Joseph Priestley, Oxygen, and the Enlightenment

  • John B. West
Part of the Perspectives in Physiology book series (PHYSIOL)


Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was the first person to report the discovery of oxygen and describe some of its extraordinary properties. As such he merits a special place in the history of respiratory physiology. In addition his descriptions in elegant eighteenth-century English were particularly arresting, and rereading them never fails to give a special pleasure. The gas was actually first prepared by Scheele (1742–1786) but his report was delayed. Lavoisier (1743–1794) repeated Priestley’s initial experiment and went on to describe the true nature of oxygen which had eluded Priestley who never abandoned the erroneous phlogiston theory. In addition to oxygen, Priestley isolated and characterized seven other gases. However most of his writings were in theology because he was a conscientious clergyman all his life. Priestley was a product of the Enlightenment and argued that all beliefs should be able to stand the scientific scrutiny of experimental investigations. As a result his extreme liberal views were severely criticized by the established Church of England. In addition he was a supporter of both the French and American Revolutions. Ultimately his political and religious attitudes provoked a riot during which his home and his scientific equipment were destroyed. He therefore emigrated to America in 1794 where his friends included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania although his scientific work never recovered from his forced departure. But the descriptions of his experiments with oxygen will always remain a high point in the history of respiratory physiology.


Nitrogen Dioxide Liberal Attitude Respiratory Physiology Phlogiston Theory Mercuric Oxide 
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Copyright information

© American Physiological Society 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Professor of Medicine and Physiology School of MedicineUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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