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Carl Scheele, unlucky pharmacist

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Carle Wilhelm Scheele, the 18th century Swedish pharmaceutical chemist, was given the nickname “Hard-luck Scheele” by Isaac Asimov because he made a number of chemical discoveries before others who were given the credit. But perhaps Scheele’s worst bit of luck came when the chemicals he used in his experiments eventually killed him.

Scheele, most significantly. discovered oxygen three years before Joseph Priestley. Scheele called it “fire air” because it supported combustion and explained it using the existing theory of gases at the time — phlogiston theory. This theory, which was first proposed by Johann Becher in 1667, said that a fire-like element — phlogiston — was contained in combustible bodies and released during combustion.

Scheele’s first publication, ‘A chemical treatise on air and fire’, was not published until 1777, by which time both Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier has already published their data and conclusions on oxygen and phlogiston theory.

Priestley had relied heavily on Scheele’s work, perhaps so much so that he may not have discovered oxygen on his own. Although Scheele did not grasp the significance of his discovery, his work was essential for the invalidation of the phlogiston theory.

There are also claims that Scheele was the first to discover a number of other elements such as barium, chlorine, manganese, molybdenum and tungsten, as well as compounds including citric acid, lactic acid, glycerol and hydrogen cyanide. He discovered a process similar to pasteurisation and a means of mass producing phosphorus, which led Sweden to become one of the world’s leading producers of matches.

Cumulative exposure to heavy metals in his work took their toll on Scheele’s health, afflicting him with what he called “the trouble of all apothecaries”, and he died in 1786, aged 44.

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