Journal of Clinical Monitoring

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 259–277 | Cite as

History of blood gas analysis. II. pH and acid-base balance measurements

  • John W. Severinghaus
  • Poul B. Astrup
Historical Review


Electrometric measurement of the hydrogen ion concentration was discovered by Wilhelm Ostwald in Leipzig about 1890 and described thermodynamically by his student Walther Nernst, using the van’t Hoff concept of osmotic pressure as a kind of gas pressure, and the Arrhenius concept of ionization of acids, both of which had been formalized in 1887. Hasselbalch, after adapting the pH nomenclature of SØrensen to the carbonic-acid mass equation of Henderson, made the first actual blood pH measurements (with a hydrogen electrode) and proposed that metabolic acid-base imbalance be quantified as the “reduced” pH of blood after equilibration to a carbon dioxide tension (PCO2) of 40 mm Hg. This good idea, coming 40 years before simple blood pH measurements at 37‡C became widely available, was never adopted. Instead, Van Slyke developed a concept of acid-base chemistry that depended on measuring plasma CO2 content with his manometric apparatus, a standard method until the 1960s, when it was displaced by the three-electrode method of blood gas analysis.

The 1952 polio epidemic in Copenhagen stimulated Astrup to develop a glass electrode in which pH could be measured in blood at 37‡C before and after equilibration with known PCO2. He introduced the interpolative measurement of PCO2 and bicarbonate level (later base excess) using only pH measurements and, with Siggaard-Andersen, developed clinical acid-base chemistry. Controversy arose when blood base excess was noted to be altered by acute changes in PCO2 and when abnormalities of base excess were called metabolic acidosis or alkalosis, even when they represented compensation for respiratory abnormalities in PCO2. In the 1970s it became clear that “in-vivo” or “extracellular fluid” base excess (measured at an average extracellular fluid hemoglobin concentration of 5 g) eliminated the error caused by acute changes in PCO2. Base excess is now almost universally used as the index of nonrespiratory acid-base imbalance.

Key Words

Acid-base equilibrium: base excess buffer base standard bicarbonate Measurement techniques: electrodes, pH tonometry Van Slyke 


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Copyright information

© Little, Brown and Company, Inc. 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • John W. Severinghaus
    • 1
  • Poul B. Astrup
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnesthesiaUniversity of California Medical CenterSan Francisco
  2. 2.Department of Clinical ChemistryRigshospital, University of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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