Joseph Priestly: Radical Thinker in Chemistry International

Joseph Priestley

May 1, 2005 - New York, NY

by Mary Ellen Bowden

Although Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) is best remembered for his contributions to chemistry, his many pursuits included theology, politics, education, and several areas of scientific inquiry. At the entrance to the exhibit, an air pump (on loan from the Franklin Institute) that belonged to Priestley when he lived in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, from 1794 to 1804, serves as a reminder of his fame as a natural philosopher. But nearby representations of a dozen or so of Priestley’s friends and foes give the visitor an early indication of Priestley’s importance in eighteenth-century politics and religion as well.

A portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, one of the two other contenders for title of “discoverer” of oxygen, is mounted on a wall near images and items related to members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and founders of the Industrial Revolution. Their ranks include Matthew Boulton and James Watt as well as Josiah Wedgwood, who is represented by his famous jasperware plaques and a commemorative plate.

A portrait of King George III’s prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, is included because he was one of Priestley’s most resolute political foes. In one display case, Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, volume I (1774), open to its dedication page, acknowledges the patronage from 1773 to 1780 of another politician, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne. Great political thinkers were among Priestley’s sparring partners, including Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, who, as different as their theories were from each other, were once Priestley’s admirers but eventually became his foes. Jeremy Bentham, another political theorist, once wrote that he owed to Priestley the famous phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

Priestley’s fame and influence in America preceded his arrival there by decades. He maintained personal friendships with both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams from the days when those men were American diplomats in London (though his relationship with Adams soured over time). Priestley’s writings on religion, politics, education, and natural philosophy were well known to many more Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and various ministers leaning towards Unitarianism, as well as those religious leaders who were scandalized by doubts raised by Priestley concerning the divinity of Jesus.

In the main exhibit area beckon the brass and glass of Priestley’s career as a natural philosopher. On loan from Dickinson College, a reflecting telescope, microscope, surveyor’s compass, and voltaic pile (thought to be a gift from Alessandro Volta to Priestley) immediately alert the viewer that Priestley thoroughly pursued several sciences other than chemistry. His History and Present State of Electricity (1767), inspired by Benjamin Franklin, was Priestley’s first book in the sciences...

This stretch of the exhibit is particularly enriched by a dozen eighteenth-century political cartoons given some years ago to the Chemical Heritage Foundation by Derek Davenport, professor emeritus of chemistry at Purdue University. In one cartoon, Priestley—with characteristic pointy nose and curly wig—breathes fire from a pulpit occupied by three Unitarian ministers. In another, he leads a toast with a chalice and calls for King George’s head to be placed on the empty Communion plate that he bears. In still another, he consoles the king, who is about to be beheaded, that by his execution he is doing a great service to the nation.

Like today’s political buttons, here, too, are medals lent by Roy Olofson, professor emeritus of chemistry at Pennsylvania State Uni-versity. Commissioned by friends and foes, these medals show Priestley as a scion of democratic ideals or a threat to public safety...

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