scientific writings defending the debunked phlogiston theory did generate interest in the sciences in the young country.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Priestley grew increasingly ill and no longer published writings or attempted experiments. At the age of 70, Joseph Priestley died on February 6, 1804 in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
Priestley's scientific legacy remains to this day, particularly at the academic institutions he influenced. Two educational institutions in England bear the Priestley name, Priestley College in Warrington and Joseph Priestley College in Leeds. His academic achievements also have been recognized in the United States. In 1922, the American Chemical Society named its highest award the Priestley Medal. Dickinson College of Cumberland County has presented the Priestley Medal to a top scientist since 1952. Reflecting archival work of the past century, the Pennsylvania State University Special Collections Library houses the Joseph Priestley Collection, a catalogue of over three hundred texts, including manuscripts of his personal memoirs and public writings.
The Rudiments of English Grammar. London: R. Griffiths, 1761.
A Chart of Biography. Warrington, EN: W. Eyres, 1765.
The History and Present State of Electricity. London: J. Johnson, 1767.
Essay on the First Principles of Government. London: J. Johnson, 1768.
History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colours. London: J. Johnson, 1772.
Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (three volumes). London: J. Johnson, 1772—74.
Lectures on History, and General Policy. Birmingham, EN: J. Johnson, 1788.
Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (six volumes). London: J. Johnson, 1774—77.
The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated. London: J. Johnson, 1777.
"An Account of Further Discoveries in Air." Philosophical Transactions 65 (1775): 384—94.
"Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air." London: J. Johnson, 1772.
"Letter to a Layman, on the Subject of the Rev. Mr. Lindsey's Proposal for a Reformed English Church." London: J. Wilkie, 1774.
Gibbs, F.W. Joseph Priestley, Adventurer in Science and Champion of Truth. London: Nelson, 1965.