A Source Book in Animal Biology

Author: Lavoisier Antoine-Laurent  | Date: 1783

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Respiration as Utilization of Oxygen

LAVOISIER Antoine-Laurent. From Expériences sur la respiration des animaux, et sur les changemens qui arrivent à Pair en passant par leur poumon, in Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences for 1777, p. 185, 1780, tr. by T. Henry as Experiments on the respiration of animals and on the, changes effected on the air passing through their lungs in his Essays, on the effects produced by various processes on atmospheric air, etc., Warrington, 1783.*

Of all the phenomena of the animal economy, none is more striking, none more worthy the attention of philosophers and physiologists than those which accompany respiration. Little as our acquaintance is with the object of this singular function, we are satisfied that it is essential to life, and that it cannot be suspended for any time without exposing the animal to the danger of immediate death. ...

The experiments of some philosophers, and especially those of Messrs. Hales and Cigna, had begun to afford some light on this important object; and, Dr. Priestley has lately published a treatise, in which he has greatly extended the bounds of our knowledge; and has endeavoured to prove, by a number of very ingenious, delicate, and novel experiments, that the respiration of animals has the property of phlogisticating air, in a similar manner to what is effected by the calcination of metals and many other chemical processes; and that the air ceases not to be respirable, till the instant when it becomes surcharged, or at least saturated, with phlogiston.

However probable the theory of this celebrated philosopher may, at first sight, appear; however numerous and well conducted may be the experiments by which he endeavours to support it, I must confess I have found it so contradictory to a great number of phenomena, that I could not but entertain some doubts of it. I have accordingly proceeded on a different plan, and have found myself led irresistibly, by the consequences of my experiments, to very different conclusions.

Now air which has served for the calcination of metals, is, as we have already seen, nothing but the mephitic residuum of atmospheric air, the highly respirable part of which has combined with the mercury, during the calcination: and the air which has served the purposes of respiration, when deprived of the fixed air1, is exactly the same; and, in fact, having combined, with the latter residuum, about ¼ of its bulk of dephlogisticated air, extracted from the calx of mercury, I re-established it in its former state, and rendered it equally fit for respiration, combustion, etc., as common air, by the same method as that I pursued with air vitiated by the calcination of mercury.

The result of these experiments is, that to restore air that has been vitiated by respiration, to the state of common respirable air, two effects must be produced: 1st. to deprive it of the fixed air it contains, by means of quicklime or caustic alkali: 2dly. to restore to it a quantity of highly respirable or dephlo-gisticated air, equal to that which it has lost. Respiration, therefore, acts inversely as these two effects, and I find myself in this respect led to two consequences equally probable, and between which my present experience does not enable me to pronounce. ...

The first of these opinions is supported by an experiment which I have already communicated to the academy. For I have shewn in a memoir, read at our public Easter meeting, 1775, that dephlogisticated air may be wholly converted into fixed air by an addition of powdered charcoal; and, in other memoirs, I have proved that this conversion may be effected by several other methods: it is possible, therefore, that respiration may possess the same property, and that dephlogisticated air, when taken into the lungs, is thrown out again as fixed air. ... Does it not then follow, from all these facts, that this pure species of air has the property of combining with the blood and that this combination constitutes its red color. But whichever of these two opinions we embrace, whether that the respirable portion of the air combines with the blood, or that it is changed into fixed air in passing through the lungs; or lastly, as I am inclined to believe, that both these effects take place in the act of respiration, we may from facts alone, consider as proved:

1st. That respiration acts only on the portion of pure or dephlogisticated air, contained in the atmosphere; that the residuum or mephitic part is a merely passive medium which enters into the lungs, and departs from them in nearly the same state, without change or alteration.

2dly. That the calcination of metals, in a given quantity of atmospheric air, is effected, as I have already often declared, only in proportion as the dephlo-gisticated air, which it contains, has been drained and combined with the metal.

3dly. That, in like manner, if an animal be confined in a given quantity of air, it will perish as soon as it has absorbed, or converted into fixed air, the major part of the respirable portion of air, and the remainder is reduced to a mephitic state.

4thly. That the species of mephitic air, which remains after the calcination of metals, is in no wise different, according to all the experiments I have made, from that remaining after the respiration of animals; provided always, that the latter residuum has been freed from its fixed air: that these two residuums may be substituted for each other in every experiment, and that they may each be restored to the state of atmospheric air, by a quantity of dephlogisticated air, equal to that of which they had been deprived. A new proof of this last fact is, that if the portion of this highly respirable air, contained in a given quantity of the atmospheric, be increased or diminished, in such proportion will be the quantity of metal which we shall be capable of calcining in it, and, to a certain point, the time which animals will be capable of living in it.

*The portion reprinted here is the same as that which appears in John F. Fulton, Selected readings in the history of physiology, pp. 122–126, Springfield, Ill., 1930.

1Carbon dioxide.


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Chicago: Lavoisier Antoine-Laurent, "Respiration as Utilization of Oxygen," A Source Book in Animal Biology, trans. T. Henry in A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. Thomas S. Hall (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951), 197–199. Original Sources, accessed February 17, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTSV1F6795VTJ25.

MLA: Antoine-Laurent, Lavoisier. "Respiration as Utilization of Oxygen." A Source Book in Animal Biology, translted by T. Henry, in A Source Book in Animal Biology, edited by Thomas S. Hall, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1951, pp. 197–199. Original Sources. 17 Feb. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTSV1F6795VTJ25.

Harvard: Antoine-Laurent, L, 'Respiration as Utilization of Oxygen' in A Source Book in Animal Biology, trans. . cited in 1951, A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.197–199. Original Sources, retrieved 17 February 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZTSV1F6795VTJ25.