Carbon Dioxide & Oxygen
The over-evaluation of the role of oxygen
Buteyko Short eNovel by Sergey Altukhov
The content of this written work is fact and is written in the style of a documentary novel.
What baggage did Dr Buteyko bring with him to the beginning of Perestroika? The lie about the primacy of oxygen in breathing
1987 can be considered the start of perestroika in Russia. Much came to light that had been hidden. There emerged robbers and swindlers, but along with them appeared small opportunities for those who had greatly helped others.
Buteyko’s closest students and supporters suggested that he set up the co-operative Buteyko Breathing Centre in Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk. Ludmila Sokolovskaya was one of the first to suggest the idea, and she gave advice on organising the Centre. She was also directly involved in the practicalities of organising a similar centre in Moscow.
What brought Buteyko to this decisive moment? What proof did he have of the effectiveness of the Volitional Elimination of Deep Breathing?
First, he had the work by the English physiologists, Haldane and Priestley, entitled Respiration. Only one edition of this book had been published in the Soviet Union, in the difficult year 1937. Naturally, the book did not mention the Buteyko Method – the Doctor was only 14 in 1937 and 15 years would pass before his Great Discovery. But this book contained the fundamental theoretical basis that demonstrated the importance of carbon dioxide for the human body – in certain doses, of course. Many other medical books praised oxygen alone. Carbon dioxide was written and spoken about as if it was dangerous and needed to be removed from our bodies with all our might. Breathe deeply! Take in healthy oxygen. And with every deep breath, get rid of more dangerous carbon dioxide from your lungs. That’s the only way to be healthy, doctors would say. You’ll be strong as an ox.
As a student, Buteyko read great numbers of such books. As he had top marks, he was allowed to use the teaching staff’s medical library. He didn’t waste his time.
‘I would get books whose pages hadn’t yet been cut after printing! None of the professors had read them,’ the scientific genius would tell me many years later. ‘And these medical works did nothing but praise oxygen!’ Buteyko always began to get annoyed at this point. ‘They were all crazy about oxygen, but where did this obsession come from?’ Dr Buteyko would look at me intently. ‘There aren’t many people who know, but I’ll tell you.’
I would get my notebook and settle down to listen. I heard many of these medical and semi-medical stories from the Doctor. It wasn’t an easy matter to go back to read the primary sources for what he told me. As a genius, he had understood them in a way that another person couldn’t. The story about how the obstetrician and gynaecologist Ignaz Semmelweis had been poisoned in the 19th century had been worth listening to! He had been poisoned because he suggested that surgeons should wash their hands before operating, and not just after.
On this occasion I got ready to hear about the story behind the glorification of oxygen.
Buteyko settled himself more comfortably at his desk beside the window in his flat and began to explain.
‘As our movement’s historian, Sergey, you have to understand this properly. In some ways I’ve spent my whole life trying to tear down the terrible wall of hype about oxygen. This wall stands in the way of doctors who would be glad to understand my Discovery of the Diseases of Deep Breathing, but… then priority would need to be given to carbon dioxide! And today’s doctors are all trained to worship oxygen and all repeat like robots, breathe deeper. Praise this priceless gas louder.’
Buteyko moved the vase of flowers to the right hand corner of his desk.
‘Because of these recommendations by doctors, asthmatics, diabetics and hypertensives suffer for years! Because of these recommendations, children’s adenoids grow abnormally large and the children have to go under the knife. Their adenoids are removed, doctors tell them to breathe deeply and… the adenoids grow back! Can you imagine how terrible this is for their parents?’
Buteyko snapped his long, elegantly manicured fingers twice.
‘Do you know who gave oxygen this completely undeserved glory?’ Buteyko paused slightly. ‘The Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier. Yes, the same Lavoisier whom you came across in your school chemistry classes. The adulation in certain Russian circles of Western scientists has reached such heights that chemistry teachers can only say his name in tones of deepest respect.’
Buteyko again paused for a short while.
‘This is why my Discovery of the Disease of Deep Breathing has been hushed up. Now, if only a member of the French Academy of Sciences had made the same discovery, they would have made a real song and dance about it. But they didn’t give a fig for some Ukrainian bumpkin. They could keep his work quiet.
‘I’m not complaining about my own lack of glory – I’m just sorry for the people who are suffering so terribly from this falsification of the role of oxygen.
‘So, let’s get back to the story of the veneration of oxygen. It all began with that Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier. Although etiquette obliges our chemistry teachers to say his name with a little gasp of awe, I have no intention of bowing and scraping before him. That chemist has done a lot of harm to people.’
Buteyko stretched out in his chair and crossed his legs.
‘It would have been all right if he had been a decent, honest scientist because then you could say he just went a bit off-course, but no. He was an out-and-out crook and scoundrel. Why did he latch on to oxygen? Because he managed to steal the laurels of the man who discovered oxygen. Nowadays people often think that it was Lavoisier who discovered oxygen.’
Buteyko clapped his hands.
‘But a thief is always a thief. Antoine Lavoisier didn’t discover oxygen a completely new gas. The first to discovery oxygen was the English scientist Priestley. Out of the simplicity of his heart, he told a few people of his discovery, including Antoine. Not being a fool, Antoine wrote a little later that he, Lavoisier, Scheele and Priestley had discovered oxygen almost at the same time.
‘Lavoisier became fixated on oxygen and began to publicise and praise its wonderful oxidising properties far louder than Priestley. So everything that science tells us about oxygen comes from Lavoisier.’
I was listening to my teacher very attentively as I understood that this lesser-known side of Lavoisier’s life was unlikely to ever appear in school textbooks.
‘Antoine also tried with all his might to steal from our Russian scientist, Mikhael Lomonosov. He especially wanted to get his hands on his law of the conservation of mass and energy. However, Lomonosov himself was a very weighty figure and managed to get his law published in numerous places. Lavoisier should be a laughing stock.
‘When Antoine pulled the wool over Priestley’s eyes and wrote that he, Lavoisier, intended to call the gas that he had recently discovered “oxygen”, the German professor E.F Lippmann became indignant and wrote that Lavoisier had stolen Priestley’s discovery, as he had stolen those of other scientists. Lavoisier had even falsified the results of his own experiments! Notice, Sergey, Lippmann was a German and liked precision.
How Lavoisier robbed the great Lomonosov
A light breeze was blowing outside Buteyko’s office window, and the leaves on the birch trees were fluttering. But I was so caught up in the Doctor’s story that I hardly noticed anything else.
‘Then, in the end, Lavoisier did manage to rob the great Lomonosov,’ continued my teacher.
‘How did he do that?’ I asked the excited Buteyko.
‘Lavoisier knew that the law of the conservation of mass had been discovered and published long before by Lomonosov, so he couldn’t play the same trick as he had with Priestley. Few people had been aware of Priestley’s discovery, so Lavoisier was able simply to baldly claim that he had been first, followed by Priestley and Scheele. However, Lomonosov’s work had been published in the journals of the Russian Academy of Sciences and distributed abroad. But a thief will always think of something…
’Buteyko smiled ironically and shook his head.
‘Lomonosov was born in 1711, but Antoine wasn’t born until 1743. In other words, Lavoisier was 32 years younger and naturally outlived Lomonosov. The great Russian chemist died in 1765. In 1789, 24 years after the death of this titan, Antoine Lavoisier unabashedly published Elements of Chemistry, in a New Systematic Order, Containing All the Modern Discoveries. This book rapidly became famous. It described oxygen’s major role in most chemical phenomena known at that time. And it was after the publication of this book that the whole world began to think that it was not Lomonosov who had discovered the law of the conservation of mass but…’ Buteyko gave a sly wink, ‘Lavoisier!
‘You might ask how this came about. The swindler was very cunning. He referred to the law of conservation of mass throughout his weighty tome, but not once did he refer to its author!’
Buteyko paused. I could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall.
‘Do you understand his ruse? He didn’t say that he himself had discovered this law, but he didn’t refer to Lomonosov either. The honest scientists who used this book subconsciously began to think that Lavoisier must have made this discovery, otherwise he would have naturally mentioned its author.
I sat in stunned silence. Lavoisier had stolen from Lomonosov himself! This is where the exaltation of oxygen had originated!
‘You understand, Lavoisier had spent a good deal of time studying the oxygen that he had stolen from Priestley. He carried out dozens of experiments with oxygen as an oxidiser. His book on modern chemistry started the over-exaggeration of the role of oxygen!’
Buteyko’s voice grew steely.
‘And as a result, the key role of carbon dioxide was neglected… even the book Outstanding Chemists of the World published in 1991 in Russia says that Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration is similar to combustion!’ Buteyko slapped his leg.
‘But this is fundamentally untrue. Oxygen does play an extremely important role in combustion, but in respiration… well, mille pardons! Oxygen is of secondary importance. In human respiration the most important role is played by carbon dioxide! But Lavoisier believed in oxygen, so we’re told to “breathe deeply for the good of your health”!
‘So millions of people breathe deeply, believing Lavoisier and his rash followers. They breathe until stupefaction – until they get asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. They breathe deeply simply because a man who stole the laurels of Priestley and Lomonosov over-exaggerated the role of oxygen out of all proportion.’
The Doctor restlessly shook his head from side to side and could not settle for a long time.
‘But if these millions of people knew what he was actually like… they would be more careful about trusting him. If we compare the lives of the two scientists, Lomonosov and Lavoisier, everything becomes clear as daylight.
‘Lomonosov came from a poor peasant family who lived near the coast. He grew up in extreme poverty. Antoine was born into the wealthy family of a Paris lawyer and enjoyed all the benefits that come with riches. He could go to any school in Paris! Every door was open to him.
‘Lomonosov instantly took to the fundamental natural sciences – physics, chemistry and mathematics – and slaved away over them. Otherwise he would never have discovered the law of conservation of mass.’
Buteyko was transformed as he told this story – he looked years younger.
‘The Paris playboy Antoine’s life was completely different. He didn’t have a clear goal like Lomonosov. Thanks to his father’s money, he went to the Collège Mazarin, but didn’t initially think of studying dull chemistry and physics. He saw that his lawyer father lived in clover, so he too went to law school.
Two chemists, two such different destinies
‘However, he never worked as a lawyer… his father showered him with money so he had no need to. Antoine tried his hand at writing, but didn’t produce anything much. Then he messed around with philosophy for a while, but he was no Socrates. He tried maths, but formulae were boring so he dropped it. He even had a go at meteorology, but that didn’t work out either.’
Buteyko was interrupted by the telephone. As he spoke to someone, I imagined the young dilettante, lazily dabbling in one science after another, never sticking at anything long. There was no comparison with Lomonosov with his thirst for knowledge and clear goal.
‘Lavoisier stuck at chemistry for a bit longer, attracted by the mystique of the alchemists who had tried to transmute various substances into gold,’ Buteyko continued as he laid down the receiver. ‘He even wormed his way into the Paris Academy of Sciences. He was made a member for his entry into a competition to find the best means of lighting the streets, but he didn’t even win the top prize! His father’s money did the trick, and he took as much advantage of it as he could.
A year after he was made a member of the Academy, Antoine began to put far more effort into something other than his scientific studies. You’ll never guess what! He began to squeeze taxes out of Parisians! He bought a share in the Company of Tax Farmers and became a tax collector. Such was his love of science – he was more interested in money and glory! But do you know how the great Russian scientist Mikhael Lomonosov got along in the Russian Academy of Sciences?’
Buteyko patiently listened to my rather garbled answer.
‘The doltish foreigners who had entrenched themselves in the Academy organised all sorts of intrigues against him when he came to join. For the rest of his life, he had to spend a good deal of time, energy and health fighting these talentless fools.
‘It was different from Lavoisier – he didn’t fight with anyone. When he was made a tax collector, he became Vice-President of the Paris Academy of Sciences in a flash. He opposed the entrance into the Academy of young scientists with all his strength.’
Buteyko gave a wry chuckle.
‘Lavoisier even protested against a plan to increase the Academy’s membership. This is how he fought competition from talented young scientists! Did he actually have time to do scientific work? After all, his job was to squeeze taxes from the working masses so as to put more into his pockets than went to the Treasury. The Company of Tax Farmers was one of the most hated institutions in France.’
Buteyko raised his voice slightly.
‘Along with the other tax collectors, Lavoisier bought from the State the right to collect taxes and customs from the population. He recouped his investment many times over by draining working people dry. Can we really call such a man an outstanding scientist and progressive researcher? Lavoisier suggested that a wall be built around Paris to increase the revenues of the tax collectors – and this was done!’
Buteyko clenched his fist in anger.
‘Can you imagine how much this wall cost at that time? A massive 33 million francs! And its aim? To prevent food and goods being brought into the city without duty being paid!’
He slammed his fist onto the desk.
‘This is what Antoine Lavoisier was thinking about day and night. Not about chemistry or carbon dioxide, but about fleecing peasant farmers bringing their goods into the city…’
The Doctor grew stern.
‘I’m not telling you about this episode in such detail because I just fancy criticising Lavoisier for the sake of it. I’m telling you because his experiments with oxygen led to the hypothesis that respiration is similar to combustion! If Lavoisier was an honest and principled scientist, then we could believe his hypothesis! But it-is-not-true,’ said Buteyko, drawing out his words. ‘It doesn’t correspond to reality. Lavoisier, who said it was, was neither an honest, hardworking scientist nor a decent human being! And if most scientists could understand that, it would be easier to get recognition for the Discovery of the Diseases of Deep Breathing. But a false authority is preventing this recognition.
‘What kind of Academician goes around collecting taxes from peasants and builds walls around Paris to extort more money from them? He was also a commissioner of the gunpowder and saltpetre monopoly, and pumped money from that. And on top of this, he became member of the board of the Discount Bank…’
It was as if Buteyko was thinking aloud.
‘So was science really his vocation? He only thought about whom he could fleece. He even married the daughter of the head tax collector for money. In the end, he became insanely rich for the standards of those times with a fortune of 1 million, 200 thousand livres – more than the king! But what kind of scientist could he possibly be? Lomonosov spent 15 hours a day conducting research, including holidays, whereas Antoine just devoted one day a week to science. On other days he spent only two hours in the morning and evening on it. He didn’t have time to discover formulae – he needed to catch all those peasants bringing their goods to Paris!’
Buteyko was silent for a moment.
‘So do you now understand who is responsible for the glorification of oxygen as the best oxidizing agent and so on? And who is responsible for pushing carbon dioxide into the background for these long, long years? None other than this embezzler of State property, Antoine Lavoisier! It’s not surprising that when the French revolution broke out in 1789, our Antoine was one of its most trenchant enemies! When ordinary people, poorly armed and badly clothed, stormed the hated Bastille, Antoine sent the prison’s defendants gunpowder. Naturally, he was arrested and later executed on the guillotine.’
The Doctor once again shook his head censoriously.
‘And it’s because of this… great scientist that sick people until this day breathe deeply and swallow the oxygen that they so over-rate! They don’t understand the primordial role of carbon dioxide in respiration.
‘Hardly anyone knows the real story of Lavoisier’s “feats”, although it was described quite well in a book published in the USSR in 1948, Stories of Science and Scientists. However, the print run was very short – only 15 thousand copies for the entire country. It was after the war, and people were starving. Hardly anyone bought books at that time. Lavoisier’s successors of course made sure it wasn’t reprinted. The compendium Outstanding Scientists of the World has been published and re-published a number of times, in our country as well as abroad. It has a respectable print run but it paints a very different picture of the guillotined Antoine…
If you want to know if you can trust a scientist’s research, first look at his character
Dr Buteyko took a book from the shelf and opened it at a page marked with a bookmark.
‘Just listen to how they glorify Lavoisier here. They write that he was a French scientist and a member of the Paris Academy of Sciences. And here’s what’s interesting, Sergey. See for yourself. The article begins by saying that Antoine was the father of modern chemistry. You’d expect the following lines to be about how he graduated from the chemistry faculty – after all, if he was a chemist and a Member of the Academy to boot, that should mean that chemistry was his main calling and that he studied it at university, but no. Straight after this grandiose statement, the editorial team unabashedly states this chemist for some reason graduated from the Paris university faculty of law, and that he only attended a series of lectures on chemistry in the Botanic Gardens of all places. Well, what kind of ignoramuses do they think their readers are, to baldly state this in black and white! He graduated from the faculty of law, but no-one calls him a lawyer. He just attended some lectures on chemistry in the Botanic Gardens that were evidently optional. So that’s our famous scientist for you. I’ve not met many Academicians with a legal diploma in their pocket.
‘The article gets worse as it goes on. They mention that he was a commissioner of the gunpowder and saltpetre administration, but not about his time as a tax collector… He built a wonderful laboratory with his own money, which became the scientific centre of Paris.’ Buteyko smiled. ‘Maybe I could build my own laboratory if I constructed a wall around the town for collecting taxes. But they don’t mention the wall here, nor the fact that he helped the defenders of the Bastille to shoot ordinary people by supplying gunpowder… What subjectivity and omission!
‘They say he was a supporter of a constitutional monarchy. He was imprisoned by the Revolutionary Tribunal during the French revolution.’
Buteyko raised his eyes to the ceiling.
‘Oh, he was whiter than white – he didn’t want to shoot people, he just wanted a constitutional monarchy…’
Buteyko was trying hard to make me understand the character of this man who many years ago had over-estimated the role of oxygen.
‘They don’t say directly that Lavoisier stole the laurels for discovering oxygen from Priestley. Oh no, they say euphemistically that in 1774 Lavoisier was verifying Scheele and Priestley’s experiments when he produced oxygen and established that it was a chemical element…’
Buteyko shook the heavy book in the air.
‘What’s the most important point in these lines? That Lavoisier was verifying Priestley’s work? Or that he forgot all about Priestley and established oxygen as a chemical element in his own name? The compendium doesn’t answer this burning question.’
Buteyko grew pensive.
‘Look here.’ Buteyko lifted the book towards me. ‘Here’s the most fateful conclusion. Do you see, the book says “Lavoisier proved that the respiration was similar to combustion and that the formation of carbon dioxide during respiration was the main source of warmth in a living organism”! This last sentence is all wrong. Respiration is very different from combustion, where oxygen really does play the key role. But in breathing, carbon dioxide is most important. And carbon dioxide is not the main source of warmth in the body but the main regulator of metabolism! Our tax collector didn’t understand anything about the role of carbon dioxide and caused confusion for long decades.
‘Remember this too, Sergey. Enemies of my discovery of the role of carbon dioxide in the human body may in time use another of Lavoisier’s claims. Lavoisier proved that the air is made up of oxygen and an asphyxiant gas, namely nitrogen.’
‘I believe that there may come a time after my death when it won’t be so easy to glorify oxygen. And do you know what’ll happen then?’
The great scientist fixed me with an especially penetrating look.
‘Even then my opponents won’t start to praise carbon dioxide or admit that it’s the most important gas for the metabolism. Once oxygen’s star wanes, they’ll start to praise another component of the atmosphere – nitrogen! Or a combination of oxygen and nitrogen! It’s all the same to these phony scientists whether they heap praise on oxygen or nitrogen, as long as they keep carbon dioxide in the background. They only care about drawing a veil of silence over the Discovery of the Diseases of Deep Breathing and concealing from patients that they are sick because of a deficiency of carbon dioxide in their bodies! Buteyko’s enemies will never admit this while he’s alive – and still less when he’s dead!
‘This is why I’ve laid bare Lavoisier’s scholarship for you. Try not to forget our conversation. I didn’t give you a certificate as a senior practitioner and supervisor for nothing. Justify my faith in you.