The oxygen dispute among Scheele, Priestley,and Lavoisier

The discovery of oxygen by Scheele, Priestley and Lavoiser was happened at late 18th century. In 18th century, the chemical interest was concentrated on air and combustion, and development on new element was ongoing. The most dominate theory about air was Phlogiston, which described the property of combustion. Scheele and Priestly used the oxygen experiment as the supporting evidence of Phlogiston. Meanwhile, Lavoiser who had doubted the dominant theory used oxygen experiment for the refuting evidence. For now, the name ‘the first discoverer of oxygen’ is given to Lavoiser, who changed the big paradigm in history of Chemistry.


The first scientist who discovered oxygen among three of them was Scheele, the Swedish pharmacist and chemist born in 1742. He didn’t get enough attention compare to two other scientists eventhough he has a lot of achievements including oxygen experiment. His biography and results were reilluminated by A.E. Nordenskiöld at 19th century. Scheele’s research about oxygen started when he tried some chemical reactions in Uppsala. At first he was trying to react saltpeper(potassium nitrate) and acetic acid to generate nitrogen dioxide. By unclear reason, his interest was shifted to oxygen reaction using silver carbonate, manganese nitrate, manganese oxide, potassium nitrate, mercuric oxide and etc. He wrote that the oxygen has odorless, tasteless and it makes the combustion of candle to last longer. He named the gas as “feuerlift(fire-air) at 1775. His first experiment was 2 or 3 years earlier than Priestley’s, but the publishment was delay until 1775. Scheele blamed the publisher for the delay, but his tardy work process was also a reason of the postpone.


Priestley was a natural philosopher, chemist, educator, theologian born in England, 1733. He actively interaced with scientists, intellectuals and wealthy people and get opportunities for research and job. In 1773, he got offer from Earl of Shelburne to be a librarian, tutor for his offspring to get enough time for investigation. He used upside down glass bottle, mercury or water to seal the bottle and observed the change on flame and mouse. He found out that the flame goes out and mouse dies when they are sealed in the glass bottle for a while. He also discovered that the plant in the bottle will refresh the air under the sunlight, which is known as photosynthesis now. In 1774, he found out that the air came out from mercuric oxide experiment would make live mouse 5~6 times longer than the usual air. At first he thought it was Nitrogen dioxide, but soon after he named this gas as “dephlogisticate air”. He explained that this dephlogisticate air has insufficient phlogiston, hence it can absorb phlosiston while active combustion.

스크린샷 2016-05-06 오후 5.31.42.png

Lavoisier was a chemist born in 1743. By historical reference, he did not care about the oxygen until he got the mail from Scheele requesting for repeating his oxygen experiment. He also had dinner with Priestley and heard the oxygen experiment. At first, he used mercuric oxide to generate oxygen and focused on the acidity of the mysterious gas. After some experiments, he defined the gas as the oxygen(acid former), because a lot of acidic compound generated this same gas. With the results, he insisted that the source of acidity is in the part of air, which is related to combustion. In addition, he used the gas as a proof of refuting phlogiston theory.


As mentioned above, three chemists from three different countries contacted each other for same interest. Lavoisier and Priestley had met and talked about the oxygen experiment. In 1774, Scheele sent a letter saying that “I’ve got advise from Priestly, but the experimental result is suspicious, that I ask you for the conformation.” There is controversy over the fact whether Lavoisier got this letter or not(Some insists that his wife hid the letter to get the right for oxygen discovery), but it is certain that Scheele contacted Lavoisier and Priestley. After Scheele published his book “Chemical Treastise on Air and Fire”, he wrote the statement that he found the oxygen earlier than Priestly.


In his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”, Thomas Kuhn proposed who would be a real discoverer among 3 chemists. He said that Scheele doesn’t deserve for it because the publishment was late, so it is the choice between Priestley and Lavoisier. Priestley didn’t get the pure sample of oxygen, and he recognized the gas as the air without phlogiston. Lavoisier also recognized oxygen as the whole air or the cause of acidity. He didn’t focused on discovering a new gas but the theory about combustion. Kuhn insisted that from this oxygen case, it should be clear ‘what is the definition of oxygen’ and ‘which compound is oxygen’ to clarify the new discovery. The new discovery cannot occur at a certain time or by one scientist. For the new discovery is to be occurred, contain the consolidation of concept shoud be included, and the shift of paradigm might be needed. With the latter statement, Kuhn gives Lavoisier the authority for oxygen discovery. Two scientist had similar experiment and made same result, but only Lavoisier had doubt on the phlogiston theory. Only Lavoisier used the result to propose new paradigm, and became the leader of the Chemical Revolution.


Comparing three chemists’ experiment would be interesting, but it will be also helpful to think about the meaning of first discovery. Thomas Kuhn gave his standards for the first discovery, and the date of first experiment is not the only condition. For me, I thought it would be interesting to think who would be the first inventor of other theories.


“The Structure of Scientific Revolution”, Thomas Kuhn

15 thoughts on “The oxygen dispute among Scheele, Priestley,and Lavoisier

  1. I agree with the opinion section of this post that it provided me the chance to think about how we can define what discovery is “truly” the first discovery. The three scientists – Schleele, Priestley, and Lavoisier, all shared their ideas about the oxygen, but the lazy attitudes in conducting experiment, and being tilted into the wrong direction of the scientific conclusion hindered Schleele and Priestley (respectively) to be labeled and recognised as the leader of the Chemical Revolution, the discoverer of Oxygen. (This motivated me not to be lazy! 🙂

    Although as Thomas Kuhn also admitted, Lavoisier is considered the leader of the Chemical Revolution, but I believe that in the end, it is perhaps the active collaboration and asking each other for advices and help to evaluate and repeat the experiments that led to a great Chemical Revolution. The scientists asked each other to repeat the experiment, and referenced each other’s idea to develop further one’s research. I think teamwork had always been important in the field of Science.


  2. You agreed with the Thomas Kuhn’s proposition to select the first discoverer of oxygen, but I don’t think this it not important. If we focus on who is the first discoverer, then another sientists who did similar experiment will be underestimated. Because Scheele and Priestley have affected to Lavoisier’s founding of oxygen, I think we should accept their experiment as important as Lavoiser’s. Therefore, I think choosing the first one of founding is useless.


  3. I think it could be better if you briefly introduced Flogiston theory, because, for me, it was hard to understand ideas of scientists fully without understanding the Flogiston theory.
    About Thomas Kuhn, I agree with you, I don’t think it is neccessary to publish first – to be counted as the first discoverer. Because ideas were often interchanged, and different scientists could discover things independently, moreover, there were Schlee had some problems with publication process.


  4. I think it could be better if you briefly introduced Flogiston theory, because, for me, it was hard to understand ideas of scientists fully without understanding the Flogiston theory.
    About Thomas Kuhn, I agree with you, I don’t think it is neccessary to publish first – to be counted as the first discoverer. Because ideas were often interchanged, and different scientists could discover things independently, moreover, Schlee had some problems with publication process.


    • Oh) sorry, I just see that Phlogiston theory was introduced in the previous post.
      P.S. it was interesting to know that phothosynthesis was discovered together with oxygen


  5. “As mentioned above, three chemists from three different countries contacted each other for same interest” This information was also posted in the previous posting and it was very interesting to me. Even today, we have trouble in contact and work together even within our country. However, they did their work for one purpose “To find the truth!” I think it is very cool and we (KAIST students) should learn from them, their enthusiasm.
    Your posting remind me about my future, and my goal Thanks 🙂


  6. Even if the true winner is the Lavoisier, there is no doubt that Priestley and scheele’s works are not useless. The Phlogiston Theory discriminated as wrong theory, but it was an inevitable transitional theory before the Chemical Revolution. Although it was totally failed supposition, it showed the properties of the oxygen. If there was no Phlogiston Theory, Lavoisier also could not find oxygen.


  7. I thought that maybe people could get mercury poisoning as they used mercuric oxide. The chemical equation is as following. 2 HgO -> 2Hg + O2(g). But since this is a very easy way to produce oxygen (by decomposition of mercuric oxide), they might have used it. Also, the professor told us that chemistry is dealing with the materials that can be used in real world. As alchemistry work has been ongoing those days, there could have been many scientists working on gases with interesting properties.
    For the definition of discovery, I think it is still important to do it as ‘first’ as the word discovery is defined as “the act of finding something for the first time”. This is why still there is great tension between scientists in developing some medicine or new theory.


  8. It is interesting process to decide first discovery. I agree with Tomas’s idea. I think science is one of revolution. In revolution, ‘new’ is most important. In your posting “Only Lavoisier used the result to propose new paradigm, and became the leader of the Chemical Revolution.” this sentence is similar with my opinion.


  9. Comparing three ideas is interesting. Maybe at that time, as our professor said in the lecture, it would be easier for scientists or chemists to think that something characteristic is going out from the material during combustion. That is why phlogiston theory has been believed for quite a long time. However, Lavoisier had doubt on the theory, and this suspicion triggered ‘Revolution’ on the field of chemistry.


  10. The three scientist’s work are well organized, so I was able to compare and understand their achivements. I was always confused about the scientist at the 18c. Especially I didn’t know about Scheele’s work or even who he was. I think more comparing between their backgrounds and beliefs will give some interesting results.


  11. I agree with Thomas Kuhn’s opinion. Three scientist argues about oxygen, but Lavoisier was the only person who doubt about the phlogiston theory. I think massive development of science and technology would happen if new paradigm replaces the existing theories. So in my opinion, we should be tolerant to paradigm shift and accept new proven theories.


  12. Similar to my previous comment, I also think that someone who can explain why and how it works about the theory perfectly matching experiment can be admitted as a discoverer. That might bring paradigm shift or not. However I would like to suggest that the whole process is a new discovery of science. I bet there are more scientists other than these three that we don’t even know there names. Also, nowadays it gets harder to work by oneself in science and collaborative work is desirable. It would be harder to find out who is first. Therefore I think we should view science as a process.


  13. Pingback: História da Ciência, o que Estudar? Parte 3. Alguns Químicos Famosos, e seu Trabalho. – CIÊNCIA LIVRE.

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