As well as a chemist who discovered oxygen, Priestley was a theologian and reformer

Joseph Priestley - A celebration of his life and legacy  

James Birch and Joe Lee (eds) 

Birstall, UK: The Priestley Society 2007 | 284 pp | ?20 (SB) ISBN 9781904244448 

Reviewed by Bill Griffith

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was born in Fieldhead, Yorkshire, UK, and died in self-imposed exile in Philadelphia, US. He was of course a very eminent chemist - amongst much other work (for example, early studies on photosynthesis) he discovered the ’airs’ O2, N2O, NO, NO2, CO, SO2, NH3 and SiF4, and added much to our knowledge of HCl gas, SO3, Cl2, PH3 and N2. He did much work on optics and electrostatics (some say that he predated Coulomb’s work by some 20 years) and in biology and physiology. In his time, however, he was better known as a founder of Unitarianism and for his radical educational and political beliefs - opposition to his enthusiasm for the French Revolution and his liberal views in part led to him leaving the country in 1794. He was an educational reformist, believing that social, religious, economic, political and scientific topics should be taught to both sexes. He belonged to the Lunar Society, meeting in Birmingham when there was a full moon (to light members’ way home) to discuss their latest discoveries. 

The book is a ’bicentennial commemorative collection’, containing 35 contributions by Priestley scholars worldwide, covering all the aspects mentioned above and more, though I would have liked a deeper treatment of his chemistry. However, his work on oxygen (his ’dephlogisticated air’ - he supported the theory of phlogiston to the end) is well covered by John Maguire and Alan Dronsfield. It is beautifully illustrated with over 200 illustrations, mostly in colour, from old and new sources including some attractive paintings by Stephen Barlow of Priestley’s Yorkshire origins. It emphasises how many facets there were to his career and is suffused with an endearing enthusiasm for the man and his works. If it goes a little over the top sometimes - suggesting in one place that he was on a par with Newton and Darwin - this is part of its charm. At ?20 it is a bargain.