The discovery and naming of Oxygen happened in the late 18th century. It involves three remarkable chemists from Sweden, England and France, an execution, a self imposed exile, early death, and recycled words from ancient Greece.
Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a poor hard working pharmacist and enthusiastic chemist, first discovered Oxygen around 1773.
Independent of Scheele’s work Joseph Priestley, an English churchman and chemist also discovered Oxygen in 1774 and immediately published his results, thus claiming credit.
Scheele called it “Fire Air” noting it’s importance in combustion. Priestley called it “Dephlogisticated Gas”.
So how did it come to be called Oxygen?
The credit goes to the famous French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, a wealthy humanitarian and polymath, who experimented with oxygen and other gases.
In these experiments Lavoisier noted that when Oxygen combines with other elements it often forms acids.
He called the new gas Oxygene, from two Greek words; Oxy meaning Sharp, and Gen meaning Producing.
In other words Lavoisier called it Oxygen due to its ‘Acid Making’ qualities and the name has stuck!
And what happened to these pioneers of chemistry?
Scheele made many more important discoveries during his life despite a lack of funds. He suffered poor health and died in 1782 at only 43 years old.
Priestley was a free thinking radical ‘dissenter’ churchman, who openly celebrated the French revolution. He emigrated to republican America in later life and in 1804 he died aged 70, in Pennsylvania.
Lavoisier was not so lucky. Despite his genius and contributions to French public life in agriculture and industry, he was executed in 1793 during the French revolution. He was only 50 years old.