Born in Lombard Street, London on 21 November 1778, he was the son of James Phillips (1745–1799), a printer and bookseller and his wife, Mary. He trained in London, receiving his education as a chemist under George Fordyce and William Allen.
In 1796, he and his brother William Phillips, together with William Allen and Luke Howard, took part in forming the Askesian Society. he then went on to be founder member of the Geological Society after the Askesian Society disbanded in 1807.
A talented chemist, he lectured in chemistry at Royal London Hospital from 1817 and was employed as a professor at Royal Military College in 1818. His proficiency was recognised when he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1819, having been proposed by Thomas Allan, Leonard Horner and Sir David Brewster and as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1822. Around this time, he became an editor at Annals of Philosophy and later joint-editor at Philosophical Magazine, publishing papers in both.
He was appointed chemist and curator to the Museum of Economic Geology (later the Museum of Practical Geology, later the Geological Museum), at Charing Cross in 1839 and stayed in this position until his death.
- A Translation of the Pharmacopoeia of the Royal College of Physicians, of London, 1824 : with Notes and Illustrations. Phillips, London 1824 Digital edition by the University and State Library Düsseldorf
- Translation of the Pharmacopoeia of the Royal College of Physicians of London 1836. 4. ed. Highley, London 1841 Digital edition by the University and State Library Düsseldorf
- Translation of the Pharmacopoeia of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1851. London : Highley, 1851. Digital edition by the University and State Library Düsseldorf
- Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783-2002: Biographical Index (PDF). II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
- History of the Geological Society, UK.
- Bolingbroke Woodward, Horace (1907). The history of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society. p. 13. ISBN 0-405-10466-9. Retrieved 6 March 2012. Cite has empty unknown parameter:
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography accessed 9 Feb 2010
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. .