Robert E. Schofield

  • A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley, 1733–1804

    Selected Scientific Correspondence

    Robert E. Schofield

    Joseph Priestley's science was an activity of his leisure, for he was by profession and conviction a minister who prized his scientific reputation, because, as he wrote in his Memoirs, it gave weight to his “attempts to defend Christianity.” His own account of his life, therefore, neglects just those aspects for which he is primarily remembered and on which we would most like to have his views. This work provides that account of Priestley's scientific pursuits, in his own words, through selections from his correspondence, related memoranda, extracts from his Memoirs, prefaces, etc., with a commentary that relates these writings to Priestley's life and to his scientific work as a whole.

    This collection brings together the largest body of primary research materials relating to Priestley's scientific career that has been made available since Priestley's publication of his own scientific investigations. Nowhere else are there revealed so many details of his relations with such major figures in the history of science as Benjamin Franklin, John Canton, Alexander Volta, Henry Cavendish, and Martin von Marum.

    Many of the letters have never previously been published; of those already in print, a large number have appeared separately and in scattered places. The letters constitute a continuing, year-to-year, first-hand account of Priestley's scientific degree. They give an insight into his published writings, however discursive, do not provide.

    Professor Schofield assembles the correspondence chronologically, dealing first with accounts of Priestley's initial interest in “experimental philosophy” and then with his research into the history of experiments on electricity, research that led him to do some experimenting of his own. Subsequent chapters focus on Priestley's life in Leeds, when he turned his attention from electricity to chemistry; his years of mammoth achievement under the patronage of Lord Shelburne; his scientific activity during the period from 1781 to 1794, when his theological opinions finally involved him in disastrous debate; and his years of self-imposed exile in the United States.

    Professor Schofield's extensive commentary provides a factual l framework for the correspondence and introduces a new interpretation of Priestley's work by demonstrating the significance of what had previously been ignored or considered out of context. The documentation is thorough and detailed; a complete list of the sources of the correspondence is included, as well as biographical details regarding all the correspondents.

    Valuable alike to the scholar and the interested layman, A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley is an important addition to the literature on British mechanistic natural philosophy and may encourage a re-evaluation of the achievements of eighteenth-century British science.

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