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Oxygen: life and death

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Oxygen: life and death

I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time

Tragic events in Birstall have reminded Steve Ainsworth of another reason for the Yorkshire town being noteworthy

Joseph Priestley

This summer, the small Yorkshire market town of Birstall became famous. Or rather it became infamous.

Birstall is exactly half- way between Bradford and Dewsbury. It is so insignificant that most drivers passing by will not even notice that they have done so.

Yet, this summer, media from around the world descended on the tiny town to report on the tragic death of its local MP, 41-year- old Jo Cox.

Few pharmacists will have ever heard of Birstall before this year. Yet, for 50 years, until only a decade ago, when arrangements changed, many high street pharmacists had direct cause to regularly remember Birstall: it is the birthplace of Joseph Priestley the man who discovered oxygen.

Extraordinary life

One of the founding fathers of modern chemistry, Priestley, born in 1733, led an extraordinary life, not just as a chemist but also as a religious dissenter, teacher, and as a Liberal political theorist. In his lifetime, he published over 150 works.

As a child prodigy, Priestley learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, he later studied French, Italian, and German in addition to Aramaic and Arabic.

Priestley moved to Warrington in 1761 to take up the post of tutor of modern languages and rhetoric at the town’s Dissenting academy; although he would have preferred to teach mathematics and ‘natural philosophy’, as science was then known. He would subsequently move home many times.

In 1770, Priestly invented ‘carbonated water’ – water impregnated with carbon dioxide. He speculated that it might cure scurvy. It didn’t cure scurvy; it did, however, make a lot of money, though sadly not for Priestley. (A Swiss contemporary, the entrepreneur J J Schweppe, was way ahead of Priestley in spotting the commercial potential of fizzy drinks.)

Surprisingly for someone now renowned as a scientist, Priestley’s main preoccupations were religious and political radicalism. Science was just a hobby.

Priestley’s wider activities were so inflammatory that they even led to mob violence. The so-called ‘Priestley Riots’, which took place in Birmingham over three days in July 1791, began with Priestley’s church and home being burned to the ground, following which the rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, 26 more houses, and several businesses.

No doubt, at that moment, Priestley fervently wished that there wasn’t quite so much oxygen in the air to feed the flames!

Back in August 1774, Priestley had focused sunlight on mercuric oxide inside a glass tube, which liberated a gas he dubbed ‘dephlogisticated air’. It was oxygen. He noted that candles burned brighter in the gas and that a mouse was more active and lived, or at least lived longer, while breathing it.

Later, after inhaling the gas himself, he wrote: “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 afterwards”. The following year Priestley published his findings in a paper titled, “An account of further discoveries in air.”

In the frame

Yet, the history of science is seldom straightforward. For all that Priestley is lauded as the discoverer of oxygen, his name is not the only one in the frame.

Two years earlier, Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele had produced oxygen by heating mercuric oxide and various nitrates. Scheele called the gas ‘fire air’ because it appeared to be the only known supporter of combustion. He wrote an account of his discovery in a manuscript titled, “A treatise on air and fire’, which he sent to his publisher in 1775. Sadly for Scheele, his paper was published only in 1777, allowing Priestley to gain priority.

The French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier also later claimed to have discovered the new gas independently. Lavoisier was almost certainly being economical with the truth; but it is him we have to thank for coining the name ‘oxygen’ from the Greek words ‘oxys’ and ‘genes’ – literally ‘acid-generating’.

Meanwhile, as the 1790s progressed, life for Joseph Priestley was getting more difficult. It can hardly have helped that he had recently accepted French citizenship, an honour conferred upon him by France’s new revolutionary government. When vicious political cartoons were published about him, Priestley received letters from all across the country, comparing him to the Devil and to Guy Fawkes.


In 1794 Priestley, along with fellow radical Thomas Paine, was publicly burned in effigy. By then, however, Joseph Priestley had already left the country. In April 1793, he and his wife had boarded ship for the USA.

The discoverer of oxygen and fizzy drinks died on February 6 1804, aged 70. He was buried at the Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.

It was, however, to be another 100 years or more before the good people of Birstall got around to honouring their most famous son. In 1912 a bronze statue, paid for by public subscription, was erected in the town’s Market Place. The square grey granite base is inscribed: Joseph Priestley / Discoverer of Oxygen / Born at Fieldhead Birstall 1733.

This summer, quite understandably, the world’s media remained largely oblivious to the monument around which they all clustered. Joseph Priestley’s statue remains, so far, Birstall’s only monument of its kind.

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