Priscilla Bell was born into a family in Tottenham, then a village north of London. Her father was Daniel Bell of the nearby village of Stamford Hill, Middlesex; his wife Catharine was the granddaughter of the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay. She was one of several sisters; Catherine Bell married John Gurney of Earlham Hall and had many remarkable children, the best-known of whom is probably Elizabeth Fry.
In adult life, Priscilla was a member of the Society of Friends, and conformed to their religious practice, but did not observe their restrictions in regard either to dress or to abstinence from amusements.
She married Edward Wakefield (1750–1826), a London merchant, and had three children. Writing to support her family financially, she wrote seventeen books in two decades. She was one of many female English writers at the end of the eighteenth century who began to demand a wider life for women. Charities which she founded included a maternity hospital, a Female Benefit Club, and a Penny Bank for children, which developed into England's first savings bank.
She had two sons and a daughter. The two sons were Edward Wakefield (1774-1854) and Daniel Wakefield. The daughter, Isabella (d. 17 Oct. 1841), married Jeremiah Head, a mechanical engineer of Ipswich. Her grandchildren included Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Daniel Bell Wakefield, William Hayward Wakefield, Arthur Wakefield and Felix Wakefield.
Priscilla Wakefield died at the house of her daughter, Isabella Head, on Albion Hill, Ipswich, on 12 September 1832, and was buried on 20 December in the Friends' burial-ground at the New Meeting House, Ipswich.
A portrait of Priscilla Wakefield, her husband Edward Wakefield and her sister, Catherine Bell Gurney, painted by Francis Wheatley, was exhibited at South Kensington in 1868. A portrait in lithograph is in the London Friends' Institute.
Wakefield wrote books on a range of subjects, including natural science, feminism, and economics. She also wrote children's literature.
Wakefield published a book on feminism in 1798, Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement, which was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Wakefield examined women's prospects for employment in the modern world in light of Adam Smith's writings, and supported broader education for women.
Mrs. Wakefield was widely known as a writer of moral tales for children. Her early publication, Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts, was successful, and she went on to publish other books of the same nature, and of a more advanced character, dealing with science and travel.
Wakefield had considerable knowledge of botany and natural history, and in 1796 she published the very popular An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, which was translated into French in 1801 and reached an eleventh edition in 1841. It was illustrated with a series of uncredited full-page illustrations showing plant parts in detail. It was followed by An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters.
By the time she died, Wakefield had written two dozen books, many of them appearing in multiple editions and even translated into foreign languages.
- Mental Improvement: Or, the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art, 1794
- An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, London, 12mo 1796
- Juvenile Anecdotes, Founded on Facts, 1795-8 (2 well received volumes that went to an eighth edition in 1825)
- Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement, 1798
- The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe, 1801. (Her most popular work, of imaginative fiction reaching the 19th edition in 1850)
- Domestic Recreation: Or, Dialogues Illustrative of Natural and Scientific Subjects, 1805
- An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters, London, 1816, 12mo.
- Carlyle, Edward Irving (1899). "Wakefield, Priscilla". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 58. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Ann B. Shteir, ‘Wakefield , Priscilla (1750–1832)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 24 Oct 2008. Shteir rather peculiarly refers to Barclay as a 'Quaker martyr'.
- RDM, 'Wakefield, Priscilla (Bell)', in Lorna Sage, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, Cambridge University Press, 1999
- DNB, 1900 cite (Cat. Third Loan Exhib. No. 887)
- Guest, Harriet (2000). Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810. University of Chicago Press. p. 319. ISBN 9780226310527.
- Kramer, Jack. Women of Flowers. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1996.
- Fara, Patricia (2004). Pandora's breeches : women, science and power in the Enlightenment. London: Pimlico. p. 205. ISBN 9781844130825.
- This article incorporates material from "Wakefield, Priscilla". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Alic, Margaret (1986). Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807067314. Retrieved 7 March 2015.