A Tale of Two Chemists

Seymour Mauskopf reviews biographies of Priestly and Lavoisier in American Scientist:

Fullimage_200512215265_646The story of the chemical revolution that took place at the end of the 18th century is one of the most compelling in the history of science. Nearly 60 years ago, this narrative was given particular dramatic force by James Bryant Conant in a case study titled The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory. In 1962, Conant’s formulation achieved iconic status in Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn, like Conant, shaped his account as a duel between two heroic scientific protagonists, Joseph Priestley and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.

The drama was heightened by the fact that Priestley, the apostle of the phlogiston theory, had discovered a gas that promoted combustion and respiration far better than ordinary air. He had named it dephlogisticated air (more on this later). This same gas, about which Lavoisier had learned from Priestley, became the centerpiece of Lavoisier’s new antiphlogistic theory and was given a new name by him: le principe oxygine (“acid maker”). The fact that we still call the gas oxygen and find dephlogisticated air an obsolete and mystifying name shows clearly who was the victor in this intellectual battle.

More here.