But the discovery of oxygen gave the clew, and very soon all the chemists were testing the air that came from the lungs—Dr. Priestley, as usual, being in the van. His initial experiments were made in 1777, and from the outset the problem was as good as solved. Other experimenters confirmed his results in all their essentials—notably Scheele and Lavoisier and Spallanzani and Davy. It was clearly established that there is chemical action in the contact of the air with the tissue of the lungs; that some of the oxygen of the air disappears, and that carbonic-acid gas is added to the inspired air. It was shown, too, that the blood, having come in contact with the air, is changed from black to red in color. These essentials were not in dispute from the first. But as to just what chemical changes caused these results was the subject of controversy. Whether, for example, oxygen is actually absorbed into the blood, or whether it merely unites with carbon given off from the blood, was long in dispute.

Each of the main disputants was biased by his own particular views as to the moot points of chemistry. Lavoisier, for example, believed oxygen gas to be composed of a metal oxygen combined with the alleged element heat; Dr. Priestley thought it a compound of positive electricity and phlogiston; and Humphry Davy, when he entered the lists a little later, supposed it to be a compound of oxygen and light. Such mistaken notions naturally complicated matters and delayed a complete understanding of the chemical processes of respiration. It was some time, too, before the idea gained acceptance that the most important chemical changes do not occur in the lungs themselves, but in the ultimate tissues. Indeed, the matter was not clearly settled at the close of the century. Nevertheless, the problem of respiration had been solved in its essentials. Moreover, the vastly important fact had been established that a process essentially identical with respiration is necessary to the existence not only of all creatures supplied with lungs, but to fishes, insects, and even vegetables—in short, to every kind of living organism.


Some interesting experiments regarding vegetable respiration were made just at the close of the century by Erasmus Darwin, and recorded in his Botanic Garden as a foot-note to the verse:

"While spread in air the leaves respiring play."

These notes are worth quoting at some length, as they give a clear idea of the physiological doctrines of the time (1799), while taking advance ground as to the specific matter in question:

"There have been various opinions," Darwin says, "concerning the use of the leaves of plants in the vegetable economy. Some have contended that they are perspiratory organs. This does not seem probable from an experiment of Dr. Hales, Vegetable Statics, p. 30. He, found, by cutting off branches of trees with apples on them and taking off the leaves, that an apple exhaled about as much as two leaves the surfaces of which were nearly equal to the apple; whence it would appear that apples have as good a claim to be termed perspiratory organs as leaves. Others have believed them excretory organs of excrementitious juices, but as the vapor exhaled from vegetables has no taste, this idea is no more probable than the other; add to this that in most weathers they do not appear to perspire or exhale at all.

"The internal surface of the lungs or air-vessels in men is said to be equal to the external surface of the whole body, or almost fifteen square feet; on this surface the blood is exposed to the influence of the respired air through the medium, however, of a thin pellicle; by this exposure to the air it has its color changed from deep red to bright scarlet, and acquires something so necessary to the existence of life that we can live scarcely a minute without this wonderful process.

"The analogy between the leaves of plants and the lungs or gills of animals seems to embrace so many circumstances that we can scarcely withhold our consent to their performing similar offices.

"1. The great surface of leaves compared to that of the trunk and branches of trees is such that it would seem to be an organ well adapted for the purpose of exposing the vegetable juices to the influence of the air; this, however, we shall see afterwards is probably performed only by their upper surfaces, yet even in this case the surface of the leaves in general bear a greater proportion to the surface of the tree than the lungs of animals to their external surfaces.