Preiss was born in Herzberg am Harz, Germany. He obtained a doctorate, probably at Hamburg, then emigrated to Western Australia. He arrived at the Swan River Colony on board the Britmart on 4 December 1838, remaining there until January 1842; during this time he became a British subject.
During his time in Western Australia, Preiss collected about 200,000 plant specimens, containing from 3,000 to 4,000 species. His collections, together with those of James Drummond, formed the basis for early study of Western Australian flora. In 1842 he left Western Australia for London. There, he broke up and sold his plant collection to recoup his costs. Various botanists published species based on his specimens, and these were later collated by Johann Lehmann to form the multi-volume Plantae Preissianae Sive Enumeratio Plantarum Quas in Australasia Occidentali et Meridionale Occidentali Annis 1838-41 Collegit L, published in Hamburg between 1844 and 1848.
The specimens collected by Preiss were not limited to plants: they included birds, reptiles, insects and molluscs. The molluscs were described by Karl Theodor Menke and published in Hanover in 1843 titled Molluscorum Novae Hollandiae Specimen. In October 1839, Preiss tried to sell his collection of bird skins to the colonial government in Perth but it was declined. Preiss's collection of animals was sold in parts through out Europe to museums, and collectors. The only distinguishable collection of any note is in the Municipal Museum of Halberstadt. The first specimen of the Western Swamp Tortoise was collected by Preiss in 1839 and sent to Vienna Museum where it was label New Holland but was not named Pseudemydura umbrina until 1901 by Seibenrock. No further collections of the species were recorded until 1953.
He returned to Herzberg am Harz in 1844 and settled there. He died there on 21 May 1883. He is commemorated in the names of about 100 species of plain, including plants in the genera Acacia, Allocasuarina, Grevillea, Hakea, Melaleuca, Santalum, Xanthorrhoea and Callitris.