Today in Science History – February 6 – Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804)

February 6 marks the passing of Joseph Priestley. Priestley was an English theologian and natural philosopher who is best known for his experimental works with gases or “airs”.

For centuries, the air was just the air. It was one of the main four elements of earth, air, water, and fire. Air was a simple substance, indestructible and unchanging. Scientists of the late 18th century began to take a closer look. They found air was actually a mixture of multiple distinct airs. Priestley found one air that greatly increased the process of burning.

The prevailing theory of the time believed things burned because of a substance present in all things called phlogiston. Things gained phlogiston as they burned. Once they became saturated with phlogiston, they stopped burning. Since his new air helped things burn better, it did not contain phlogiston. He called it “dephlogisticated air”. Even though his discovery seemed to support the phlogiston theory, it was one of the key elements to launch Lavoisier’s chemical reaction theories that started the chemical revolution of the 19thCentury. Lavoisier also changed the name of this air to oxygen.

Priestley began his work with gases with a ready supply of phlogisticated air or carbon dioxide. He obtained near limitless supplies from a brewery near his ministry. One of the most notable achievements from this was a process to easily create carbonated water.

Priestley was very outspoken in his support for the French and American revolutions. Since this position wasn’t very popular in his home country of England, he was forced to relocate to the new United States in 1794.

Notable Science History Events for February 6

2002 – Max Ferdinand Perutz died.

Max Ferdinand Perutz

Max Ferdinand Perutz (1914 – 2002)

Perutz was an Austrian biochemist who shares the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with John Kendrew for their research into the structure of hemoglobin and globular proteins. He employed x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of hemoglobin, the protein responsible for transporting oxygen in blood.

1991 – Salvador Edward Luria died.

Luria was an Italian-American microbiologist who shares the 1969 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Max Delbrück and Alfred Hershey for their work on the genetic structure of viruses. Together with Delbrück, they discovered that genetic inheritance in bacteria statistically follows Darwinian principles over Lamarckian principles. Viral resistance could be passed on to future generation without the virus being present.

1973 – Ira Sprague Bowen died.

Bowen was an American astrophysicist and spectroscopist who disproved the existence of the element ‘nebulium’.

English astronomer William Huggins was using this new tool in 1864 while observing nebulas. The spectra collected from the Cat’s Eye nebula contained a fat green line no one had ever measured before. Looking a little closer, the line was actually two lines at 595.9 nm and 500.7 nm. Neither of these lines was associated with any known element, so Huggins believed he discovered a new element. Since it was discovered in a nebula, he called his new element nebulium.

Bowen was investigating the ultraviolet spectra of the lighter elements of the periodic table in 1927. He discovered nebulium’s green lines could be reproduced by doubly ionized oxygen (O2+) at very low density. Since spectral lines are unique to one element, nebulium did not exist. Bowen effectively disproved the existence of an element known for 63 years.

1971 – Alan Shepard plays golf on the Moon.

Astronaut Alan Shepard used a makeshift six-iron to hit a pair of golf balls during the Apollo 15 mission. In spite of swinging one-handed, he claimed the second ball went “miles and miles and miles” due to the lower lunar gravity and lack of air resistance. It was later estimated to only go 200 to 400 yards, but still a decent hit for one hand. The event was caught on the television feed.

1898 – Rudolf Leuckart died.

Rudolf Leuckart

Rudolf Leuckart (1822 – 1898)

Leuckart was a German zoologist who was a pioneer in parasitology. He researched tapeworms and trichinosis.

He also discovered the tapeworm Taenia saginata only infects cattle and Taenia solium only infects pigs.

1892 – William Parry Murphy was born.

William P. Murphy

William P. Murphy (1892 – 1987)
Nobel Foundation

Murphy was an American physician who shares the 1934 Noble Prize in Medicine with George Minot and George Whipple for their work on the treatment of anemia. Whipple showed that anemic dogs who were fed liver improved their condition, actually reversing the condition. Minot and Murphy used this research to successful treat pernicious anemia.


1894 – Edwin Klebs was born.

Edwin Klebs

Edwin Klebs (1834 – 1913)

Klebs was a German physician and bacteriologist who is known for his research into the bacterial theory of infection. He discovered the bacillus that causes diphtheria with Friedrich August Johannes Löffler. Diphtheria is a contagious upper respiratory disease that affects the tonsils, pharynx and nasal cavities that causes a low fever and diminished motor control and loss of sensations.

1804 – Joseph Priestley died.

1802 – Charles Wheatstone was born.

Charles Wheatstone

Charles Wheatstone (1802 – 1875)

Wheatstone was a British scientist who developed a method to determine electrical resistance called the Wheatstone bridge. He also invented the Playfair cipher that was used by the British well into World War I to encrypt messages. He also determined that electricity had a ‘speed’ and was not instantaneous.

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