Joseph Priestley: Biography, Contributions & Experiments

Instructor: Dana Fernandez

Dana has taught pre-kindergarten and first grade. She has a master’s degree in English as a Second Language.

In this lesson, you will gain basic knowledge of Joseph Priestley. The lesson will provide a brief biography of his life, some of his contributions and his experiments that influenced many people.

Joseph Priestley

Take a deep breath in. Now release. What did you just breath in? Oxygen or air of course. We were taught this from a very young age. You breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, but who actually thought of who discovered these gases and how they were related. Joseph Priestley discovered the gas known as oxygen, and helped in the correspondence of respiration, but he also discovered and did much more.


Joseph Priestley Portrait
Joseph Priestley

On March 13th,1733, Joseph Priestley was born in Great Britain. Young Joseph had an unfortunate childhood. With the loss of his mother at the age of seven, his Protestant aunt took on the maternal role while what his father did was uncertain. He did not have a typical education for someone in England, but discovered he had an uncanny ear for languages while he attended nonconformist religious schools. He was well versed in some of the older languages; Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. At the age of nineteen, Priestley became a minister, but his outspoken views did not agree with his more devout colleagues. In 1762, he officially became a minister and married his love, Mary Wilkinson. They had three sons and one daughter.

They moved a few times due to Priestley's controversial views of the times. They spent time in Warrington, from about 1762-1767, where he introduced modern History and various Sciences to Warrington Academy becoming a catalyst for other schools in England at the time. Then they moved to Leeds in 1767, where he published unfavorable political articles in favor of the colonies. He also became infatuated with the sciences at the brewery that was next to the Mill Hill Congregation he took charge of. In 1780, they relocated to Birmingham where became a member of the Lunar Society. Shortly after, his support of the American and French Revolutions caused the Priestley riots in 1791. A mob burned down his laboratory and home.

After the riots in 1791, Joseph Priestley moved his family to London for a short time before making their way to the United States in 1793. He took up residence in Northumberland, PA. He became an inspiration for many Americans during their revolution. He became friends with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Before his passing in 1804, Joseph Priestley's impact can be felt in the political, scientific, and philosophic world.


  • He unknowingly aided in the discovery of over eight gases. Among these are oxygen, mercuric oxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide.
  • He made contributions to photosynthesis and respiration.
  • He is considered the father of carbonated water even though he never marketed his findings for profits.
  • Priestley was also the first to discover the pencil eraser. He realized that Indian gum could be used to remove the lead used in pencils from surfaces.
  • He wrote numerous theological, political and religious works. His controversial views was said to have influence on the Declaration of Independence. He was a huge supporter in freedom of a speech and religion, which was not popular in Great Britain at the time.

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