“Who can tell but that, in time, this pure air may become a fashionable article in luxury… Hitherto only two mice and myself have had the privilege of breathing it,” said Joseph Priestley, a clergyman and a scientist in eighteenth century England, who is credited with the discovery of oxygen.
Little did Priestley know that his words would become prophetic one day, during a global pandemic, where the ‘right’ to even breathe would become a luxury.
As people desperately scrambled for oxygen beds, cylinders and concentrators in late April and early-mid May 2021 for their loved ones amid a brutal second wave of COVID-19, India’s metropolises had to create makeshift crematoriums and burial grounds, to accommodate the rising death toll.
The Race to Discover Oxygen – and History of O2 as a Commodity
This is when the historian in me started enquiring into the history of oxygen as a commodity. In spite of its essential role in saving lives, the history of oxygen as a commodity is relatively new and coincides with the rise of commercialised society in the Northern hemisphere.
As Europe was slowly shaking away its feudal vestiges, four talented chemists indulged in a ‘race’ to discover oxygen. In his dimly-lit laboratory, Joseph Priestley separated oxygen by putting a cask full of mercuric oxide in high heat. The resultant combustion produced pure oxygen, leaving the half-burnt mercury behind.
Joseph Priestley called it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Since the beginning, the use of oxygen for therapeutic purposes was associated with a long-held fear that the patient who took in ‘too much’ pure oxygen would ‘live too fast’, and then languish to death.
In spite of these fears, Priestley and his fellow members of an elite and bourgeois society first started to administer oxygen to mainly those patients coming from the elite classes who were suffering from asthma, pneumonia, cerebral palsy, ‘obstinate’ venereal diseases, and tuberculosis or consumption. Breathable oxygen administered in small doses was considered to be a solution to these long-standing debilitating conditions and diseases.
Oxygen Therapy & Class Privilege
The right to breathe fresh air, considered to be a fundamental right of every human being now, since its very inception was associated with class privileges and politics of access.
Gradually becoming known as a panacea, the breathable oxygen mania soon reached the other side of the Atlantic, where a compound of oxygen and a diluted nitrous oxide was given to asthma patients for a whopping fee of USD 30 US (present day USD 275).
It was advised that as many as thirty sittings would be a cure to every disease known by the mid-nineteenth century medical professionals. While contemporary doctors often condemned the treatments as pretentious and fraudulent, in the nineteenth century, theories of public health often associated health with vapour present in the air.
The dark, enclosed spaces, the working class ghettoes, the smaller rooms of the urban poor – according to nineteenth century public health experts – were said to contain miasma or noxious vapour which could spread diseases.
In the absence of epidemiology, noxious vapour was also seen to be a major factor behind the spread of plagues and smallpox epidemics. Keeping in mind the prevalent theories of the day, it is not surprising that breathable ‘pure’ air fascinated the rich who often fled the polluted, congested cities to the countryside to recuperate.
Democratisation of Oxygen Therapy & the Workers’ Movement
From a fad pursued by the rich, the democratisation of oxygen therapy came in the wake of the trade union movements and public health movements that demanded better working conditions.
As securing ventilation for the ill-ventilated factories and prevention of working class mortality became a major site of social struggle, oxygen therapy research also received a new lease of life.
From the elite parlours, a series of inventions such as a rudimentary version of modern-day ventilators, inventions such as masks, oxygen regulators, breathing tubes aided the early experiments, which sought to administer continuous oxygen to patients.
In 1870, commenting on the usefulness of medical oxygen, a surgeon named AD Smith, associated with the Oxygen Gas Company of New York, planned for a building where small rooms could be filled with distilled oxygen produced by the Gas company, where patients of various maladies of the day – including hypochondria, cancer and even melancholia – would be able to recuperate.
The next series of historical developments in the field of oxygen therapy came in the battlefields of France to treat soldiers, gunners and army personnel poisoned by the killer gas phosgene.
As the inhuman trenches of France and the phosgene fumes permanently damaged the lungs of the soldiers, oxygen-administration was touted as the only cure.
An early version of the portable oxygen cylinder, masks and nasal tongs – also known as the Haldane equipment – were ‘invented’ in the trenches of France.
A Tough Fight
From the parlours of the rich, the democratisation of oxygen therapy was a result of war, social struggles and public health movements. As India, especially New Delhi, recently fought a battle for oxygen, it may be moot to remember that the ‘right to breathe oxygen’ was not ‘charity’ but a hard-won right, and a result of numerous historical conjunctures that has changed the world.
(Rukmini Chakraborty has a Masters degree from Cornell University, US. She is a historian of State formation in 19th century, her direct research focus being on the Indian Ocean Region and maritime law. She is a founder-member of the Borderlands research group: a Columbia-Chicago-Harvard-Cornell initiative on borders and modern states. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)