Wednesday, April 13, 2016

1783: The first experiments using oxygen

So oxygen had been discovered by three men -- Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestly, and Antoine Lavoisie -- all three unaware that the other was working on the same thing.  They all had different theories regarding it, and they all gave it a unique name -- empirial air, dephlogisticated air, and oxygene.

So the race was on to learn more about this substance, and what therapeutic benefits one might receive from inhaling it.

Stephen Hales created a device he called a pneumatic trough that he used to collect both carbon dioxide and oxygen, and now he was certain that plants obtained their nourishment from this air. (4, page 193)

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810)
The first reported experiments using oxygen on humans was done in 1783 by Francois Chausier, a surgeon and anatomist, and also a professor of obstetrics in Paris. (2)

What he did was prescribe intermittent inhalations, for about 2-3 hours each day, for his patients with consumption to see if it would relieve their dyspnea. (2)

Similar experiments were performed by a French physician named Caillens.  He gave a young woman with consumption daily inhalations of oxygen, of which he said she greatly benefited. (8)

He also gave oxygen to an asphyxiated newborn baby in 1780, and also described giving mouth to mouth respirations to them. (2)

Joseph Priestly, the man given credit for the discovery of oxygen (what he referred to as dephlogisticated air) was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, along with Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, and James Watt. It was a society whose members met each month under on the night of the full moon to discuss the transfer of scientific knowledge to industry. (8)

It may have been through the friendship formed through these meetings that Darwin and Watt learned of the benefits of "dephlogisticated air" from Priestly. (8)

Darwin became interested in "dephlogisticated air," although, after reading the works of Lavoisier, used the name "oxygen" in his famous book of poems called "The Botanic Garden" in 1791.  Some say it was because of this book that the name Oxygen became the official name of the element.

Realizing the potential benefits of oxygen, and probably that a profit could be made, Thomas Beddoes decided he wanted to open up a clinic that would allow patients to pay to inhale this air a few hours every day.

Perhaps inspired by what he learned from is friend Priestly, Watt joined Beddoes, inventing some of the equipment that was essential for the project to work.  They were also joined by Humphry Davy, who also made significant contributions to the project.

With the help of his friends, Beddoes opened the "Pneumatic Institute" in Bristol, England, in 1798. (8) (9, page 20)

Francois Chaussier (1746-1848)
This was the first of what would later be referred to as oxygen parlors, which became common in the 19th century.

Beddoes devised a system where any amount of oxygen could be added into the atmosphere of small compartments.  A patient would spend a certain amount of time in these compartments breathing supplemental oxygen.

Beddoes, Watt and Davy did not advertise that the inhalation of oxygen would cure anything.  The insisted their project was an experiment, and that oxygen might be beneficial as a treatment for obstinate ulcers, leprosy, spasms, cancer, dropsy, hydrocephalis, headache, poisoning by opium, paralysis, scofulous tumors, scorbutus, venereal, deafness, white swelling, melancholy, general dibility, continued fever, intermittent fever, and coldness of the extremities, consumption, palsy, heart failure, and asthma.  (2, page 281) (8) (9, page 20)

Thomas Beddoes (1730-1810) is often
considered the father of respiratory therapy.
Yet despite the therapeutic experiments of Beddoes, oxygen was not generally accepted by the medical community, perhaps mainly due to the fact there were not efficient and inexpensive devices for making it and delivering it to the patient.  (2, page 281)

Of course there was also no experiment that proved without a doubt the benefits of using it either.  (2, page 281)

And, considering the crude nature at which oxygen was made, chances are patients did not receive much more oxygen than what was in the air, which is 21%.  Some speculate that patients received 23-28% oxygen. (8)

The institution was converted into a hospital during an epidemic of typhus in the fall of 1800, thus ending the experiment. (8)

After Beddoes, oxygen wasn't used therapeutically again until a cholera outbreak in 1832, and the study of it not continued until John Haldane took it up again a century later. (2, page 281)

  1. Gray, Alonzo, "Elements of Chemistry:  Containing the Principles of the Science, both experimental and theoretical," 1840, Massachusetts, page 118
  2. Brainbridge, William Seaman, "Oxygen in Medicine and Surgery -- a contribution with report of cases," New York State Journal of Medicine, 1908Vol. 8, June, No. 6, pages 281-295
  3. "Carbon Dioxide,",, observed the site on May 4, 2012 (this information is available at a variety of sources, although I chose to give credit)
  4. Magner, Lois N., "History of Life Sciences," 2002, 3rd edition, New York, Marcel Dekker
  5. Hill, Leonard, Benjamin Moore, Arthur Phillip Beddard, John James Rickard, etc., editors, "Recent Advances in Physiology and bio-chemistry," 1908, London, Edward Arnold
  6. Fruto, Joseph S, "Proteins, Enzymes, Genes: The Interplay of Chemistry and Biology," 1999, New York, Yale University
  7. Blakeman, Thomas C., "Evidence for Oxygen Use in the Hospitalized Patient: is more really the enemy of good," Respiratory Care, October, 2013, volume 58, number 10, pages 1679-1693
  8. Grainge, CP, "Breath of Life: the evolution of oxygen therapy," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, October, 2004, 97 (10), pages 489-493
  9. Heffner, JE, "The story of oxygen," Respiratory Care, January, 2013, volume 58, number 1, pages 18-30
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