Joseph Priestley the polymath: a suggestion for a short talk to secondary school pupils

Do you know the word 'polymath'? It means a person who is very learned but, rather more than that, whose learning stretches over many different subjects.

You all study a variety of subjects. But you are not quite polymaths yet - to be described as a polymath you have to reach a very high level in several of them.

But the person I want to tell you about today could fairly be called a polymath. His name was Joseph Priestley and he died just two hundred years ago, on 6 February 1804.

He was a great scientist. In fact modern science builds on some of his discoveries. He identified oxygen, although he did not give it that name. He discovered nitrous oxide - sometimes called laughing gas - which was later used as an anaesthetic, especially by dentists.He was also a political theorist and in fact he supported the democratic principles of the French Revolution. His earliest publication was about English grammar. And he was a considerable linguist.

Does it surprise you to know that he was also a clergyman? He was passionate about scientific research but what mattered most to him were the love of truth and the love of God.

Something pretty terrible happened to this clever and gentle man. In July 1791 there were riots where he lived, in Birmingham. You could say that the mob were - in their dreadful terms - acting in support of the monarchy and the Church of England, the established church. But what a way to do so! They were misguided enough to think that Priestley was out to bring down the monarchy. But all that Priestley ever wanted was rational discussion, certainly not violence.

The most dreadful thing was that the rioters, having destroyed the Chapel where Priestley was a minister, then burnt down his house. They destroyed his laboratory, his library and the great numbers of manuscripts - his research and his essays.

The loss was utterly irreplaceable.

It is sad to think that someone who believed in reason and civilised argument as the way to explore conflict should have suffered so much at the hands of a mindless mob.

We may not always agree with other people's strongly held views but it is important to respect their right to hold them. Violence is no substitute for reason and good faith.

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