Friday, February 12, 2016

1757: Joseph Black discovers carbon dioxide

Joseph Black (1728-1799)
In 1668 John Mayow came very close to discovering oxygen and carbon dioxide. Perhaps the only thing stopping him from these discoveries was an early death. This left the door open for other investigators, such as Joseph Black.

In the 13th century, and again in the 17th century, Roger Bacon and Jean van Helmont described a substance they referred to as gas sylvestre.

In 1668, John Mayow noted his belief that there was a vapor arising from the blood that was exhaled during the act of respiration. Yet he passed away before he was able to make anything further of this discovery.

Other investigators performed experiments with this substance throughout the 18th century, and by the 1750s, by the time Joseph Black began his experiments with the gas, it was generally referred to as "fixed air."

So, while performing his own experiments in 1757,  Black essentially proved proved Bacon, van Helmont and Mayow correct, that a substance, be it called "gas sylvestre" or "fixed air" does exist.

By his experiments, he proved that by heating limestone the substance was released into the atmosphere.  He also proved that this substance was exhaled during the process of respiration.

Also of significance is that Black discovered that this compound was formed animals and exhaled by the lungs, thus proving Mayow correct. A picture was now forming that the purpose of the lungs was not to cool the body, but to inhale a substance vital to life, and exhale a waste product (carbon dioxide).  This wisdom would be expounded upon by great minds of the next century.

So, beginning in the 13th century, various men of genius began to question the ideas of the ancients, those that were held by the Church.  Many of them risked everything to perform, and later to announce, their discoveries to the world.  Such bravery allowed for science to slowly replace mythology in medicine.

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