History of Oxygen Therapy

[Editor’s note: We’ve delved into our archives to find one of many letters written by the beloved Dr. Tom Petty. Though it was originally published several years ago, it is as true today as it was then. Read on…]

By Thomas Petty, MD

Would you like to know a little more about the history of oxygen? Here is the original correspondence from Dr. Tom Petty to the TV producer of a 3-minute TV segment on oxygen therapy back in 2003:

The history of oxygen is a good story. We did our first research with liquid portable oxygen back in 1965. At that time, it was a revolutionary idea to be able to get oxygen at all, especially outside of hospitals. Ambulatory oxygen was truly unique. Our original research, showing that cardiac function and reconditioning was possible, was confirmed by others including a group in Birmingham, England. They did almost exactly the same study that we did, independent of knowledge of what we had done! Now fast forward to the Nocturnal Oxygen Therapy Trial (NOTT), supported by the NIH (National Institute of Health), and another study done in the UK (United Kingdom) by the British Medical Research Council. They were both published in 1980 and 1981. Both studies showed that home oxygen improved both the length and quality of life in COPD patients with advanced disease. Today there are approximately 1 million people in the USA receiving home oxygen, but not enough of these users have an ambulatory system. LTOT (Long Term Oxygen Therapy) is also widely used in Japan, where we introduced it nearly 18 years ago. It is also used in Europe. But usually oxygen in these areas comes from stationary systems. It takes ambulatory oxygen to improve tissue oxygen transport to restore the structure and function of critical organs of the body. This is why the Helios and other truly ambulatory systems are so superior to oxygen by stationary systems. Stationary systems do not allow good mobility and reconditioning.

This should really be the basis of a one-hour documentary. I would start with showing how Priestly first discovered oxygen in the late 1700s and how Dr. Alvin Barach first gave oxygen via a tent in 1922. I have skipped over many historical tidbits to get this far! And then there were the many controversies about whether or not oxygen should be given AT ALL to COPD patients! Our pioneering research attacked this dogma effectively, beginning with our 1965 studies. Then came the problems with reimbursement and the government cutting back on oxygen prescribing, indirectly through their curtailment of payments. The misrepresentation by oxygen suppliers did not help things. Our group organized a series of five oxygen consensus conferences, which had an enormous impact on oxygen prescribing and some effect on reimbursement. On and on it goes. And still, new technologies are emerging, such as a 10 lb portable oxygen concentrator, which may change the landscape. What a fascinating story, and almost no one knows it. Anyway, this is a good way to start a New Year. Thanks for listening.

~ Tom