Joseph Priestley: Life and Legacy

An extract from the foreward to the Priestley Society publication 'Joseph Priestley a celebration of his life and legacy'. Read about and order publications here.

Front cover of the Priestley Society's second Publication, Joseph Priestley: Life and Legacy

Priestley’s earliest claim to greatness is in the field of education. As a young graduate from the dissenter’s Academy at Daventry, he opened a private school in Nantwich, where the education was so enlightened that it began to attract attention over a wide area. After three years he was recruited as a tutor to Warrington Academy, which emerged as the leading nonconformist college in England. Over a period of six years, Priestley so modernised and improved education there, that Warrington became the finest centre of educational excellence in the known world, outstripping even those theological university establishments of Oxford and Cambridge. The globes that Priestley designed for teaching geography and astronomy, terrestrial and celestial respectively, are now in Harris Manchester College Oxford, and described here in these pages. In his postgraduate studies, Britain’s only Priestley PhD scholar, Dr Norman Rose, concludes that Priestley greatly surpassed all other authors in the English speaking world combined, and that his achievements on education alone would qualify him for the BBC’s Greatest Briton Ever.

Priestley’s discovery of the element-of-life oxygen is legendary. What is not well known, however, except to historians of science, is that he also made fundamental experimental discoveries and inventions in many other areas of chemistry and related sciences. Besides oxygen, he discovered and characterized nine other gases, including the oxides of nitrogen and carbon, and ammonia. It has often been stated that his discovery of oxygen, and later nitrous oxide, the first anaesthetic, was a landmark in medicine. Priestley is recognised as a founder of modern medicine; he discovered that dark venous blood turns bright red in the presence of oxygen and that the process is reversible, and went on to explain the role of the blood in oxygen transport and even proposed that the body’s use of oxygen and the oxidation of metals were similar phenomena. Priestley’s curiosity of the new element oxygen led to his discovery of the process of photosynthesis and the production of oxygen by plant life. In 1768, Priestley deduced and published Coulomb’s law of electrostatic forces 20 years before Coulomb; he discovered the electrical conductivity of charcoal, and he established the connection between electricity and chemical reactions when he decomposed ammonia with electricity, 70 years before Faraday.

If Newton and Darwin were Britain’s founding fathers of Physics and Biology, respectively, Joseph Priestley was surely Britain’s founding father of Chemistry. On the scientific criterion alone, why, we might ask the Royal Mint, is not Joseph Priestley up there as a great Briton alongside Newton (£1 note) and Darwin (£10 note) and Faraday (£20 note)? In Appendix III we see that Britain’s founding father of Chemistry was indeed commemorated on Britain’s coinage, two halfpenny tokens. The first shows Priestley hanging from a gibbet for his alleged support for a British-style French revolution, and the second shows him as the head of a snake, responsible for attempting to burn down the House of Commons. Both implied allegations were, of course, without foundation.

In religion, Priestley played a key role in recognising and publicising that the basis of religious discrimination is power and control of peoples’ lives, and exaltation of religious leaders. Priestley recognised that the degeneration of religions was more to do with perpetuation of power and corruption of principles, than theology. His reconciliation of different religions, advocacy of the separation of Church and State, call for the abolition of religious dogma, and foundation of Unitarianism, were major advancements in the history of religion. The First Unitarian church of Philadelphia originated in a series of sermons Priestley gave in that city and marked the beginning of Unitarianism in North America. Priestley’s contribution to religion, would also qualify his candidacy for one of the greatest Britons.

Yet, it is the political legacy of Joseph Priestley that puts him up there above Churchill; it has been of immense consequence in the USA; the country we must thank for victory in two world wars of the 20th Century. In 1768 Priestley published his Essay on the First Principles of Government and on the Nature of Civil Political and Religious Liberty. A year later, in 1769, he wrote On the present state of Civil and Religious Liberty in Great Britain and her Colonies. In the preface to the first Essay, he lamented that there was no nation in the world whose government satisfied the principles he advocated. Just eight years later came the American Declaration of Independence, and the nation of states, with the civil, political and religious liberties that Priestley had so precisely described, became the reality. His political ideas on the importance of separation of Church and State, civil liberty, and the concept of a Supreme Court appointed by elected representatives, for example, were accepted by the Founding Fathers of the United States and enshrined into the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In the following pages of the Bicentennial Commemorative Collection, the Priestley Society bring a new dimension of truthfulness, in the spirit of Priestley himself, to the recognition and celebration of his life and the promotion of his ideals. The Priestley heritage trail begins, in West Yorkshire. This Bicentennial Commemorative Collection hopefully, will be seen as a landmark in the beginning of the re-establishment and reconciliation of Joseph Priestley, as a British patriot and ‘Citizen of the World’ (see APPENDIX III). 2004 marks the beginning of a campaign by the Priestley Society to educate the people of Great Britain, and the wider international community.

Henceforth, March 13th has been designated Priestley Day in West Yorkshire. July 4th will also mark an annual celebration, not just in the United States. For the first time in 2004, as described in these pages, we saw American Independence celebrated in the United Kingdom. We hope also that the first Priestley Society July 4th Annual Lecture, presented by Priestley’s descendent Dr. Priestley Toulmin, and published here, will become an annual thank-you to Joseph Priestley for his great achievements and for his unique contribution to the civilisation of humanity.

Les Woodcock: Chairman of the Priestley Society, July 4th 2005