06 December 2009

The new chemistry and strange treatment of diseases

Priestley's discovery of oxygen and Lavoisier's new description of the building blocks of nature had surprising consequences in the area of medicine. Thomas Beddoes (1760 - 1808), a philanthropic physician who cared much about the health of the poor and was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution during its first years, got carried away by the excitement of the new chemistry. He was convinced that illnesses such as "consumption" or "phthisis" (tuberculosis) and scurvy are the result of an imbalance of the elements in the inhaled air and promoted a new "pneumatic chemistry".

Scurvy (a disease produced by a lack of vitamin C) was in his view produced by a lack of oxygen in the air evidenced by discoloration of the gums, heart and lungs and could therefore be cured by letting the patient inhale air enriched with oxygen. The fact that seamen often succumbed to scurvy during long voyages across vast oceans could, in his view, be explained by oceanic air having a lower oxygen content. Beddoes was aware of the success of James Cook in beating scurvy through ample supply of acidic vegetables but argued that "this seems in great measure owing to his extreme care to keep his ships well aired."

The opposite, too much oxygen in the air, was in Beddoes' view the reason for tuberculosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria now treated with antibiotica). He deduced this from the observation that occasionally pregnancy delays the progress of the disease and argued in 1793: "The foetus has its blood oxygenated by the blood of the mother through the placenta. During pregnancy there seems to be no provision for the reception of an unusual quantity of oxygene. On the contrary, in consequence of the impeded action of the diaphragm, less and less should be continually taken in by the lungs. If therefore a somewhat diminished proportion of oxygene be the effect of pregnancy, may not this be the way in which it arrests the progress of phthisis; and if so, is there not an excess of oxygene in the system of consumptive persons?"

Beddoes easily admitted that much of this was speculation. Nevertheless, driven by his urge to help humankind and improve the health of the poor, he promoted to keep patients afflicted with consumption in closed, badly ventilated rooms and established a Pneumatic Institute where patients were treated with air enriched with or depleted of various gases.

Naturally the Pneumatic Institute was not a success. For the patients, who were mostly close to their death already, the wrong therapy probably did not change much. But the Pneumatic Chemistry and its Institute were a sad waste of the extraordinary talents of a man who all his life wanted to better the fate of the ordinary people.


Beddoes, Thomas (1793) Observations on the Nature and Cure of Calculus, Sea Scurvy, Consumption, Catarrh, and Fever: together with Conjectures upon several other Subjects of Physiology and Pathology. London: J. Murrey.

Jay, Mike (2009) The Atmosphere of Heaven: the Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.