On This Day

Joseph Priestley

Chemist, Theologian and Author Joseph Priestley

Profession: Chemist, Theologian and Author

Nationality:
England
English

Why Famous: Born into a dissenting family who didn't confirm to the Church of England, Joseph Priestley remained a influential religious free thinker throughout his whole life and his religious unorthodoxy would play a large part in shaping his scientific inquiries.

Priestley initially became a minister and a teacher, publishing an important book on English Grammar in 1761. He then became interested in electricity and after encouragement from the visiting Benjamin Franklin began experiments on what he considered unanswered questions in the field. Priestley went on to discover 10 new gases including oxygen in 1774 which he called "dephlogisticated air" (now also considered independently co-discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele). He was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal as a result in 1773.

While travelling in Paris he met the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier and told him of his discoveries. Lavoisier went on realize the oxygen's central importance and gave it its name. Priestley disagreed with Lavoisier's findings and continued to defend his alternative Phlogiston theory.

In 1780 in Birmingham he became part of the Lunar Society, that included potter Josiah Wedgwood. Priestley designed a device to produce carbonated water for the first time in an effort to aid against disease.

Priestley's support of Unitarianism and support of the French Revolution led to heated opposition toward him in England and in 1791 a mob destroyed his house and he and his family fled to London. He later emigrated to America and settled in Pennsylvania where he lived until his death.

Born: March 24, 1733
Birthplace: Birstall, Yorkshire, England, Kingdom of Great Britain
Star Sign: Aries

Died: February 6, 1804 (aged 70)

Articles and Photos

Historical Events

  • 1774-08-01 English chemist Joseph Priestley discovers oxygen by isolating it in its gaseous state
  • 1791-07-14 The Priestley Riots drive Joseph Priestley, a supporter of the French Revolution, out of Birmingham, England
  • 1794-04-07 English chemist and theologian Joseph Priestley departs England for America on board Sansom at Gravesend

Biographies and Sources