Oxygen Therapy: The First 150 Years

Curiosities, Quackeries, and Other Historical Trivia


With Editorial Comment

* * *

Lawrence Martin, M.D.

Clinical Professor of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland

INTRODUCTION: Supplemental or "extra" oxygen is one of the most widely used therapies for people admitted to the hospital. It is also frequenly used for patients with chronic lung disease who live at home. In all cases oxygen is administered by inhalation. The importance of oxygen therapy for many patients with heart and lung diseases is now universally recognized.

Oxygen makes up 21% of the atmosphere we breathe, but it was not discovered as a separate gas until the late 18th century. Although oxygen's life-supporting role was understood early on, it took about 150 years for the gas to be used in a proper fashion for patients.For the first 150 years after discovery, therapeutic use of oxygen wassporadic, erratic, controversial, comical, beset by quackery, and only occasionally helpful. Not until the pioneering work of Haldane, Stadie, Barcroft and others, early in the 20th century, was oxygen therapy placed on a rational, scientific basis. For the first century and a half, oxygen therapy was characterized by methods that could not have resulted in much physiologic benefit. Impurities in oxygen, its use on an intermittent basis, and lack of physiologic measurement were principal problems.

Excerpts quoted are from the early medical literature on oxygen therapy, and also from publications aimed at the general public. The latter, consisting mainly of promotional materials or advertisements, were often disguised as scientific books, articles and pamphlets. In all quotes the spelling has been left as published (except for Priestley, who used "f" in place of "s", the custom in the 1770s; this has been changed for the sake of readability). My comments are in brackets.

From time to time I will add links to biographical and historical information I have found useful, that exists on other web servers. As elsewhere on the internet, links are indicated by the key word or words underlined and in color, e.g. Joseph Priestley. NOTE: To return from any of these outside links to the History of Oxygen Chronology, use the back button on your web browser.

You may scroll throught the entire file, or go directly to any particular document by using the following Table of Contents. Consider this a work in progress. Please forward any ideas for additions to

CONTENTS (in chronologic order; ** means the entry contains a scanned image)



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Website updated 4/12/2011.