Scheele and Oxygen

Scheele and Oxygen

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Vital to life, a necessity to combustion, and the component of innumerable compounds, oxygen is by far one of the most important elements. Astoundingly, Oxygen makes up a fifth of our atmosphere, 49.5% of all compounds on Earth contain oxygen, makes up about 2/3 of our body, yet human kind has only know of it since 1977 ( Ironically, within a period of a couple of years, three different men had stumbled upon the vital element. Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swede, made the initial discovery. However, Joseph Priestly, the man generally attributed with the discovery on the basis of his works being published first, discovered it in 1774. Neither of them quite understood it though, and only a French man by the name of Antoine Lavoisier who would be the first to fully understand it and disprove the old “phlogiston� notion (Priestly Joseph 4). Nonetheless, Carl Wilhelm Scheele was still the first to discover oxygen, a discovery that would be one of many in a rich life.
William Scheele’s life was one of humble beginnings. Born on December 19, 1742 he was one of a pack of 11 children. His formal training or education in science was of the bare minimum. By the age of fourteen, a firm by the name of Martin Anders Bauch in Gothenburg had accepted him as an apprentice as a pharmacist. This initial access to various chemicals, compounds, and books gave Wilhelm Scheele just he start he needed for beginning his career into chemistry. When the firm changed hands, Carl Wilhelm Scheele took a job with another company name Kjellström where, once again, he was provided the mean and permission to experiment. Scheele once again changed positions and moved to Stockholm where he continued in a pharmacy. Here his first discoveries were made ( In 1769 with the help of a man named Anders John Retzius, Scheele isolated tartaric acid, a substance used on lenses, from cream of tartar (Tartaric Acid 1). Scheele made his big break however in 1770. Through various methods, Scheele was able to isolate oxygen. His discovery of “Fire Air� precipitated numerous awards including a membership to the Royal Academy of Sciences, a position never before, and not even to present day to be given to a pharmacist ( His home town, in an effort to keep him, also found him a place to set up his pharmacy.

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Scheele was set as a chemist.
Scheele managed to isolate oxygen by heating silver carbonate at very high temperatures and removing one of the reactions products, CO2, with KOH ( This was not the only way Scheele went about isolating oxygen. In an alternative method he combined potash and nitric acid to form KNO3 then using nitric acid he managed to separate the product of the aforementioned reaction into NO2 and the “dephlogisticated air� or oxygen. He called it “fire-air� in consequence to the brilliance of its emitted light when it came into contact with flame. Priestly, performed one of Scheele’s experiments 2 years later and came to the same results as Scheele (
Scheele’s discoveries did not halt at the discovery of oxygen however. Scheele managed to isolate Barium and Chlorine; though he believed them to be compounds and not elements (a British Chemist Sir William Humphery would later prove they were indeed elements). He was the first to prepare many compounds, including tartaric acid, arsine, and hydrogen sulfide. He demonstrated that lactic acid was the acid component of sour milk. He also determined the properties and composition of hydrogen cyanide and those of citric, malic, oxalic, and gallic acids (Scheele, Carl Wilhelm).
As aforementioned, Scheele was set for life in his pharmacy provided by his town, turning down many other offers of high positions. Donated to Scheele by the widow of the ex-apothecary, Scheele spent the remainder of his life working there. Scheele would, unfortunately, suffer from many ailments due to his hazardous line of work, “the trouble of all apothecaries he stated.� Through his various experiements he was exposed to various poisonous gasses due to the poor ventilation of his working facilities. Indeed, in some of his experiments he went as far as to describe the taste of hazardous compounds of arsenic. The consequences of his experimentation went beyond taking tolls on short term health. Scheele was only forty-three when he found himself upon his deathbed. Nearing the end of his life, Scheele made sure that his pharmacy, along with its belongings, was signed over to the widow. On May 26, two days after signing over his possessions, Scheele passed away (
Though Scheele may not have been recognized as the discoverer of oxygen, his contributions to science are, nevertheless, not to be underestimated. He currently holds the record for most elements isolated by a single person, elements that are essential to many everyday processes in our life. For Scheele discovery was a passion that he pursued until he could no longer handle the dangers of his work. While some of his lesser accomplishments may be swept aside. Scheel will always be remembered for his discovery of oxygen even if he failed to quite comprehend how it worked or its significance. To reiterate the importance of Oxygen in our lives would merely be redundant. Though his means of experimentation may have not been as advanced as his counterparts, Scheele was, nevertheless, the first to discover oxygen.
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