Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist

2012-05-17 08.43.00

I was in Leeds a few weeks ago attending a seminar held in the Queens hotel nest to the railway station. Across the road there’s a very grand building which at one time was the central post office. In front of the building there was a public square where there were a number of statues. It was quite common in the 19th Century for cities to honour notable citizens, often contemporary politicians, many of whom are now forgotten. So I was pleased to see that one of the statues in the square was of one of my heroes, Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist.

Priestley, who was born in in Birstall, near Batley, which is a few miles from Leeds, in 1703, is probably best remembered for being one of the discoverers of oxygen (it was discovered independently by the Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele). He was actually a clergyman – not in the Church of England, he was a Unitarian, and a “rational dissenter”, who rejected mysticism and emphasised the rational analysis of the natural world and the Bible.

As an amateur scientist he wrote a history of electricity and conducted chemical experiments that led to his discovery in 1774 of what he called “dephlogisticated air” which we now know as oxygen (named by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier). His other innovations included the invention of soda water.


He was a political radical and supporter of the American and French revolutions, opposing slavery, promoting religious tolerance. He was also an educational theorist arguing for a more practical curriculum more relevant to contemporary society, with students studying English and the modern languages instead of the classical languages, practical mathematics, modern rather than ancient history, and the constitution and laws of England.

He moved to Birmingham in 1780 where he became an active member of the Lunar Society alongside James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgewood.

While he was living in Birmingham, on 14 July 1791, the  second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Priestley and several other Dissenters had arranged to have a celebratory dinner. This was used by opponents to stir up a mob leading to 3 days of riots. Priestley’s house was attacked and set on fire.

Fleeing Birmingham he moved to London, living in Hackney where political and religious dissent was more accepted. He emigrated to America in 1794 and died there in 1804.