Pauling and Priestley

Joseph Priestley

[Ed Note: This is the 750th post published by the Pauling Blog since its creation in March 2008.]

Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire, England on March 13, 1733 to a family of cloth dressers. Priestley’s mother died when her son was only seven years old, and he was raised by an aunt whose emphasis on religious studies – and eventually ministerial training – would impact the remainder of his life. A remarkable man of many talents, Priestley is remembered today as a theologist and philosopher; a chemist who conducted important work related to gases; a grammarian, political theorist and activist; a founder of Unitarianism; and the father of soft soda.

For the first thirty years of his life, Priestley was consumed by religion – until early adulthood he studied to be a minister, after which time he took on positions as a preacher or educator in religious settings. He was trained by a church that dissented from the Church of England, and Priestley himself often criticized the majority religion of his home country. This point of view would eventually manifest in his contributions to a new theological movement, Unitarianism, that was centered on his shared desire for a sound moral foundation and an ability to question the material world.

More unsettling to the English than his criticisms of the church was Priestley’s support of the French and American revolutions, both of which were taking place in the late 18th century. In 1791 this public stance led to the destruction of Priestley’s home and nearby laboratory by a mob of enraged Englishman. While Priestley and his family escaped unharmed, the bulk of his life’s work was lost.

Following what are now known as the Priestley Riots, the 61-year-old scholar was forced to immigrate to the United States with his family to escape the social ramifications of his political beliefs. The family settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where Priestley and his son sought to build a model community on a large piece of property, an idea that never panned out.

Though he is today best known for his contributions to chemistry, it wasn’t until the 1760s that Priestley began to take an interest in science. A decade later, Priestley initiated his now legendary experiments on gases. He began by simply examining naturally carbonated mineral water, a study that would ultimately lead to the discovery of how to control and reproduce the process of combining carbon dioxide and water, with the eventual creation of soft sodas following from there.

Priestley then attacked a larger project on the isolation of gases that would result in world-wide recognition. Through these experiments, Priestley discovered a great many gaseous compounds including ammonia, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide and, most importantly, oxygen (O2). His research also experimentally contradicted the popular belief that the space around us was simply “air” composed of all the same element. In subsequent years, Priestley made important advances in the scientific understanding of photosynthesis and respiration through his research on how these different gases interacted.

York (Penn.) Gazette and Daily, March 28, 1969

Though born nearly one-hundred years after Joseph Priestley died, Linus Pauling was profoundly influenced, both politically and scientifically, by Priestley’s legacy. Pauling had occasion to honor the great man when, on March 27, 1969, he received the eighteenth Annual Award in Memory of Joseph Priestley from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The decoration was conferred upon Pauling for his “contributions to the welfare of mankind” and he accepted the award with great pleasure.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to about 800 people and titled “The Origin of Scientific Ideas,” Pauling echoed Priestley in suggesting that “In much of our thinking we are just groping to find out what needs to be done rather how it needs to be done.” He then touched on familiar topics including his decades-long campaign against nuclearization and his more recent interest in vitamin C.

A few years later, Pauling appeared on the CBS Bicentennial Minutes program for a brief interview in which he mentioned Priestley’s “giant step in the creation of the science of chemistry” as well as the Englishman’s support for American “colonial independence.” In an earlier letter to colleague Fred Allen, Pauling further commented on Priestley’s move to the United States, noting his reverence for the U.S.’s historical role as a place of refuge for those with liberal ideas, and his sadness that the country had “deteriorated greatly” since.

Priestley’s scientific import was such that, in 1922, the American Chemical Society established its Joseph Priestley Award in his honor. The ACS was formed in 1876, only two years after a small group of chemists met in Priestley’s former home. (Chemist and historian Derek Davenport characterized Priestley as “something between a posthumous founding father and a reigning patron saint” of the ACS.) Some 250 years after his birth, the ACS held a symposium titled “The Legacy of Joseph Priestley” in which Pauling was aptly granted the Priestley Medal.

Pauling was nominated for the award on account of his being “the most Priestley-like figure of his time,” both for his groundbreaking work as a scientist and his courageous social and political stances. In his acceptance speech, Pauling reviewed his long-running opposition to militarism and war, using Priestley’s theology to support the moral grounds on which he stood. Pauling also drew comparisons between his own work on crystal structures and Priestley’s examinations of gases. A fuller exploration of Pauling’s receipt of the Priestley Medal will be topic of next week’s post.                                                                                      

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