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Mayow, John


(b. Bray, near Looe, England, December 1641; d. London, England, September 1679)

physiology, chemistry.

Mayow was the second son of Phillip Mayowe, a member of the well-established, substantial, and multibranched Mayow family of Cornwall. His grandfather Philip acquired the manor of Bray in 1564; he was one of the nine charter burgesses of East Looe when the town received its charter of incorporation from Queen Elizabeth in 1587. He appears on his altar tomb in alderman’s robes with the epitaph “Phillipe Maiowe of East, Looe, Gentleman.” John’s father is referred to in the parish register that records John’s baptism as “Mr. Phillip Mayowe, Gent.”

Mayow matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, on 2 July 1658 and was received as a commoner and admitted scholar on 23 September 1659. On 3 November 1660 he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He graduated bachelor of common law on 5 July 1670 and obtained the further privilege of studying medicine. After leaving Oxford in 1670 he entered medical practice, at least during the summer season at Bath. In the 1670’s he seems to have spent considerable time during the fall and winter months in London. Robert Hooke records several meetings with Mayow in his Diary from 1674 through 1677. On Hooke’s recommendation Mayow was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 30 November 1678.

Mayow is best known for his studies on the interrelated problems of atmospheric composition, aerial nitre, combustion, and respiration. He has occasionally been regarded, usually uncritically, as an unappreciated precursor of Lavoisier. In fact, Mayow’s work was vigorously scrutinized—both in a friendly and in a hostile spirit—in his own time and again in the late eighteenth century after the discovery of oxygen. In the last several decades, the question of his originality and importance has been a subject of scholarly debate.

Mayow’s first publication, a thin volume entitled Tractatus duo, was printed at Oxford in 1668. The two tracts, the first on respiration and the second on rickets, demonstrated his involvement in the scientific and medical issues and literature of his day. In “De respiratione,” Mayow specifically cited the work of his English contemporaries Robert Boyle, Nathaniel Highmore, and Thomas Willis, and of the Italian Marcello Malpighi. He also took note of experiments on the inflation of the lungs “recently performed at the Royal Society” by Robert Hooke and Richard Lower, and textual nuances suggest that he may likewise have been familiar with such recent publications as Swammerdam’s Tractatus… de respiratione usuque pulmonum (Leiden, 1667), reviewed in the Philosophical Transactions for October 1667. Mayow’s second essay, “De rachitide,” shows a familiarity with Francis Glisson’s De rachitide, sive morbo puerili… (London, 1650), although Mayow departed sharply from Glisson by offering a highly abbreviated account of the symptomatology and therapeutics and a more iatromechanical version of the etiology of rickets.

The real interest and importance of the Tractatus duo, however, lies in the striking originality of Mayow’s juxtaposition of contemporary physiological ideas in “De respiratione.” Thus, after describing with some novelty the mechanics of thoracic dilatation and pulmonary inflation, Mayow argued that respiration serves principally to convey a supply of fine nitrous particles from the air to the blood. This “nitrous air” is necessary to life, for when it is missing from the mass of inspired air, respiration does not produce its usual good effect. The nitrous particles are needed to react with the “sulphureous” parts of the sanguinary stream, and this reaction causes a gentle and necessary fermentation in the pulmonary vessels, the heart, and the arteries. Moreover, the nitrous air is also essential to the beating of the heart. Like other muscles, the heart contracts macroscopically because an “exptosion” occurs microscopically within its fibres. The exptosion, which inflates the muscles, results specifically from the violent interaction of the “nitro-saline” particles of the inspired air with the animal spirits fashioned from the “volatile salt” of the blood.

Mayow was here fusing in a very original way two recent Oxford physiological traditions. First, he adopted the “nitrous pabulum” theory originally advanced by Ralph Bathurst in Oxford lectures of 1654 and later remembered by Robert Hooke and improved in his Micrographia of 1665.1 Second, Mayow endorsed Willis’ essential ideas about the explosion mechanism for muscular contraction. But whereas Willis had attributed explosive inflation to the violent, gunpowder-like interaction of the ’“spirituoussaline” animal spirits with the “sulphureous” parts of the blood, Mayow contended that the blood and spirits could not possibly react exptosively, for if they could they would already have done so before the spirits were distilled from the blood in the cortex of the brain. Mayow was thus able to avoid apparent contradiction and to account for the otherwise perplexing fact that death foltows so suddenly upon the cessation of respiration. Failure to inspire fresh supplies of nitrous panicles mixed with the larger bulk of air could now be understood to lead instantaneously to the stopping of heartbeat; and stoppage of heartbeat immediately curtails the distribution of animal spirits throughout the body. Since, Mayow asserted, the life of animals consists in the distribution of animal spirits, death quickly foltows upon the cessation of respiration.

Thus, in 1668, Mayow wrote as a product of and a participant in the Oxford physiology to which he was thoroughly exposed as a student and fellow. His ideas were interesting, although his contemporaries considered them fundamentally unexceptional; they were well reviewed and apparently well received. The Tractatus duo was accorded the lead review in the November 1668 number of the Philosophical Transactions where Mayow’s theories were clearly summarized in considerable detail with no suggestion of skepticism or hostility.

Between 1668 and 1674, perhaps encouraged by the initial reception of his views on respiration, Mayow attempted a clarification, expansion, and refining of his ideas, both on physiology and on chemistry. He may well have been influenced by the publication of several ctosely related books and essays: Richard Lower, Tractatus de corde (1669); Malachi Thruston, De respirationis usus primario (1670); Thomas Willis, De sanguinis accensione (1670) and De motu musculari (1670); and Robert Boyle, Tracts … Containing New Experiments, Touching the Relation Betwixt Flame and Air (1672) and Tracts … About Some Hidden Qualities of the Air (1674). Meanwhile Hooke continued to report to the Royal Society about experiments on combustion, respiration, and the action of the air and of nitrous compounds. In 1674 Mayow referred directly to several of these efforts, and allusions suggest a familiarity with the rest. In any case, by 1674 Mayow, aware of contemporary developments, had expanded his Tractatus duo into Tractatus quinque by the addition of three new essays: “De sal-nitro et spiritu nitro-aereo”; “De respiratione foetus in utero et ova” and “De motu muscular et spiritibus animalibus.”

In the first essay, by far the longest and most important, Mayow offered a chemical history of nitre and nitro-aerial spirit. His primary intention seems to have been to distinguish between these two distinct substances, which the vague vocabulary of his contemporaries (and his own) had previously confused. Nitre (saltpeter) is a triply complex salt. It consists of spirit of nitre (nitric acid) combined with a fixed salt of the earth; spirit of nitre is in turn derived from the “ethereal and igneous” nitro-aerial spirit of atmospheric air (oxygen?) in combination with the “Salinometallic parts” of common “Terrestrial sulphur,” It is the nitro-aerial spirit, harbored in turn in the spirit of nitre and in common nitre, that is the active and “igneous” substance in nitrous compounds, It is the chemical agent responsible for sustaining combustion and producing fermentation. Flame consists essentially in nitro-aerial spirit thrown to brisk motion by interacting with sulphureous particles, whereas fermentation is the general effervescence of nitro-aerial particles reacting with salino-sulphureous ones. Moreover, the caustic qualities of acids derive from the active and igneous nitro-aerial particles within them.

Having clarified the respective roles and chemical relations of the several nitrous substances, Mayow next explores a wide range of problems to which he makes the nitro-aerial spirit relevant. His exploration ranges from meteorological fantasies about thunder and lightning quite happily and deliberately modeled on Descartes’s Principia philosophiae, through speculations on the role of nitro-aerial spirit in transmitting the pulse of light, to—most significantly ingenious experimental investigations of the role of nitro-aerial spirit in combustion and respiration, In pursuit of this latter problem, Mayow dexterously employed a variety of experimental techniques that represented subtle though important improvements on contemporary practice, notably that of Boyle. For example, Mayow was able to transfer gases collected over water more neatly than did Boyle, who had to use two air pumps for this operation.2 Mayow also experimented with animals and candles breathing or burning over water, using cupping glasses, water troughs, and bell jars. He always carefully adjusted water levels with a special siphon arrangement, and with this apparatus he was able to observe the breathing of an animal in a ctosed space. He was thus able to test his earlier assertion that there are nitrous particles diffused in a larger bulk of otherwise useless air, an assertion that Hooke had repeated, unverified, to the Royal Society early in the 1670’s.3 Mayow now observed the gradual rise of water into the space occupied by the breathing animal. The rise of water continued until there was a diminution of onefourteenth of the original volume of air. Mayow explained this diminution as the result of the passing of nitro-aerial particles, which normally account for the elasticity of atmospheric air, from the air through the lungs and into the blood. There, finally, the nitro-aerial particles fermentatively interact with sulphureous particles, producing animal heat in the process and changing the blood from dark purple to light scarlet.

Mayow’s two other essays in Tractatus quinque, “De respiratione foetus in utero et ovo” and “De motu musculari et spiritibus animalibus,” primarily supplement and clarify physiological views that he had earlier expressed in Tractatus duo. In the first of these essays Mayow contended that embryos require nitroaerial particles as surely as do respiring animals. The umbilical arteries convey the appropriate particles either from the maternal bloodstream or from the albuminous humor of the egg, whence they are temporarily collected from the nitro-aerial particles supplied by the heat of the incubating fowl. In the second essay Mayow somewhat revised his 1668 views on muscular contraction. Aware of Steno’s recently published findings on the action of muscles, Mayow contended that muscles contract by “contortion” rather than by inflation. The active agent, however, is still nitro-aerial particles, which were now said to be the very substance of animal spirits; and these spirits produce the necessary effervescence when they come in contact with the salino-sulphureous particles of the blood in the muscular fibrils.

The immediate reception of Tractatus quinque was decidedly less favorable than that of Tractatus duo. Mayow’s work again earned a lead review in the Philosophical Transactions, a lengthy one in the July 1674 number. Now, however, the detailed summary showed suggestions of sarcasm and disbelief.

Detailed marginal notes called attention to works by Boyle and others, the impression being clearly and perhaps deliberately created that Mayow owed debts to his contemporaries that he did not fully acknowledge. The review was probably written by Henry Oldenburg, a friend of Boyle and secretary of the Royal Society. In a letter to Boyle of July 1674, Oldenburg commented that “some learned and knowing men speak very slightly of the quinque Tractatus of J.M. and a particular friend of yours and mine told me yesterday, that as far as he had read him, he would shew to any impartial and considering man more errors than one in every page.”4

To a large extent personal loyalty and scientific partisanship lay behind Oldenburg’s remark. At just this time Boyle and Hooke were conducting a polite but unmistakable debate about the nature of nitrous compounds and the role of the air in respiration and combustion. Close as Oldenburg was to Boyle, he was distant from Hooke, who several times accused Oldenburg of personal malice.5 In striking contrast to the hostility that Hooke felt in Oldenburg, Mayow seemed eager to support Hooke’s side of the debate and, indeed, to provide experimental substantiation for his long-standing but still disputed views on chemistry, combustion, and respiration. Moreover, the elaborate hypothetical excursions with which Mayow filled much of Tractatus quinque, and which doubtless ran counter to the skeptical mood of Boyle and Oldenburg, were consistent with Hooke’s increasing enthusiasm for explicit Cartesian hypothesizing in the 1670’s and 1680’s6 It seems no accident that Hooke and Mayow were friendly after the publication of Tractatus quinque, and that Hooke proposed Mayow for membership in the Royal Society after Oldenburg’s death in 1677.

Other reactions to Mayow’s views were mixed. In one work Boyle seemed to flirt briefly with Mayow’s ideas, but by and large he remained atoof.7 Other contemporaries cited Mayow’s theories and experiments, and some continued to do so for several decades. In the eighteenth century Mayow still had a Following which included the chemist and physiologist Stephen Hales. The bitter critics who also appeared were usually, like Archibald Pitcairne, of iatromeehanieal persuasion. There were also judicious conciliators. Albrecht von Haller, for example, a magisterial figure in mid-eighteenth-century physiology, devoted significant attention to Mayow’s views in his much studied Elementa physiologiae. Yet with the passage of time, Mayow’s special originality faded, even in the minds of his supporters; and he became generally but vaguely identified with Boyle, Hooke, Tower, and those other seventeenth-century virtuosi who speculated on the role of the air in respiration and combustion.

With the discovery of oxygen the ground shifted considerably. Lavoisier himself had a copy of Mayow’s book in his library, and several of his ideas and experiments seem to show important traces of Mayow’s techniques and perhaps even his theories.8 Lavoisier’s contemporary Fourcroy discussed Mayow explicitly and remarked that his experiments had been more ingenious than those of his much noted countrymen Boyle and Hales.9 In England, no doubt due in part to the hunger for national priority, a small Mayow revival began. Participating with various degrees of enthusiasm were Thomas Thomson, Thomas Beddoes, and G. D. Yeats. Beddoes and Yeats published extracts and analyses of Tractatus quinque, Beddoes’ being Chemical Experiments and Opinions. Extracted From a Work Published in the Last Century (1790) and Yeats’s Observations on the Claims of the Moderns, to Some Discoveries in Chemistry and Physiology (1798). Among the claims made for Mayow were that in 1674 he already knew the true cause of increased weight in metallic calcination (fixation of nitro-aerial particles = oxygen) and clearly recognized that certain bases are made acid by the addition of nitro-acrial particles (= oxygen, the acidifying principle).10

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth there was a steady flow of commentary on Mayow and his originality vis-à-vis both immediate contemporaries and late-eighteenth-century successors. Several editions of his works were also published. More recently, especially since the publication of T. S. Patterson’s long and biting “John Mayow in Contemporary Setting” (1931), Mayow’s originality and importance have been considerably debated. Patterson contended that Mayow had been elevated to scientific preeminence by confusion and poor scholarship. In fact, Mayow was a derivative thinker who owed his important ideas to Boyle, Hooke, and Lower, among others. If Mayow contributed anything of his own to the Tractatus quinque, it was a penchant for fanciful hypothesizing and a general confusion. Further, according to Patterson, the later resurrection of Mayow as a precursor of Lavoisier was based on misreading and special pleading; Mayow’s ideas, ctosely studied, were fundamentally different from Lavoisier’s. Not the least significant difference was that Mayow and Lavoisier wrote in completely different ways about the gaseous state.

A steadily growing body of scholarship has developed since Patterson’s article appeared. Working from one perspective, Henry Guerlac and Allen Debus have attempted to trace the alchemical and meteorological roots of Mayow’s theories on aerial nitre and the nitrous compounds, and have thus begun to situate his work in a more cogent contemporary context. Partington has taken up Mayow’s cause by working from another angle. Both in separately published articles and in long chapters in A History of Chemistry, he has vigorously defended Mayow’s special talents and insights against Patterson’s assault. Other scholars have also contributed important information.

It seems probable that both pro- and anti-Mayow scholars will be vindicated to a certain extent. It is already clear that several of Mayow’s ideas had a long history or at least prehistory and that he acquired many notions from the contemporary intellectual environment. It seems equally to be correct that Mayow gave common and contemporary views— especially those popular at Oxford and the Royal Society—unique twists and imaginative interpretations. He was also an ingenious and talented experimenter, whatever his passion for Cartesian hypotheses. With regard to his putative anticipation of Lavoisier, it is well established that Mayow covered many of the basic chemical and physiological phenomena that Lavoisier later interpreted with new theories and improved data. Nonetheless, as Patterson has argued, a certain unbridgeable conceptual gulf separated Mayow’s seventeenth-century formulations from Lavoisier’s in the eighteenth century, even when they used similar or approximately similar experimental apparatus and materials. But quantumlike theoretical discontinuities within a continuum of experimental and theoretical concern with certain problems are a commonplace in the history of science.


1. Bathurst’s lectures were published by T. Warton in The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst (London, 176l). Hooke’s discussion of the “dissolution” of combustible bodies by “a substance inherent, and mixt with the Air, that is like, if not the very same, with that which is fixt in Salt-peter” is found on pp. 103–105 of the Micrographia.

2. J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 604.

3. Douglas McKie, “Fire and the Flamma Vitalis: Boyle, Hooke and Mayow,” in E. Ashworth Underwood, ed,. Science, medicine and History, 1 (Oxford, 1953) 482.

4. Robert Boyle, works VI (London, 1772), 285.

5. Margaret ’Espinasse, Robert Hooke (Berkeley. 1962), 63–65.

6. Theodore M. Brown, “Introduction,” The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London, 1971), 4–7.

7. McKie, op. cit., pp. 483–484.

8. Partington, op. cit., II, 592. 595.

9.lbid., p 595.

10. T. S. Patterson. “John Mayow in Contemporary Selling,” in Isis15 (1931), 49.


I. Original Works. Mayow’s two major publications were both originally published at Oxford but enjoyed several seventeenth-century reissues and special editions. Tractatus duo has never been translated as such. Tractatus quinque, which includes modified versions of the two 1668 essays, has been translated several times: in a Dutch trans. by Steven Blankaart (Amsterdam, 1683); a German trans. by J. Koellner (Jena, 1799); and an English trans. by A. Crum Brown and L. Dobbin (Edinburgh, 1907), A partial German trans. was published by F. G. Donnan, in Ostwalds Klassiker der exacten Wissenschaften no. 125 (Leipzig, 1901); and a partial French trans. by L. Ledru and H. C. Gaubert was published at Paris in 1840.

Contemporary English reactions to Mayow, with references, have been cited above. A favorable contemporaneous review of Tractatus quinque was published in Journal des sçavans (3 Feb. 1676).

II. Secondary Literature. There is as yet no detailed, full-length study of Mayow, although it has recently been called for. A number of recent studies are, however, of considerable utility. Principal among them are Walter Böhm, “John Mayow und Descartes,” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Wissenschaften, 46 (1962), 45–68; “John Mayow and His Contemporaries,” in Ambix, 11 (1963), 105–120; and “John Mayow und die Geschichte des Verbrennungsexperiments,” in Centaurus, 11 (1967). 241–258; Allen G. Debus, “The Paracelsian Aerial Niter,” in Isis55 (1964), 43–61; Henry Guerlac, “John Mayow and the Aerial Nitre,” in Actes du septiéme congrés international d’ histoire des sciences (Jerusalem, 1953), 332–349; and “The Poets” Nitre: Studies in the Chemistry of John Mayow —11,—II , in Isis. 45 (1954), 243–255; Diana Long Hall Front Muyow to Holler: A History of Respiratory Physiology in die Early Eighteenth Century, unpublished diss, (Yale, 1966); Douglas McKie, “Fire and the Flamma Vitalis: Boyle, Hooke and Mayow,” in E. Ashworth Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine and History, I (Oxford, 1953), 469–488; J. R. Partington, “The Life and Work of John Mayow’ in Isis, 47 (1956), 217–230(1 405–417; “Some Early Appraisals of the Work of John Mayow,” ibid., 50 (1959), 211–226; and A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), passim, but esp, ch. 16; and T, S, Patterson, “John Mayow in Contemporary Setting,” in Isis. 15 (1931), 47–96, 504–546.

Of considerable help also are John F. Fulton, A Bibliography of Two Oxford Physiologists: Richard Tower (1631–1691) and John Mayow (1643–1679) (Oxford. 1935); and Douglas McKie. “John Mayow, 1641–1679,” in Nature, 148 (1941), 728; and “The Birth and Descent of John Mayow,” in Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 33 (1942), 51–60.

Additional studies that throw light on Mayow’s contemporary context are Hansruedi Isler, Thomas Willis 1621–1675 (New York, 1968); D. J. Lysaght “Hooke’s Theory of Combustion,” in AmbixI (1937), 93–108; Alfred Myer and Raymond Hicrons, “On Thomas Willis Concepts of Neurophysiology,” in Medical History, 9 (1965), 1–15, 142–155; and H.D. Turner, “Robert Hooke and Theories of Combustion,” in Centaurus,4 (1955–1956), 297–310.

Theodore M. Brown

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