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Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley (March 13, 1733-February 6, 1804) was an English chemist, clergyman, and educator.

He was born in Birstall parish, 6 miles from Leeds, Yorkshire. He learned a variety of languages, both classical and modern, in his youth, including several Semitic languages; he also studied what was then called "natural history."

In 1751 he entered Daventry, a school under Nonconformist auspices, and there his religious views took shape. He became an adherent of Arianism. In September, 1755, he started as a parish minister in Surrey, though he was not officially ordained until May 18, 1762. Because he stammered and the parish was not suited to his heterodox ideas, nor did they want a bachelor for their minister, he was unpopular in his Surrey parish and he ultimately went to Nantwich, Cheshire. He established a private school in connection with the church in Nantwich where hepreached, and derived his income from that school.

Subsequently he went to Warrington, the biggest of the dissenting academies in England, as a tutor in belles-lettres. By this time his religious ideas had matured to a form of Unitarianism, Socinianism. At Warrington, he associated with other liberal-minded tutors and found an intelligent printer, William Eyres, willing to publish Priestley's work. It was here that he published his grammar book in 1761 (a remarkably liberal grammar for its day) and other books on history and educational theory. He taught anatomy and astronomy and led field trips for his students to collect fossils and botanical specimens. Both modern history and the sciences were subjects which had not been taught in any schools before Priestley.

On June 23, 1762, Priestley married Mary Wilkinson of Wrexham, and by September, 1767 the combination of his finances and her health caused him to relocate to Leeds. He there took charge of the Mill Hill congregation until December 1772. Then he was hired by William Petty, Lord Shelburne, as his personal librarian, and stayed in that post until 1780.

He discovered oxygen (though a previous discovery by Karl Wilhelm Scheele, independently made, has actual priority), though he never recognized it as an element. He named the new gas (which he had generated by heating red mercuric oxide with a 'burning lens') 'de-phlogisticated air', in accordance with the Phlogiston theory which held at the time.

He came to the United States in June, 1794, seeking political and religious freedom, and although never being naturalized, lived in Pennsylvania the rest of his life.



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