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Who discovered oxygen, Priestly or Lavoisier? Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Jan 11th, 2019

Oxygen is a vital gas that occupies up to twenty one percent of the earth’s atmosphere. Animals and human beings require oxygen for their survival while it is the excreted by plants as an end product of photosynthesis.

As a matter of fact, oxygen is present almost everywhere forming two thirds of the body mass of a healthy human being, it accounts for half the mass of the crust of the earth as well as nine tenths of water masses. Its discovery was therefore one of the most successful discoveries on earth. But the question is who really discovered oxygen?

There have been many debates disputing on who the first person to discover oxygen was. Some will argue that it was discovered by Carl Scheele a Swedish chemist; others will give credit to Priestly while others would associate Lavoisier with its discovery. Born in 1733, Joseph Priestly I believe is the man behind the discovery of oxygen gas. Priestly made discoveries of oxygen gas in a Bowood House laboratory in the year 1774.

In his laboratory experiment, he took a glass container and inverted it then inside it put a lump of reddish mercuric oxide and focused it using sunlight through a wide glass burning lens. This experiment resulted into an emission of a gas that in his opinion was six times better than the common air. To validate his discovery, Priestly carried tests and noticed that the ‘gas’ could burn intensively. He also found out that the ‘gas; discovered was able to keep a mouse alive up to four times longer than the common air.

He later on named the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’ since it lacked phlogiston and supported combustion. Apart from the lab experiments, Priestly found out that a mouse kept in jar with a plant would survive unlike that kept in a jar of air only. In addition to his discovery, Priestly found out that a jar that had a sprig inside for twenty seven days rekindled a candle.

In all these he was confirming the discovery of the oxygen gas. However, he decided to share the news of his discovery with Lavoisier who disapproved his theory of ‘dephlogisticated air’. After several experiments Madame Lavoisier discovered that air had an element that had the ability of combining with hydrogen to form water. This element was oxygen referred to as dephlogisticated air’ by Priestly.

Given the above contributions made in the discovery of oxygen, it is difficult to make a decision on who should be credited with the discovery of oxygen. This controversy has been confusing even at the Nobel Committee panellists where there has been no agreement on who should get the ward of the first “Retro-Nobel Prize.”

Nevertheless, it can be argued that the idea of discovering the existence of oxygen was Priestly’s who however had no idea of its reaction. Looking at it from a different perspective, it can again be argued that Madame Lavoisier is the discoverer of the real oxygen since he was able to prove its existence in the atmosphere through the water reaction.

However, basing on the facts of the discovery experiments I would agree that all had their share of contributions in the discovery but Priestly seems to be the initiator of the whole discovery though with little explanations. Lavoisier only made an expansion of the idea and found out that the gas was actually oxygen. Giving credit where credit deserves, Priestly deserves the award.

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