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May 3, 2024 16 mins

Tracy and Holly discuss Sir Humphry Davy's less than spectacular poems, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and the end of Davy's career and life. 

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, A production
of iHeartRadio, Hello and Happy Friday. I'm Tracy B. Wilson
and I'm Holly Frye. We talked about Sir Humphrey Davy
all week. I would say, usually when we are talking

about a poet whose poems are in the public domain,
I will try to find a poem and we will
have one in the episode. We have even done this
with such people as Natalie Clifford Barney, who, in my
personal opinion, I did not find her poetry to be great,

but I did feel like it was. I mean, in
French it's probably a lot better, but what she wrote
in English I found to be like kind of it
did not move me in the way that poetry generally does,
but I felt like it was, you know, indicative of her,
her life, and I still wanted to read some of it.
We did not read any Humphrey Davy poems because while

there are lots and lots of them that have been
unearthed by this whole project to transcribe all of his journals,
I did not go to confirm, like what the copyright
status on any of that is generally stuff that is
that old is not protected by copyright anymore. But when

you get into something that is like somebody's journal that
has been newly transcribed, sometimes the organization that is doing
that transcription has some kind of rights over it. I
don't know. But the other answer is the poems of
his that I did find, they were all very long,

even one that was printed as a fragment of a poem.
That fragment still went on for pages. And I couldn't
even find like a little snippet that I felt like
could stand on its own and be fun to read
and listen to. I personally just found it very ponderous,

and I could not even make my mind focus on it.
And I'm saying this as a person whose college degree
was partially devoted to poetry. Well, I mean he wrote
him while he was high, So like I, this is

no surprise whatsoever to me. Yeah, some of them while
he was high, and some of them while he was
like in the lab stuck on whatever problem he was
working on. So it was more like sort of trying
to shift the brain gears a little bit. Yeah, that's
why we don't have any Humphry Davy bombs. Oh, I

borderline wonder if we were to exhum Humphrey Davy do
a little testing how much B twelve depletion, we would
find that had maybe caused some brain damage. That is
one of the things that can happen with excessive nitrous oxide. Yep. Yeah,

brain and nerve damage from B twelve depletion. Yeah, with
chronic use. And it sounds like he got pretty cavalier
about his use of it if he was just strolling
about with his bag of g and enormous amounts of it.
And that's really like a lot of the places where
nitrous oxide is like illegal for recreational use today, That's

like one of the things that has been cited is
that like when it's not illegal, a lot of times
it is fairly easily available. I don't want to get
into the ways that people can extract it from things
that are not meant to be consumed. It's like a
whole other thing. But because it is sometimes readily available
in places that it is not regulated, it's possible for

people to inhale large amounts of it and inhale large
amounts of it for a long time, and that can't
have some pretty serious risks. Yeah, it's one of those
things that, like in a medical use is the side
effects tend to be things like a headache and maybe
some nausea. But when somebody is using lots and lots

of it, it is possible to nearly asphyxiate or asphyxiate
yourself the way that Davy dearly did at some points. Yeah,
it's interesting because if you read about nitrous oxide use,
one of the things that's always mentioned is that it
is not addictive. Oh and I'm like, uh, maybe not

chemically addicted, right, like your body doesn't need it, but clearly,
I mean he even talked about people who didn't want
to stop sucking in air during his demonstrations. It's like,
it may not be chemically addictive, but that doesn't account
for like the psychological like just drive and desire. People
would have to continue using it, which is always one

of those tricky things when talking about any kind of
substance that alters your brain, right, Like, no, it's not addicted.
I mean there was for a long time. Having being
a person of a certain age, I remember a long
period where there was a lot of discussion about how
cocaine was not addictive, and it's like, but people are

addicted to it so like you're not factoring in something here. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It also makes me think about Kubla Khan. Yeah, you know,
and I'm like, was Coleridge Hitten nitriss when he was
because the whole thing is right about like there's this

amazing thing I saw when I was asleep, but I
could never describe it, although he describes it in the poem,
So he's a lying liar who lies. But sure. I mean,
I love my romantic poets, but I also recognize them
as like project men. Yeah, and I'll just also like
various romantic poets also were using other substances, yeah, to

nitrous oxide, so yeah, but specifically that idea of seeing
things in a sleeping state. I mean, it could I
can also be attributed certainly to other things. But it
did make me think about Kubla Khan in a different way,
knowing that he too was playing in the nitrous oxide pond. Right,
I'm free, David. Yeah. My thing with Roget's reaction, m right,

I'm sure you have heard the thing. It comes up
a lot in relation to like everything that can alter
your mental space, from like you know, alcohol to cannabis
to much harder drugs like whatever you walk into that
experience with is just gonna get amplified. And I'm like,
was Roget just a super anxious dude and so this

whole thing just made him feel like I am out
of control and he was just white knuckling through it.
Totally possible, which is I mean, he kind of even
a loose like I could get used to this. Yeah,
but my initial reaction is that I don't like it. Yeah,
that sounds like somebody who has had their anxiety highly
triggered by being in this altered mental state. Mm hmm. Yeah,

let's let's keep doing more experiments. Guys. I'm just gonna
walk around town, hang out back. Yeah. My other thing
is about Frankenstein, okay, which is not even it has
nothing to do with every dating, okay, but it is
that I love every time we mentioned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
because to me, more than I won't say all other

but many other works of literature and history, that is
clearly one of the most important, not just because of
its like reputation as like a you know, a key
pillar of Gothic literature or whatever, but because we can't
stop engaging with it as a culture. Do you know
what I mean, Like, there is another Frankenstein movie coming

out next year, ye, with Oscar Isaac as Doctor Frankenstein.
Can't wait, can't wait wait? Okay yeah yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,
it looks very good. But like we love that story
as humans as a piece of entertainment, and so it
just makes me think about how sort of seminal it
is in terms of like hitting a chord with everyone

subconscious that the idea of creating a living being from
dead things and what that'sicology is. We're fixated on whether
we know that or not. Yeah, I love it. Yeah.
I have an embarrassing story about Frankenstein relating to my
years of college. Okay, great. There was one year when

I was in college where I had two different courses
that each involved reading Frankenstein, and I think one of
them was maybe humanities and the other was a literature course.
And I wrote a paper for my literature course in
which I don't remember exactly what my argument was, but
I was entirely focused on that frame story in Frankenstein. Oh,

I never actually read Frankenstein. There is a frame story.
Oh yeah, yeah right. I'm saying that to listeners who
may not I'm sure you know it well now I'm
thinking of Elsa Lanchester, so you know, keep going. So
I don't remember exactly what my argument was, but I
had a whole argument about just the frame story part
I turned in for my literature class, and I got

a B on it, in which my professor, as his note,
said that my paper was very well argued and very
well substantiated, but he just disagreed with my conclusion. And
I was so livid about this that I went to

the department head, Oh my goodness, in part because it was,
I think this was my junior year, and so I
had stuff that I was like attempting to get on
the path of going to grad school, and like this
be on this paper was going to mess up my grade,
and it was going to mess up my GPA, and
it was going to mess up everything with my ambitions

toward getting an advanced degree, which I never did. And
that's one of the things that I look back on
now and I just kind of think about what an arrogant,
pretentious person I was when I was twenty. I mean,
who wasn't who was? We all were? We all were
one thing. Another sort of side note that jumped out

at me in this episode is when we were talking
about the pneumatic Institute or institution, I don't remember which
it was called. We might have called it both in
the episode, and how it was in hot wells, and
how in hot wells there were baths that people went to,
but there you also drank the waters, which I think
that like not everyone because when you think of a
place called bath, you're thinking of bathing, probably, but a

lot of times these places that had baths also taking
the waters involved drinking the waters, right, not just having
the various bathing type spa stuff that also happened a
lot of the time. And it reminded me of how
when we were in Italy a couple of years ago
and we stayed at a little town called Monticatini Cheremi

and Patrick and I stayed there after every the trip
had concluded, most people had gone home, and he and
I stayed there an extra day to just sort of
have a decompression day before we went on to have
a little trip to Venice before we went back home.
And there was a place that you could go and
pay a couple of euro to walk around that had

been a spa and the buildings. A lot of them
were like these neoclassical buildings, and it just seemed like
an interesting place to walk around. And it also had
been a place where people drank the waters from these
hot springs, and you still could. They had little cups

and they had little spigots that you could turn on
and drink the water. And I was like, no, thanks,
because what I am not interested in doing is accidentally
giving myself some kind of gi situation right on this
last three days in Europe, planning to go have a

nice couple of days in Venice, and now I'm kind
of like, should I have tried the water? Well? I
mean to be clear, so no one thinks Tracy was being,
you know, overly cautious. We had two people in our
group who had gotten horrible they got stomach issues. Yeah, yeah,
and so I think we were all on kind of
high alert about what we consumed after that. Yeah. Well,

and it was also during the era of COVID where
you had to pass a COVID test, yeah, to get
back into the United States. I am not in any
way suggesting you can get COVID from drinking water. I'm
just saying, like we were all hyper conscious of everything,
everything health related. Yes, so yeah. By the way, before

we go any further, I feel like I have done
a disservice in talking about next year's Frank and Stein movie, okay,
because I did not mention, okay, that it is adapted
and directed by Geirma del Toro. Okay, this is exciting.
I'm I mean, I will buy all the tickets. I
will go every day. That's like going. It's made of
all your favorite things, like more, yes, please, I'm on

board with this whole thing. So yeah, I really did
think that we were going to have a one part
episode that was going to be primarily about Humphrey Davy
and his nitrous oxide self experimentation. And then I was like,
but this whole thing with the miners lamp and the
fighting about I was like, we need to talk about

that too. And he had all these notable things later
in his career and then oh, kind of ending on
a downer note of having several like non successes after
you know, the first half of the first half of
his life being like, man, this person is a chemistry
genius well, and he is involved in embroiled in so

much drama at the end of his life, and I
find myself wondering because you did the research on this
and I did not, and most of the research, it
seems like, suggested that he could be a pill. But
I'm also like, was everybody kind of a pill at
this point because they all thought like they were doing
the most at a time when, like they're everything was new,

I mean not everything, but a lot of things were
very new and so science drama. Yeah, yeah, So I
think tomorrow is the day that the Horace Wells Gas
War classic episode will be out about how people did
start using nitrous oxide for like anesthesia purposes for dental procedures,

and then we'll have a brand new episode on Monday.
What that's about, I don't know. I haven't looked at
the calendar. We'll be back though. Drop us a note
if you'd like history podcasts at iHeartRadio dot com and
otherwise we will talk to you again, Soude. Stuff you

Missed in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio. For
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Tracy V. Wilson

Tracy V. Wilson

Holly Frey

Holly Frey

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