In a drawing room above his laboratory, English chemist Humphry Davy threw quite the soiree.
He offered his guests — poets, playwrights, doctors and scientists — not a drink, but a puff from a green silk bag containing nitrous oxide — laughing gas.
It was 1799 and the parties — or ‘experiments’, as Davy called them — were more than just a rollicking good time.
They formed part of his research into nitrous oxide and fuelled his mission to better understand the brain.
They also led to one of the most significant medical advances of the 19th century: anaesthesia.
‘I felt like the sound of a harp’
Author and historian Mike Jay has written extensively about science, medicine and drug use, and says there were strange moments of disinhibition at Davy’s parties.
“It must have been quite like a performance,” he says.
Party attendees, he says, would shout: “Give me more, give me more; this is the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“[Others] were running up and down the stairs and all around the house, saying odd things that they’d forget later,” Mr Jay says.
We can recall them, though, as Davy asked his friends to record their experiences. He collated their responses in a book of research, published in 1800.
In it, Peter Mark Roget, who went on to publish Roget’s Thesaurus, writes: “I seemed to lose the sense of my own weight, and imagined I was sinking into the ground.”
“Thoughts rushed like a torrent through my mind, as if their velocity had been suddenly accelerated by the bursting of a barrier which had before retained them in their natural and equable course.”
Another party-goer, who is unnamed, explains: “I felt like the sound of a harp.”
Poet Samuel Coleridge describes a state of calm ecstasy, “like returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room”.
Davy collected around 30 such responses, many detailing feelings of intense joy — but he had more on his mind than parties.
A fascinating discovery
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, Davy and his boss, English physician Thomas Beddoes, were preoccupied by the increasing number of factory workers contracting lung conditions and tuberculosis.
“[It] was a big killer,” says Mr Jay, and Beddoes was driving research into new treatments.
One gas, oxygen, had already been isolated as beneficial to the lungs, but Beddoes and Davy wondered if there might be others.
“Pretty soon they isolated nitrous oxide,” Mr Jay says.
At that point, he says, the gas had never been breathed — until Davy gave it a go.
The dangerous effects of nitrous oxide
- Nitrous oxide can relax reflexes and inhibitions, and lead to loss of consciousness and anaesthesia.
- Its disinhibition effect can stimulate laughter (hence its common name, laughing gas).
- It can also have a depressive effect.
- With frequent use, there is a risk of permanent and irreversible physical damage, including paralysis.
(Source: Professor Barry Baker)
“He was just astonished to find this incredible wave of euphoria and energy,” Mr Jay says.
“He started leaping around the laboratory, shouting and screaming and laughing, so it was a total surprise.”
The revelation also sparked some “really big questions” of the existential kind.
“The prevailing views of the time were that the higher functions of the human intellectual were divinely inspired,” Mr Jay says.
Davy and Beddoes were perplexed that a gas synthesised in a laboratory could produce “these amazing ideas and these wonderful moods”.
“So that was what they found totally fascinating, trying to figure out what was going on,” Mr Jay says.
Thus the parties began, so Davy could observe how the gas affected others.
A significant medical breakthrough
The parties led to one of the most significant medical advancements of the 19th century.
Davy was first to note, at the end of the 18th century, that nitrous oxide was analgesic, or numbing.
By 1840, at nitrous oxide and ether parties happening in both England and the US, people were noting the analgesic properties anew.
They included American dentist Horace Wells, who — after noting someone had hurt themselves but felt no pain — decided to try taking nitrous oxide while he had a tooth removed.
He was so impressed with its numbing effect that he shared his experience with surgeons, to persuade them to try nitrous oxide on patients.
Unfortunately, most surgery is more painful than removing a tooth — and more time consuming.
“He didn’t get the dose right and it was a complete disaster, so nitrous oxide got pooh-poohed as a result of that,” says Barry Baker, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney and a former cardiovascular anaesthetist.
But all was not lost.
A colleague of Wells, who had witnessed the failed surgery experiment, suggested to another dentist, William Morton, that ether could be a better anaesthetic than nitrous oxide.
After experimenting on his dogs and himself, he performed a successful public surgery demonstration in 1846, using ether as a pain-killer.
“That really launched anaesthesia,” Professor Barker says.
“It took off… it was like a lightning strike,” he says.
“So these frolics were basically the set-up for the development of anaesthesia.”
And what of the man responsible for the frolics?
“Davy got very into the gas,” says Mr Jay, which could be why he stopped taking it after he published his book of research.
“I lost all connections with external things,” Davy writes in his book, after one gas experiment.
Yet, recovering his “former state of mind”, he recalls a discovery he’d made, one of many throughout his research with the gas: “Nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains.”
Laughing gas can be addictive and have dangerous side effects, including a risk of permanent and irreversible physical damage.
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