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11/21/2016 A Glimpse into the Life of Joseph Priestley Joseph Priestley was an English scientist, philosopher, theologian and a
clergyman who had authored more than 50 publications in his lifetime. He was mainly
known for his great contributions to experimental chemistry, electricity and the chemistry
of gases, as well as his extraordinary work in liberal political and religious thoughts.
After reading the articles and watching videos, it was very fascinating to know about
Joseph Priestley?s life and his contributions to find oxygen.
Joseph Priestley?s early life had an enormous impact on his experiments. He was
born in Birstall in England on 24 th march 1733. His family was very poor and they were
strongly religious people. Priestley showed precociousness from a very young age and
several biographers always noted him for his works. Priestley studied theology at the
Daventry Academy where liberal and enlightened ideas were emphases .Also, he
studied ancient and modern languages and had tutored older divinity students. Priestley
was nonconformist, so from the established church of England he was prevented from
attending universities like Oxford and Cambridge. However, he then enrolled to a new
nonconformist Daventry Academy where they offered him a complete curriculum in
natural philosophy and ongoing debates about political, religious and social topics.
He believed that the purpose of natural philosophy was to bring one closer to
God by increasing us understand of his Universe. 2.3 Priestley strongly believed that
science and religion were related to each other and he called it Unitarianism. He believed that all Christians, Jews and Muslims would embrace Unitarianism worldwide. Throughout his career, many people rejected him because of his beliefs and he called
the Christianity corrupted. Later on, he started his career in the ministry in 1755 in
Suffolk but he had extreme views in religion and politics. He always showed interested
in education and teaching so he left his full time job as a minister and went to
Warrington Academy to teach Language. While he was teaching there in Warrington, he
met his wife Mary Wilkinson, daughter of a prosperous iron monger. Priestley was
describing her as ?a women of an excellent understanding, much improved by reading,
of great fortitude and strength of mind and of a temper in the highest degree
affectionate and generous?.? His wife had supported him throughout their marriage and
enabled him to devote his life to his work. He published his first scientific work, the
history and Present state of Electricity in his last year in Warrington in 1767.
Once again, Priestley left Warrington in 1767 and returned to the ministry job.
While, he was doing the ministry work he had done experiments with gases. He
investigates the gas coming from the fermentation vents in the brewery next to his
home. He named the gas as ?Fixed Air?. But it was not supported the life or combustion.
His experiments did not succeed but that had made him very well known scientist. In
1773 he did service for Lord Shelburne who was very wealthy person at that time.
Shelburne needed a tutor for his children so he appointed Priestley. While he was with
Shelburne, he has done experimental work on oxygen. 3
Later on Priestley moved to Birmingham where he continue his teaching and
research. During these times Priestley faced lot of problems because of his extreme
liberal views. After some angry mobs destroyed his house, he and his family escaped
from London. In 1794, he and his family sailed to America and they settled in Philadelphia .Later on his family moved to Northumberland County in Pennsylvania
where Priestley?s son brought 300,000 acres and Priestley built a new house and a
laboratory, which now known as the national monument. Priestley had accepted the
17th century theory of Phlogiston, where a substance has no color, taste or weight that
was present in all flammable materials and given off in burning .So, before his life has
ended, even in a bad health, he enjoyed one last scientific controversy where he tries to
protect the phlogiston theory from the advancement of the modern chemistry.? Priestley
died in 1804 and his body was buried in Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland. Discovery of oxygen
Like many scientists Priestley also accepted the 17th century theory of
Phlogiston, a substance has no color, taste or weight that was present in all flammable
materials and given off in burning. On August 1774, Priestley had conducted his famous
experiment by using a 12-inch glass lens, where he focused sunlight on a lamp of
mercuric oxide in an inverted glass container placed in a pool of mercury. The colorless,
odorless and tasteless gas emitted from the lamp produced a flame to burn intensely
and it kept the mouse alive about four times as long as a similar quality of air. He called
his discovery ?Dephlogisticated Air ?. Because it supported by combustion so well
because it had no phlogiston in it. But it could absorb the maximum amount during
burning. On the other hand, about the same time, Karl Scheele of Sweden burns
mercuric oxide and potassium nitrate and he obtained a gas which makes candles to
burn more brightly. And shortly after the discovery he went to France to meet a famous
French scientist Antoine Lavoisier who also investigating gases. Although Priestley was not the independent discoverer, Antoine Lavoisier was recognized the advancing the
scientific knowledge of Oxygen?s chemical nature and role in normal respiration. In
1774, communicating with Priestley and Scheele, Antoine allowed them to repeat their
experiments by using more sophisticated laboratory equipment?s and he concluded that,
this gas was something in air that was absorbed rather than just produced during
combustion. Lavoisier called the gas ?oxygen? from the greek word for acid-maker.
Before discovering oxygen, in 1772 Priestley was the first person ever to observe the
Photosynthesis in plants.3
After he recognized the discovery of oxygen, it was found that the potential value
of oxygen for patients with respiratory conditions was important. The father of
Respiratory Care Thomas Beddoes opened a pneumatic Institute in Bristol, England
and used oxygen and nitrogen to treat asthma, congestive heart failure and other
ailments. The institute was closed but oxygen remains available to the patients.
Nearly all organisms require oxygen. Humans can survive for many days without
water, but we cannot survive without oxygen. We owes much to the pioneering work of
Joseph Priestley because, two hundred years later too oxygen has become a widely
used lifesaving drug. From his experiments he found that potential toxicity of oxygen is
dependents on its concentration and the fact that the oxygen level provided the
atmospheric air is very sufficient for health and sustaining life in the earth. After all, I feel
that nowadays the supplemental oxygen is an important part in the hospital trauma
care, in the practice of anesthesia and most importantly the managements of most
forms of respiratory distress and the treatments of many other acute and chronic
medical conditions. Oxygen is an important as any single word that might applied to respiratory care. Much of what we know today about oxygen and its importance?s.in our
lives .For me it was very interesting to study about Priestley?s contributions and his
experiments to find oxygen and how it has helped and influenced in the field of
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