To understand the history of the use of hyperbaric oxygen (HBO), we first need to focus on diving medicine, as those two are closely related. The origin of diving is not known, but it has been a distinct occupation from 4500 B.C. How much one loved to dive underneath the surface of the ocean and discovered it’s rich nature, it had some physical effects which couldn’t be ignored, leading to the many applications of compressed gas-therapy as we know now in modern medicine.
Since human beings could only hold their breath for 4 to 5 minutes, there was a need for equipment to take us deeper than just 30 meters below sea level. Â In 350 BC, Alexander the Great was said to be put in a glass barrel and lowered into the Bosphorus Strait, a strait that forms a part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. (see figure 1). Â If this really happened, he was lucky to survive. It wasn’t until 1620 that the first diving equipment was invented by the Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel. To treat medical problems associated with diving, like decompression sickness, recompression techniques as a treatment were only discovered in mid 19th century. Now, hyperbaric oxygen is used, forming the bridge between diving medicine and other forms of HBO therapy.
Hyperbaric chambers have been used for therapeutic purposes since 1662, but oxygen wasn’t involved in the therapy.Â Oxygen wasn’t discovered until 1775 by Joseph Priestly, by isolating what he called ‘dephlogisticated air’. Â In 1789 toxic effects of oxygen were discovered and consequently there was a lot of hesitance in using oxygen under high pressure. Â Lavoisier and Seguin, two well-known chemists who researched respiration and the use of oxygen, discouraged practitioners to use oxygen for therapeutic goals. Mid 1800s the clinical use of hyperbaric oxygen started.
In 1917 Drager developed a system for the treatment of diving accidents and realized the first benefits from oxygen under pressure for patients suffering from decompression illness(figure 2). Unfortunately, Drager’s system never went into production. It was Dr. Cunningham who, in 1928, built the biggest hyperbaric chamber ever; 5 stories high and all had 12 bedrooms with the facilities of a good hotel (figure 3). At that time it was the only functioning hyperbaric chamber in the world. His reasoning of hyperbaric oxygen being beneficial for conditions asÂ hypertension, syfilis, diabetes mellitus and cancer was based on the assumption that anaerobic infections play a role in the aetiology of those diseases. Dr Cunningham never discussed his technique in medical literature. He has given many opportunities to present it, but he ever did. His chamber in Cleveland was dismantled for scrap 1937, a temporarily end of the era of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for medical disorders.
In the early 1930s, the military developed and tested hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) for purposes specifically in the area of deep sea diving and aeronautics. In 1955 and 1956 Churchill-Davidson, in the UK, used hyperbaric oxygen to increase the effectiveness of radiation used in cancer patients. At the University of Amsterdam, Ite Boersma used it successfully in cardiac surgery.
During the 1960s, laboratory, animal and clinical studies began on a wide variety of indications for HBOT. Today studies continue to improve and find more uses for this therapy. To learn more about the history of hyperbaric medicine, visit the reference links below.