Top, equipment used by Priestley in his experiments on gases (Wikimedia Commons). Bottom, Scheele, Mme. Lavoisier, and Priestley in “Oxygen” simulate Lavoisier’s famous experiment on oxygen’s role in respiration (courtesy of Carl Djerassi).
Today in 1774, Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen. Here are some musings on the invaluable element from scientist and playwright Carl Djerassi:
One need not be a chemist to know that without oxygen a human life would cease in seconds or minutes rather than decades. But as an organic chemist who has practiced his art for more than half a century, I must concede that without oxygen I would not have published a single paper, because most of my chemical life was spent grazing in steroid pastures. Few classes of organic molecules are as interesting as steroids—covering the gamut from sex hormones, oral contraceptives, bile acids, corticoids, vitamin D, and cardiac glycosides to anabolic drugs of abuse—yet this panoply of biological diversity is based on a single chemical template: the tetracyclic C17H28 steroid skeleton. A thin paperback written solely in two letters (C and H) becomes the steroid “Bible of Life” through addition of a third letter, O, that nature—and occasionally clever chemists—introduce into select places on that template.
… But as a chemist turned playwright, let me end with some lines from “Oxygen”—a play I wrote with Roald Hoffmann:
ASTRID: First to the discovery: No one will question that oxygen confers great benefit on mankind, right?
BENGT: Oxygen was good for people before it was “discovered!”
And then Mme. Lavoisier’s conclusion of the play: “Imagine what it means to understand what gives a leaf its color! And how it turns red. What makes a fever fall, a flame burn. Imagine!”