Hypoxia pp 7-19 | Cite as

Fire-Air and Dephlogistication

Revisionisms of oxygen’s discovery
  • John W. Severinghaus
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 543)


Americans are taught that Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen in 1774 and promptly brought that news to Lavoisier. Lavoisier proved that air contained a new element, oxygen, which combined with hydrogen to make water. He disproved the phlogiston theory but Priestley called it dephlogisticated air until his death 30 years later. Scandanavians learn that a Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele beat Priestley by 2 years but was deprived of credit because Lavoisier denied receiving a letter Scheele later claimed to have sent in September 1774 describing his 1772 discovery of “fire air”. His claim was unconfirmed because Scheele first published his work in 1777. However, Scheele’s missing letter was made public in 1992 in Paris, 218 years late, and now resides at the French Academie de Sciences. Lavoisier received it on Oct 15, 1774. His guilt was kept secret in the effects of Madame Lavoisier. He failed on several occasions to credit either Priestley or Scheele for contributing to the most important discovery in the history of science. Priestley was a teacher, political philosopher, essayist, Unitarian minister and pioneer in chemical and electrical science. He discovered 9 gases including nitrous oxide. He invented soda water, refrigeration, and gum erasers for which he coined the term “rubber”. He discovered photosynthesis. He was humorless, argumentative, brilliant and passionate, called a “furious free-thinker”. While his liberal colleagues Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, James Watts, and others of the Lunar Society were celebrating the 2nd anniversary of the French revolution, a Birmingham mob, supported by the royalists and the established church, destroyed Priestley’s home, laboratory and church. Driven from England, he emigrated to Pennsylvania where he built a home and laboratory and collected a 1600 volume library, then among the largest in America. He is regarded as a founder of liberal Unitarian thinking. He was friend and correspondent of Thomas Jefferson. His philosophy and insight persuaded Jefferson to initiate what Americans call a liberal arts education. Scheele was later recognized as a brilliant and productive pioneer in chemistry although he died at age 44 of tasting his own arsenic compounds. In the new time-lapse play “Oxygen” set in Stockholm in both 18th and 21st centuries, in 1774, blame falls on Lavoisier’s wife who hid Scheele’s letter in hopes of giving her husband sole credit for discovering oxygen. In 2001, four Nobel committee panelists cannot agree which should receive the first “Retro-Nobel Prize” for the greatest discovery of all time: Priestley, Scheele or Lavoisier or all three. The audience is asked to choose.

Key Words

Priestley Scheele Lavoisier Arcadia Roald Hoffman Carl Djerassi phlogiston 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2003

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  • John W. Severinghaus

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