A Brief Biography of Joseph Priestley

By Tim Lambert

His Early Life

Joseph Priestley was a great chemist of the 18th century. Priestley was born in Yorkshire on 24 March 1733. He was one of 6 children. Joseph could not go to university because he was a dissenter (a Protestant who did not belong to the Church of England). Instead in 1752, he went to Daventry Academy. Priestley graduated in 1755 and he became assistant to a minister at a dissenting chapel in Needham Market in Suffolk. In 1758 Joseph Priestley became minister of a dissenting chapel in Nantwich in Cheshire. He opened a school there.

In 1761 Priestley was offered a job at Warrington Academy. The same year he published his first book, The Rudiments of English Grammar. Then in 1762, Joseph Priestley married a woman named Mary Wilkinson. They had a daughter named Sarah in 1763. In 1767 Priestley published his first scientific work, a book called The History of Electricity.

The same year, 1767 he became minister of a dissenting chapel in Leeds. In 1768 Priestley had a son called Joseph. He had a son called William in 1771. A third son, Henry.

The Great Scientist

Meanwhile, in the 1770s, Priestley experimented with gases. He discovered 8 new gases including oxygen, which he discovered in 1774.

Then in 1780, Joseph Priestley moved to Birmingham. However, Priestley was a controversial figure because of his unorthodox religious views. (Priestley did not believe that Jesus was the son of God). When the French Revolution began in 1789 Priestley was a firm supporter. However, on 14 July 1791 royalists in Birmingham rioted. They did extensive damage including burning Priestley’s home. Fortunately, Joseph Priestley escaped without being harmed and in 1794 he moved to the USA.

Priestley settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania but his wife died in 1796. Joseph Priestley died on 6 February 1804.

There is a crater on the Moon named after Priestley.