Thursday, 9 August 2007

Belated Georgian Item of the Week

Scientists: Joseph Priestley 1733 - 1804

Joseph Priestley
circa 1801
Rembrandt Peale
The Trout Gallery Dickinson College, PA

A native of West Yorkshire, Joseph Priestley was a natural philosopher, chemist, educator and Dissenting clergyman, and he is credited with the discovery of the existence of oxygen. A clergyman-chemist, Priestley called the gas he discovered, "dephlogisticated air." It was French physicist Antoine Lavoisier, a great admirer of Priestley’s, who named it oxygen. Priestley, a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, experimented with electricity before turning his attention to chemistry in the early 1770s. His other discoveries include hydrochloric acid, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and sulfur dioxide, and he invented soda water.

Priestley’s contributions to education were as important as those to science. He was the first British educator to insist on the value of modern history as a subject and that a thorough understanding of history was necessary not only to worldly success but also to spiritual growth. Priestley was innovative in the teaching and description of English grammar, particularly his efforts to disassociate it from Latin grammar, and the founder of the first liberal arts curriculum. He communicated with Thomas Jefferson regarding the proper organization of a university and when Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, it was Priestley's curricular principles that dominated the school. No wonder it’s so awesome.

Priestley helped found the Unitarian church and was a supporter of the French Revolution, and due to his nonconformist views, in 1791 a mob destroyed his house and laboratory in Birmingham. This episode and subsequent troubles made him decide to emigrate to the United States, where he died in 1804 in Pennsylvania. His house on Priestley Avenue, Northumberland PA, with the first scientific laboratory in America, may still be visited

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