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Laughing gas crazes and medical dreams

By Mike Jay

By 1900, nitrous oxide was established as an anaesthetic and hailed as one of the great medical advances of all time. But it was discovered a century earlier, when surgery without pain was considered a foolish, utopian dream, writes Mike Jay

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Nitrous oxide first came to public attention as a bizarre form of public entertainment; but it was this “laughing gas” craze that led, by a circuitous route, to its medical application.

The first person to inhale nitrous oxide was a teenage amateur chemist in the remote backwater of Penzance: a precocious genius by the name of Humphry Davy. By the time of his first full experiments in 1799, Davy was the 20-year-old laboratory assistant at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, a radical project set up to research the therapeutic potentials of recently discovered gases.

This was the brainchild of Thomas Beddoes, a maverick doctor and political reformer who, unlike most of his contemporaries, was convinced that new discoveries in chemistry were poised to transform the art of medicine.

Beddoes’s initial focus was the treatment of tuberculosis, a disease which by his pioneering estimates was killing one in four British adults and for which no cure was known. Why not, he reasoned, investigate the therapeutic potential of gases, the only form in which remedies could be administered directly to the lungs?

But Davy’s self-experiment with nitrous oxide sent the researchers in an entirely different direction. As he inhaled it, he began to notice “a highly pleasurable thrilling in the chest and extremities”; as he continued, the objects around him “became more dazzling and my hearing more acute”, until he found himself shouting with exhilaration and leaping around the laboratory.

Oxygen had been shown by its discoverer Joseph Priestley to impart a healthy glow, but this new gas seemed to inject its subject with a massive dose of excitation and energy, perhaps even to stimulate the life-force itself.

This was a discovery that raised profound questions for the medical science of the 18th century. How could a gas, synthesised in a laboratory and unknown in nature, act so powerfully on the human body? And how could its effects spread so rapidly and forcefully to the higher reaches of the mind and the imagination, still believed by most to be the domain not of the body but of the soul?

Beddoes’s hopes for a therapeutic application for such gases were now rivalled by the promise of unexpected insights into the mysteries of the mind.

The first subject to whom Davy offered nitrous oxide was his close friend, the poet Robert Southey, whose reaction did not disappoint. “The atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens,” he proclaimed, “must be composed of this gas.”

His writing partner Samuel Taylor Coleridge also submitted himself to the experiment, and reported a state “of more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced”. Davy, himself an ardent poet as well as a chemist, encouraged further volunteers to try the gas and attempt to put its action into words.

Catching the public imagination

Over the summer of 1799, the Pneumatic Institution became a philosophical salon where physicians and dramatists, inventors and surgeons, politicians and poets all inhaled the gas and attempted to generate what Davy called a “language of feeling”, a new vocabulary that could encompass the strange inner worlds that it revealed.

Davy published his report on the experiments in 1800; his groundbreaking analysis of nitrous oxide’s chemistry made his professional reputation, but it was the description of its effects on human subjects that caught the public imagination. While doctors were unconvinced of its therapeutic applications, accounts of the frolics and antics that had taken place in the experimental salons led to a popular craze.

By the 1820s, laughing gas shows had become a familiar item in variety halls such as the Adelphi Theatre in London. In a precursor of the stage hypnotism shows of today, a master of ceremonies would appear on stage with a cylinder of nitrous oxide; after a short scientific lecture he would invite volunteers up on stage to sample it.

Primed by stories of wild scenes and egged on by an excited audience, they would act out their brief intoxication with an uninhibited display of shouting, dancing, acrobatics and uproarious laughter.This was far from the career that Beddoes and Davy had in mind for their miraculous gas, but it turned out to be the route by which it would achieve the medical revolution they had dreamed of.

Nitrous oxide shows proved particularly popular on the carnival circuit of America; before he invented the mass-produced revolver, Samuel Colt toured a laughing gas entertainment around New England in a tent emblazoned with Southey’s line: “the atmosphere of heaven must be composed of this gas”.

It was in raucous shows such as these that doctors began to notice that those under the influence of the gas seemed temporarily impervious to pain, able to stumble and injure themselves without noticing. This discovery was of particular interest to dentists, for whom the pain of tooth extractions was a serious deterrent to business.

The Connecticut dentist Horace Wells was the first to pull a tooth under gas; although he failed to convince the medical authorities of its efficacy he impressed his patient, a travelling showman named Gardener Quincy Colton, who reinvented himself as the Colton Dental Foundation and had performed 75,000 successful extractions by the time nitrous oxide was officially adopted by the profession.

Thomas Beddoes dreamt in 1799 that the gas might allow mankind to “rule over the causes of pain and pleasure”; a century later, his vision had become reality.


Mike Jay is the author of “Atmosphere of heaven”, a book on the discovery of nitrous oxide (Yale University Press)

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052373

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