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A Brief History of Oxygen Therapy

In this course we describe the major events in the evolution of supportive oxygen therapy. A knowledge of the history of oxygen therapy will help you understand the rational behind many of our current practices in this area.



The history of oxygen use in medicine can be divided into two long epochs. In the century following Priestly and Lavoisier’s report of the isolation of the gas, the use of oxygen in medical practice was characterised by largely ineffective, intermittent administration of the gas by several different routes in multiple unrelated conditions. This initial ‘dark age’ of oxygen therapy was followed by an era in which we gradually stumbled upon what, at the time of writing, we believe to be a rational approach to supportive oxygen therapy. As we shall see, the evolution of oxygen use in medicine is intimately connected with some of the major events in human history. This course is a starting point for a series of CME activities concerning the clinical application of oxygen therapy. A knowledge of the history of oxygen therapy will help you understand the origins and rational behind many of our practices today.

Estimated Time to Complete

2.0 hours

Learning Objectives

Upon successful completion of this activity, you will be able to:

  • Detail the key historical events in the development of supportive oxygen therapy
  • Explain the origin of many of our current practices in oxygen administration
  • Remember those involved in giving us this therapeutic option

Course Content

  • Introduction
  • The Discovery of Oxygen
  • Early Therapeutic Misconceptions
  • New Ideas from the New World
  • A Critical Discovery in the Old Country
  • Pure Genius: A Limitless Supply of Oxygen
  • Lessons Learned In Flanders Fields
  • Reaching the “Ultimate Zone”

Release date


Expiration date


Instructions for Participation

Watch the videos in sequence


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Partington JR. The Life and Work of John Mayow (1641-1679). Part One. Isis, 1956;47(3):217-30 [The University of Chicago Press, The History of Science Society]

Partington JR. “The Life and Work of John Mayow (1641-1679): Part Two.” Isis 1956;47(4):405-417 [The University of Chicago Press, The History of Science Society]

Priestly J. Experiments and observations on different kinds of airs. Nov 1775. (free access)

Bray GA. Lavoisier and the Scientific Revolution: The oxygen Theory Displaces Air, Fire, Earth and Water. Obesity Research 1994;2(2):183-188. (free access)

Rodwell GF. Lavoisier, Priestly and the discovery of Oxygen. Nature 1882;27::8-11. (free access)

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Illustrations by Imhoff HC. Account and illustration of the first documented case involving the use of inhaled oxygen therapy in the USA. (Inhaled oxygen therapy had been used by the French physician, Caillens, in a case of tuberculosis in 1783). Blodgett AN. The continuous inhalation of oxygen in cases of pneumonia otherwise fatal, and in other diseases. Boston Medical & Surgical Journal 1890;123(21):48-485.

Haldane JS. The therapeutic administration of oxygen. BMJ 1917:1(2928):181-183 (free access)

Haldane JS. A lecture on the Symptoms, Causes and Prevention of Anoxaemia (Insufficient Supply of Oxygen to the Tissues): and the Value of Oxygen in its Treatment. BMJ 1919;2(3055):65-71 (free access)

Various Authors. Discussion on the therapeutic uses of oxygen. Proc R Soc Med 1920;13: War Section (free access)

Doctors responsible for the medical management of the survivors of gas attacks on the Western front discuss their experiences with inhaled oxygen therapy. Includes discussions of the role of oxygen therapy in the treatment of soldiers affected by chronic respiratory symptoms post gas exposure.

Petty T. A taped interview with Alvan L. Barach MD: pioneer in pulmonary medicine. Audio recording, New York, Breon Laboratories, © 1976 (free access)

Dr Alvan Barach interviewed by Dr Tom Petty (University of Colorado, Denver). Two key individuals in the development of oxygen therapy in the 20th century in conversation. An excellent insight into the use of oxygen therapy in the early decades of that century.

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Leigh JM. Ideas and anomalies in the evolution of modern oxygen therapy. Anaesthesia. 1974;29:335-48

Leigh JM. Historical Note: The evolution of oxygen therapy apparatus. Anaesthesia. 1974;29:462-85

O’Driscoll BR et al. Guideline for emergency oxygen use in adult patients. Thorax 2008;63(Suppl 6):vi1-68 (free access)

O’Driscoll BR et al. British Thoracic Society guideline for oxygen use in healthcare and emergency settings. BMJ 2017;4:e000170. Doi:10.1136/bmjresp-2016-000170 (free access)

Kelly C. Oxygen therapy: time to move on? Ther Adv Respir Dis. 2014;8(6):191-199 (free access)

>Grainge C. Breath of life: the evolution of oxygen therapy J R Soc Med 2004;97:489-493 (free access)

Featherstone PJ and Ball CM. Early masks and nasal cannulae for the delivery of oxygen. Anaesth Intensive Care. 2019;47(6):492-3 (free access)

Stadie WC. The treatment of anoxia in pneumonia in an oxygen chamber. J Exp Med 1922;35(3):337-360 (free access)

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