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A Pithy History Of Oxygen

Many in this community benefit from oxygen therapy. This is all possible because of great discoveries from our past. So, I thought it would be neat to journey into our past. Let’s meet the people who made this all possible. This begins our pithy history of oxygen.

For most of history, we didn’t know about oxygen

A life-sustaining substance was alluded to by ancient physicians. Around 1000 B.C., ancient Indian physicians wrote about the lungs. They also described “prana vayu.” Some historians think they were referring to oxygen1. Most of these physicians remain anonymous.

This takes us to ancient Greece. Here we find the first great philosophers. Some of them pondered about air and what it contained. A few shared their theories.

In the 5th century B.C., Anaximenes of Miletus described a substance called “pneuma.” In the 4th century B.C., Empedocles wrote that air contained a substance vital to life. He defined air as one of the four basic elements of life. The others were water, earth, and fire. In the 3rd Century B.C. Aristotle also described these elements2.

In 1571, Paracelsus described a substance in the air necessary for life1. But this observation was considered relatively insignificant by his peers. So, it was ignored until the middle of the next century3.

In 1645, Jean Baptiste van Helmont described the characteristics of air. He was the first to prove that it was a distinct substance from water vapor3-5. In describing it, he was the first to use the term gas. He said, “ I have called this mist Gas, owing to its resemblance to the Chaos of the Ancients6.”

In 1668, John Mayow almost discovered oxygen. He recognized venous blood was dark. He learned that it became a bright red when an “ingredient” from the air was added to it. He called this special ingredient “nitro-aerial spirit of air,” or “nitro-aerial gas7-8.”

So, the scene was set for an oxygen discovery

This set the stage nicely for three men.

One of these men was Joseph Priestley. In 1775, He reported a great discovery. He described an experiment he did on August 1, 1774. He described burning mercury. This created a gas that made a candle’s flame burn brighter. However, he did not call it oxygen8-11.

Priestly surmised that burning mercury removed impurities from the air. These impurities were called “phlogiston.” So, he called this air “dephlogisticated air8-9.”

He and some mice inhaled it. He wrote what it was like:

“The feeling of it to my lungs was not sensibly different from that of common air, but I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterward. Who can tell but that, in time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury. Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privilege of breathing it11.”

He also performed an experiment. He had some mice inhale room air. He had others inhale enriched air. He discovered that those inhaling oxygen-enriched air lived longer than those who did not. He wondered if his new discovery might benefit certain people8.

This captured the excitement of the medical community

Another person also discovered oxygen. His name was Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Like Priestly, he also observed how it made a candle’s flame burn brighter. So, he called it “empyreal air” or “fire air9-10.”

Unfortunately for him, he waited until 1777 to report his discovery. For this reason, Priestly received credit for its discovery9.

But, neither of them gave it the name “oxygen.” Credit for the name goes to the third man by the name of Antoine Lavoisier. He burned mercury and created this air. He called it “oxygene.”

Lavoisier did some experiments. He observed it was involved in rusting of metals among other things. He also discovered that it played a role in respiration of animals and humans. So, because it created changes, he figured it was acidic in nature. So, he called it “oxygene.” This means acid former10,12.

Several years later, other researchers discovered oxygen is present in acids. They learned that oxygen is not an acid. But, as is the way history goes, the name oxygen stuck. And, obviously, that’s what we still call it today.

This peeked the excitement of the medical community

Some physicians pondered how to begin experiments on humans. They wondered what diseases would benefit from inhaling oxygen. Others wondered how they could profit from this. What happens next will be the subject of an upcoming post. So, stay tuned!!!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Jindel, S.K.,Ritesh Agarwal, "Oxygen Therapy," 2nd edition, 2008, Jaypee Brothers, pages 5-8, 40
  2. Osler, William, "The Evolution of Modern Medicine: A series of lectures at Yale University on the Silliman Foundation in April, 1913," 1921, New Haven,  Yale University Press, pages 38-40
  3. Lagerkvist, Ulf, "The Enigma of Ferment," 2005, Singapore, World Scientific Publishing, page 40
  4. Tissier, Paul Louis Alexandre, “Pneumotherapy including aerotherapy and inhalation methods and therapy,” volume x, 1903, Philadelphia, P. Blakiston’s Sons & Co., page 19
  5. “History of Chemistry; van Helmont, 1648,”,, accessed 7/6/14 and 9/27/18
  6. Lehrs, Ernst, "Man or Matter," 1958, Great Britain, Whistable Litho Ltd, page 179
  7. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "Introduction to the history of medicine," 1921, London, page 268
  8. Hill, Leonard, Benjamin Moore, Arthur Phillip Beddard, John James Rickard, editors, “Recent Advances In Physiology And Biochemistry,” 1908, London, page 475
  9. Petty, Thomas, Robert W. McCoy, Dennis E. Doherty, “Long Term Oxygen Therapy (LTOT): History, Scientific Foundations, And Emerging Technologies,” 6th Oxygen Concensus Conference Recommendations, National Lung Health Education Program, 2006,, accessed 9/20/18
  10. Gray, Alonzo, "Elements of Chemistry:  Containing the Principles of the Science, both experimental and theoretical," 1840, Massachusetts, page 118
  11. Priestly, Joseph, "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air," volume 2, 1875, London, Printed for J. Johnson, page 102
  12. Warbase, James P., editor, “New York State Journal Of Medicine,” Volume VIII, 1908, Medical Society of the State of New York, page 1680, article by William Seaman Brainbridge, "Oxygen in Medicine and Surgery -- a contribution with report of cases, published in June, 1908


  • KevinDavitt
    5 months ago

    John – Loved this! Looking forward to Part 2 and 3 and 4……

  • KevinDavitt
    6 months ago

    This is great – completely educational. Thanks John.

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    6 months ago

    Thank YOU! Glad you enjoyed it. It certainly was fun writing. John. Site Moderator.

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