By classifying oxygen in 1774, Joseph Priestley solved the mystery behind how and why things burn. British by birth, he was involved deeply in religion, politics, and science.
However, his outright support for the French and American revolutions made his stay in England dangerous and unbearable.
Consequently, he left his homeland for good and settled down in the US, where he continued his work till he died.
Between that time, Joseph Priestley etched his name in history by becoming one of the most famous chemists of all time!
If you want to know more about how he accomplished that, keep reading:
A Brief Biography
Born in Yorkshire, England, on 24th March 1733, Priestley moved in with his grandfather at the age of one. On his mother's passing, he finally returned home.
However, he was soon sent away again because his father had remarried. This time Priestley moved in with his aunt.
Childless and wealthy, Aunt Sarah adored the boy a lot. It was she who noted how intelligent and intellectually advanced Priestley was.
She sent him to the best educational institutions and became keen to enter him into the religious order.
Though Joseph Priestley's parents belonged to the Separatist belief system, his aunt indoctrinated him into Calvinism.
He began questioning his religious principles when he got seriously sick. By the age of 16, Priestley strongly believed that he should move to Christianity if he wants to save his soul. However, he was so ill that he feared he wouldn't last long enough to make the conversion.
Although Priestley survived the illness, his views on religion took a severe blow. Although even after being disappointed by it, he decided to continue his religious education.
He was pretty inspired by David Hartley's book "Observations on Man" and was a staunch follower of his beliefs.
The book entirely revolutionized his thinking about philosophy, psychology, and religion. From then on, Joseph Priestley dedicated his entire life proving religion from science.
To attain this objective, he eventually joined the ministry!
Religion, Politics, Philosophy, And Joseph Priestley
For almost all famous chemists in history, including Alexander Fleming, their discoveries had nothing to do with their religious beliefs, unlike Joseph Priestley, who joined this profession to prove "religion."
The only problem with his beliefs was that they were unacceptable and intolerable to academia and the scientific fraternity.
Priestley's first assignment from the Daventry Academy was quite unpalatable, and most of his congregants detested his views. As a result, many stopped visiting the church and donating.
Things became even worse: Priestley's aunt, who had pledged to support him on every front, pulled her support completely when she found out that he didn't believe in Calvinism — a branch of Protestantism!
Eventually, he was fired from the post. Some three years later, he got another position. But this time, congregations didn't focus much on his beliefs and values, mainly because he disguised them better!
Compared to his previous position, Priestley was far more productive here. He established one school where he taught natural philosophy classes — something he had wanted to do for a while.
He purchased scientific equipment and formed a laboratory to get students to be more enthralled by the source material and to make lessons engaging
In this laboratory, he penned his groundbreaking work "The Rudiments of English Grammar." The work was so powerful that it even attracted scholars and professors of the "Warrington Academy."
The Academy offered him a post, and then Priestley's life as a chemist truly took off!
And unlike the English chemist Rosalind Franklin – who was ignored, despite determining the molecular structures of RNA, DNA, viruses, graphite, and coal – Priestley became the talk of the town in religious, political to scientific circles!
The Discovery Of Oxygen
With its intellectual and academic atmosphere, Warrington Academy was famously known as the Athens of the North. It was here that Joseph Priestley's intellect was best-received.
He lectured many classes on anatomy while pursuing his natural science studies. His continuing work led to him writing a comprehensive book on electricity, aided by his colleagues' extensive network at the Warrington Academy.
In one of the meetings with this network mentioned above, he met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged Joseph Priestley to start experimenting.
By 1774, Joseph Priestley published several books on theology, politics, history, philosophy, and, obviously, science.
When he published one of his first chemistry works, "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air," academics rushed to buy their copies.
The book perplexed academia. As some believed the work is designed for chemists, while others said that it addressed physics questions instead.
Some even went further to call it a blatant warning for politicians about academic and scientific advances.
Irrespective of how the first volume was received, it outlined monumental chemistry discoveries:
- Nitrous Oxide – in his first volume, he called it Nitric Air
- Anhydrous hydrogen chloride (AHCL)
- Ammonia (NH3) – alkaline air
- Nitrous Oxide – dephlogisticated air
- Oxygen – dephlogisticated air
This "Dephlogisticated air" was entirely new for him, but he had little time to probe further as he left for his European tour.
Upon arriving in France, he experimented again, but this time with a famous local chemist, Antoine Lavoisier. Both Joseph and Antoine started experimenting further on this "new" air.
The eureka moment was when he produced a minute quantity of the new air by focusing hot rays of the sun on a mercury oxide block (solid at room temp).
Later on, he tested this air on mice, and contrary to most expectations, including his, the mice didn't die. He took some whiffs himself and concluded that the new air helps breathe better and burn better.
These discoveries became part of "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air." Priestley linked these outstanding chemistry discoveries with religion in the preface – staying true to why he was in this line of work.
He was always organized and would log most of his experiences; in fact, he recorded every major scientific puzzlement of the world in his second volume. However, he chose to leave aside the profound implications of discovering oxygen for his next volume (1777).
This is why it's very tough to indefinitely classify who discovered "oxygen" first. Though both German-Swedish chemist Carl Scheele and French chemist Antoine Lavoisier could claim the discovery – and records do show that Carl Scheele was the first chemist who isolated the gas.
However, he published his papers after Joseph Priestley. Moreover, it was Antoine Lavoisier who identified "oxygen" as a purified air.
The Final Years
Joseph Priestley arrived at a few more significant conclusions, such as the fact that "oxygen is essential to blood."
After a few years, Antoine Lavoisier had presented a detailed paper on this very topic, which is accredited with disproving the "Phlogiston theory."
The Phlogiston theory postulates that there is one fire-like element included in the combustible elements, which is discharged during burning.
Joseph Priestley was a massive proponent of this theory despite the fact it was largely disbelieved. With Antoine Lavoisier's thorough work, the theory was officially flawed.
This obtuseness of Priestley came at a cost; he lost his credibility in front of the global scientific community. Once considered a great mind, he was now reviled by ordinary people and barely tolerated by academics.
Joseph Priestley even had a falling out with his patron Lord Shelburn. Though the reasons aren't known, Priestley was no longer invited to the philosophical, academic, scientific, and religious circles because of this. Without any patronage, he had no choice but to abandon the town.
Priestley relocated with his entire family to Birmingham. There, he lived ten happy years until his views and opinions got the better of his new town as well.
Joseph Priestley's rigid views on politics and religion didn't fit well with the ordinary folk of Birmingham. As a result, they rose against him, staging frequent protests.
Things got ugly when protesters turned violent, and the infamous Priestley Riots of 1791 took place. At the constant request of close friends, he and his family fled to America, where they spent the rest of their lives.
Unlike many other renowned chemists such as Louis Pasteur, Priestley got a lot of stick for his views; however, he stuck by them. Though some contend he is more famous for pedagogy than scientific achievements.
Nevertheless, Joseph Priestley was more than just a famous chemist; his philosophy was also equally impactful.
Additionally, most of his philosophical ideas revolved around John Stuart and Herbert Spencer's Utilitarian philosophy.
Become A Revered Chemist Like Joseph Priestley
Although he was vilified for his opinions, Joseph Priestley was a scientific messiah at the height of his work.
His discoveries have shaped the world as we know it and have inspired an entire generation to pursue chemistry. And if you are part of the crowd inspired to become a chemist, you must gain exceptional tutelage.
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