The discovery of oxygen is closely connected with revolution in late eighteenth century France and with two scientists, one British and the other French, both of whom are sometimes called the father of chemistry. They are Joseph Priestley and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier. However, in actual fact, neither of them was the first to identify the element. That honour goes to a man called Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swede of German origin, whom the sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov called “hard luck Scheele”.
That was because he discovered several other elements as well as oxygen - barium and manganese in 1774 and tungsten seven years later – but has never been credited with them in the popular imagination. There were many reasons for this. In the first place, Scheele published in Swedish in fairly obscure academic journals and always many months or even years after he had discovered something. So, his work hardly took the world by storm. Next, he continued to work as an apothecary – or pharmacist, as we now call the profession – rather than devoting himself to research. He could have done so, as he was the man who first made the phosphorous match that all the world used until lighters were invented. Because of Scheele, Sweden has been the biggest manufacturer and exporter of matches ever since. Another reason for his obscurity was that he had a short life and so was not around to stand up for himself. (He had the unfortunate habit of smelling and tasting the chemicals he discovered and died in 1786 in his early forties from lead and mercury poisoning.)
By the way, the name he gave to oxygen was “fire air”. However, having paid lip service to Scheele, we can now move on to an English revolutionary who admired what the French were doing to their ruling class in the late 1780s and early 1790s – killing them – and to a French aristocrat and tax collector who lost his head at the guillotine.
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