Happy Birthday Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

Well before The Royal Society Chemistry was founded its ideals were carried out by a chemist whose figure is still today pictured in the badge worn by the RSC President. Joseph Priestley, whose figure stands in the middle of the spoked wheel of the badge, is remembered this year in the anniversary of his 280th birthday. 

He is mostly know for his discover of oxygen, but he was also a premium science communicator, and his role in the development of science as part of public culture has been fundamental. His approach to formal and informal education was very practical and he always promoted experiments and first-hand experience to truly understand phenomena.

The RSC is celebrating Priestley's birthday with a public lecture, an exhibition of his books ion the library in Burlington House and an online exhibition.

RSC president badge of office

A true polimath
Priestley was born on 24 March 1733 (actually, we was born on the 13, but that is settled in the dating system that preceded the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1751) only few miles from Leeds. He was the eldest of six children and when his mother died at 9 years old he was sent to live with his father’s sister, in Yorkshire. Aunt Sarah grew him as her own child and wanted for him the best possible education, they were of dissenting faith and he was hoping to become a Minister and eventually succeeded after graduating from Daventry Academy. 

In his early twenties he was already an accomplished scholar: he had been undertaking a lot of independent works and, beyond his theological studies, he was trained in philosophy and history, mathematics and science, and mastered six ancient and three modern languages. He became assistant minister at Needham Market, Suffolk and then in 1758 he took a ministry at Nantwich, Cheshire. He was promoting new educational ideas and they were soon going to influence the whole education system in the Dissenting Academies. The curriculum was not built around the classics and the training for ministry only, it was very important to teach subjects that could come in handy to all those students who were going to start a career in commerce or industry. 

With his hard work and his impressive success as a tutor soon became well known, and the famous Warrington Academy was now considering him again for a position. He was introduced to John Cantor and through him he  made further acquaintances in the scientific world, mainly at the Royal Society. He started a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin and started a new scientific career. He soon produced important works such as The History and Present State of Electricity, with original Experiments (1767) and On Air (1772). The former became the definitive textbook for researchers well into the XIX century and set the basis for the great advances in electricity subsequently made by researchers such as Volta, Davy and Faraday. Thanks to the article Different Kinds of Air published (1773) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, he was awarded the Copley Medal, the greatest scientific acknowledgment of the time.

In 1780 Priestley became minister at the New Meeting chapel in Birmingham, probably the most liberal congregations of England. Here he spent a lot of time with the other members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, including James Watt, Matthew Boulton, James Keir, and Erasmus. Darwin. They were fighting for the same causes, and Priestley became more and more prominent in religious and political controversies, supporting the causes of American independence and the abolition of slavery, urging the repeal of discriminatory legislation and later supporting the revolutionaries in France. 

There were some powerful reactions to non-conformity and radicalism and, being identified as the icon of radicalism, Priestley became hated and unpopular. On 14 July 1791 an angry mob destroyed his house, laboratory and chapels in those that are remembered as the Birmingham Riots. His family and him were no longer safe there and were obliged to flee, they took refuge in London, and eventually left the country. 

In America he kept working and updating his science bestsellers and it was to him that Thomas Jefferson turned for advice for the soon to be opened University of Virginia. He died in Northumberland on 6 February 1804 at 71 years old, and he is buried there in the Riverview Cemetery.

A great scientist, a great communicator
His science career is well known and celebrated, but it must not be forgotten than beyond being a brilliant chemist, he was also a fiery minister, a radical politician, a diligent historian and a passionate teacher. Priestley’s books have been largely responsible for creating the widespread public interest in scientific phenomena and the effectiveness of his way of communicating enhanced his reputation as a public figure of science and culture. He was one of the first tutors to teach experimental science to schoolchildren and his pivotal role as a public figure and author helped the diffusion of his educational ideas. 

He introduced new teaching styles, produced wall charts as visual aids and had his lectures printed for the benefit of his pupils. He represented the apotheosis of the Eighteenth-century enlightened man and surely deserved his place on the RSC president badge.

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