The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773

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9780271025100: The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) is one of the major figures of the English Enlightenment. A contemporary and friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he exceeded even these polymaths in the breadth of his curiosity and learning. Yet no one has attempted an all-inclusive biography of Priestley, probably because he was simply too many persons for anyone easily to comprehend in a single study. Robert Schofield has devoted a lifetime of scholarship to this task. The result is a magisterial book, covering the life and works of Priestley during the critical first forty years of his life.

Although Priestley is best known as a chemist, this book is considerably more than a study in the history of science. As any good biographer must, Schofield has thoroughly studied the many activities in which Priestley was engaged. Among them are theology, electricity, chemistry, politics, English grammar, rhetoric, and educational philosophy. Schofield situates Priestley, the provincial dissenter, within the social, political, and intellectual contexts of his day and examines all the works Priestley wrote and published during this period.

Schofield singles out the first forty years of Priestley's life because these were the years of preparation and trial during which Priestley qualified for the achievements that were to make him famous. The discovery of oxygen, the defenses of Unitarianism, and the political liberalism that characterize the mature Priestley—all are foreshadowed in the young Priestley. A brief epilogue looks ahead to the next thirty years when Priestley was forced out of England and settled in Pennsylvania, the subject of Schofield's next book. But this volume stands alone as the definitive study of the making of Joseph Priestley.

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About the Author:

Robert E. Schofield is Professor of History Emeritus at Iowa State University, where he was also Director of the Program in History of Technology and Science. He is the editor of A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) and the author or editor of numerous other books.


“Praise for The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley (1997): It is with great pleasure that one turns to this long anticipated biography of Priestley by Robert Schofield. . . . The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley begins the daunting task of finally producing an integrated overview of Priestley the man, the scientist, the theologian, the political theorist, and the educator—begins, rather than completes, because Schofield has chosen to terminate his account in 1773, the year that Priestley turned forty. The amount of information on Priestley is so vast that at least two volumes will be required to complete the task. . . . Though chemists will be disappointed that Schofield’s decision to terminate his account in 1773 means that most of Priestley’s most important work on pneumatic chemistry is not covered, they will still find the book of great interest and will be likely, like the reviewer, to keep their fingers crossed in anticipation that we will soon see the publication of volume two.”

—William B. Jensen, Journal of Chemical Education

“This volume stands alone as the definitive study of the making of an intellectual giant.”

Pennsylvania Heritage

“Schofield vivifies the life and thought of an elusive, demanding figure. . . . [His book] combines masterful scholarship with balanced historical judgment.”

—D. L. LeMahieu, Church History

“This is a magnificent book, a real monument in modern scholarly letters. Robert Schofield has brought together the many different strands of Priestley's life and achievement and has related them to the general background in which his thought was forged. The result is a readable, interesting, scholarly, perceptive, and generally splendid book.”

—I. Bernard Cohen, Harvard University

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