A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter IV
Anatomy and physiology in the eighteenth century
The function of respiration
It is a curious commentary on the crude notions of mechanics of previous generations that it should have been necessary to prove by experiment that the thin, almost membranous stomach of a mammal has not the power to pulverize, by mere attrition, the foods that are taken into it. However, the proof was now for the first time forthcoming, and the question of the general character of the function of digestion was forever set at rest. Almost simultaneously with this great advance, corresponding progress was made in an allied field: the mysteries of respiration were at last cleared up, thanks to the new knowledge of chemistry. The solution of the problem followed almost as a matter of course upon the advances of that science in the latter part of the century. Hitherto no one since Mayow, of the previous century, whose flash of insight had been strangely overlooked and forgotten, had even vaguely surmised the true function of the lungs. The great Boerhaave had supposed that respiration is chiefly important as an aid to the circulation of the blood; his great pupil, Haller, had believed to the day of his death in 1777 that the main purpose of the function is to form the voice. No genius could hope to fathom the mystery of the lungs so long as air was supposed to be a simple element, serving a mere mechanical purpose in the economy of the earth.

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.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.