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April 29, 2024 37 mins

Chemist Sir Humphry Davy is known for his work with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. That early part of his career is the focus of part one of this two-parter.

Research:

  • "Britons take laughing gas merrily. Tories take it more seriously." The Economist, 27 Sept. 2023, p. NA. Gale OneFile: Business, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A766770794/GPS?u=mlin_n_melpub&sid=bookmark-GPS&xid=c0888abb. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.
  • "Erroneous element." Muse, vol. 20, no. 7, Sept. 2016, p. 7. Gale General OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A466296806/GPS?u=mlin_n_melpub&sid=bookmark-GPS&xid=795a6d0c. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.
  • “Sir Humphrey Davy’s Harmful Emissions – November 2015.” Newcastle University Special Collections. 11/30/2015. https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/speccoll/2015/11/30/sir-humphrey-davys-harmful-emissions/
  • Adams, Max. "Humphry Davy and the murder lamp: Max Adams investigates the truth behind the introduction of a key invention of the early Industrial Revolution." History Today, vol. 55, no. 8, Aug. 2005, pp. 4+. Gale In Context: U.S. History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A135180355/GPS?u=mlin_n_melpub&sid=bookmark-GPS&xid=2d163818. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.
  • Buslov, Alexander BSc; Carroll, Matthew BSc; Desai, Manisha S. MD. Frozen in Time: A History of the Synthesis of Nitrous Oxide and How the Process Remained Unchanged for Over 2 Centuries. Anesthesia & Analgesia 127(1):p 65-70, July 2018. | DOI: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000003423
  • Cantor, Geoffrey. “Humphry Davy: a study in narcissism?” The Royal Society. 4/11/2018. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2017.0055#FN95R
  • Cartwright, F.F. “Humphry Davy’s Researches on Nitrous Oxide.” British Journal of Anesthesia. Vol. 44. 1972.
  • Davy, Humprhy. “Researches, chemical and philosophical : chiefly concerning nitrous oxide, or diphlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration.” London : printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul's Church-Yard, by Biggs and Cottle, Bristol. 1800.
  • Eveleth, Rose. “Here’s What It Was Like to Discover Laughing Gas.” Smithsonian. 3/27/2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heres-what-it-was-discover-laughing-gas-180950289/
  • Gibbs, Frederick William. "Sir Humphry Davy". Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Feb. 2024, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sir-Humphry-Davy-Baronet. Accessed 3 April 2024.
  • Gregory, Joshua C. “The Life and Work of Sir Humphry Davy.” Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1919-1933), Vol. 24, No. 95. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43428894
  • Hunt, Lynn and Margaret Jacob. “The Affective Revolution in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Studies , Summer, 2001, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 2001). https://www.jstor.org/stable/30054227 j
  • Jacob, Margaret C. and Michael J. Sauter. “Why Did Humphry Davy and Associates Not Pursue the Pain-Alleviating Effects of Nitrous Oxide?” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences , APRIL 2002, Vol. 57, No. 2. Via https://www.jstor.org/stable/24623678
  • James, Frank A. J. L. "Davy, Humphry." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 20, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008, pp. 249-252. Gale In Context: U.S. History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2830905611/GPS?u=mlin_n_melpub&sid=bookmark-GPS&xid=c68d87c2. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.
  • James, Louis. “’Now Inhale the Gas’: Interactive Readership in Two Victorian Boys' Periodicals, 1855–1870.” Victorian Periodicals Review, Volume 42, Number 1, Spring 2009. https://doi.org/10.1353/vpr.0.0062
  • Jay, Mike. “‘O, Excellent Air Bag’: Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide.” 8/6/2014. Public Domain Review. https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/o-excellent-air-bag-humphry-davy-and-nitrous-oxide/
  • Jay, Mike. “The Atmosphere of Heaven: The 1799 Nitrous Oxide Researches Reconsidered.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London , 20 September 2009, Vol. 63, No. 3, Thomas Beddoes, 1760-1808 (20 September 2009). https://www.jstor.org/stable/40647280
  • Knight, David. "Davy, Sir Humphry, baronet (1778–1829), chemist and inventor." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. February 10, 2022. Oxford University Press. Date of access 3 Apr. 2024, https://proxy.bostonathenaeum.org:2261/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-7314
  • Lacey, Andrew. “Humphry Davy and the ‘safety lamp controversy’.” 7/22/2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/jul/22/humphry-davy-lamp-controversy-history-science
  • Neve, Michael. "Beddoes, Thomas (1760–1808), chemist and physician." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. October 03, 2013. Oxford University Press. Date of access 11 Apr. 2024, https://proxy.bostonathenaeum.org:2261/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-1919
  • Polwhele, Richard. “Poems; Chiefly, The Local Attachment; The Unsex'd Females; The Old English Gentleman; the Pneumatic R
Mark as Played
Transcript

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of iHeartRadio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy V.
Wilson and I'm Holly Frye. Somebody who has made a
few appearances on past episodes of the show is chemist

(00:22):
Sir Humphrey Davy. He showed up in our episodes on
Andrew Cross, John Cleves Simms, and Peter Mark Roget and
I think maybe also a couple things that previous hosts did.
Andrew Cross did some experiments involving Davy's technique of using
electricity to extract metals from ores, and John Cleves Sims

(00:46):
named Davy as one of his protectors in a proposed
expedition to prove that the Earth was hollow. Although Davey
did not think that the Earth was hollow, he had
not really endorsed the those claims at all. Peter Mark
Roge is most famous for his thesaurus, but he was
also a doctor and he worked with Davy on some

(01:09):
of his chemistry experiments. Our episode on Roje came out
in twenty twenty two, and we mentioned that some of
that work was with nitrous oxide or laughing gas. I
have thought about doing an episode on Humphrey Davy every
time he has come up on the show. Obviously, he
touched a lot of things that we've talked on before.

(01:29):
He just seemed like an interesting person. And then I
recently stumbled across an article that was about this self
experimentation with nitrous oxide, something that briefly came up in
that Roche episode. So I wound up going on a
hole down, a whole rabbit hole with that, and Davy
wound up at the top of the to do list.
So of course that means this episode is going to

(01:53):
include some discussions and descriptions of substance use. Recreational nitrous
oxide was not illegal when he was doing this, but
it is illegal in some places today. And also this
was an accidental two parter. Was really not expecting that
when I went into it, which feels like a theme
with my two parters lately. Today we will talk about

(02:15):
his early life up through the nitrous oxide experiments, and
then on Wednesday we will get into his other work
that happened after that, which also was notable. Humphrey Davy
was born in Penzance, Cornwall, on December seventeenth, seventeen seventy eight.
To Robert and Grace Millet Davy. Robert was a wood carver,

(02:36):
and in seventeen eighty four he also took possession of
a family farm in Varfel, a couple of miles away.
A number of sources, including Encyclopedia Britannica, described this as
an estate, and that makes their life sound a lot
grander than it really was. Robert was a freeholder, meaning
that he owned the farm, and the family's ancestry did

(02:57):
include some more affluent and prominent peace people on both sides,
so they definitely had more wealth and influence than say
a tenant farmer or a farm laborer, but their actual
way of life was really more on the modest side.
Robert died in seventeen ninety four at the age of
only forty eight, and Grace inherited about fifteen hundred pounds

(03:19):
of debt, and that was with an income of about
one hundred and fifty pounds a year. According to the
Bank of England's inflation calculator, that would be about sixteen
thousand pounds a year today or twenty thousand dollars or so.
And as always these comparisons are very approximate, but this
just was not enough to pay off that debt or

(03:41):
to really provide for the family. That family included Humphrey
and also four younger siblings, so Grace went into business
with a refugee from France, someone who had fled in
the wake of violence connected to the French Revolution, and
they started a milliner's shop in Penzance. Humphrey was sixty
when his father died, and a couple of months later

(04:02):
he started an apprenticeship with apothecary physician Bingham Borlaise, with
the goal of becoming a doctor himself and helping to
support the family. His education up to that point had
been kind of erratic. Some of it was paid for
by his godfather, John Tonkin, who Humphrey also boarded with
after the family moved to Varfell. Humphrey's teacher in Penzance

(04:24):
had been cruel and, in Humphrey's opinion, not very interesting.
For a while, Tonkin paid to send him to a
different school in Truro, which seems to have been a
better fit, but Humphrey didn't stay there for very long.
So Humphrey had gotten pretty use to seeking out information
about things that interested him on his own. Since Tonkin

(04:45):
was an apothecary surgeon. That gave Davy access to some
books on science and medicine, and he was a quick study.
He was also avidly interested in hunting, fishing, and writing stories,
so he also developed up to a reputation for idleness
and for having a romantic streak. He'd been raised Anglican,

(05:06):
but he leaned more toward having religious and spiritual experiences
out in nature rather than at church. He was the
sort of person who taught himself chemistry well enough to
be able to question the conclusions of the people who
wrote those textbooks. But he also liked to wander in
the woods reading poetry when he was supposed to be working.

(05:28):
It's truly like a magical Jane Austen Hero. Some of
Davy's self study included reading Antoine Laurent Lavoisier's Elementary Treatise
on Chemistry, which was published in seventeen eighty nine and
translated into English in seventeen ninety. We have covered Lavoisier
on the show before, and we ran that episode as
a Saturday Classic in January of twenty eighteen. Lavoisier's work

(05:53):
in the eighteenth century was groundbreaking, and he's considered to
be one of the founders of modern chemistry. Cuoisier was
guillotine in seventeen ninety four during the Reign of Terror,
but was later exonerated. Sources disagree on whether Davy read
Lavoisier's work in English or in French. He reportedly learned

(06:14):
French from a priest. This was another refugee, someone who
had fled the Vonde region of France in the wake
of counter revolutionary violence, regardless of what language that he
read it in, though Davy disagreed with some of Lavoisier's ideas,
particularly Lavoisier's assertion that oxygen was part of all acids.

(06:35):
Lavoisier had coined the name oxygen from Greek and French
words that roughly meant forming sharpness, and this was based
on this whole idea that he thought oxygen was an acidifier.
Today we know that it is not, and we will
be returning to Davey's experiments with this later on. This

(06:56):
self study also led Davy to a particular interest in gas.
In the context of European scientific thought, the idea that
air was composed of different gases was still relatively new.
English chemist John Mayow had described what he called spiritus
nitroarius in the late seventeenth century. Spiritus nitroarius was later

(07:18):
known to be oxygen. The idea that air contained a
mix of gases or different airs, some of which could
burn and some of which could not, evolved and became
accepted knowledge over the next century. By the late seventeen hundreds,
scientists had isolated and named a number of different gases,

(07:38):
and this had led to the development of a new
scientific discipline known as pneumatic chemistry, which involved investigating and
studying all these different airs. Lavoisier was a big part
of this, as was English chemist Joseph Priestley. Priestley had
started by studying carbon dioxide, which he called fixed air,

(08:00):
thanks to the bubbles that rose in the fermentation vats
that are local brewery. This came up recently in our
episode on Johann Veeppa and the development of carbonated beverages.
Priestley and Levoisier were both involved in discoveries connected to oxygen.
Lavoisier started off calling it quote highly respirable air, while

(08:21):
Priestley used the term deflogisticated air. The idea of phlogiston
had been proposed by Johann Becker back in sixteen sixty seven.
Phlogiston was believed to be a chemical that was contained
inflammable substances, which was released when those substances were burned.
Priestley had been trying to remove this so called phlogiston

(08:41):
from atmospheric air when he found a gas that burned
very easily, which is what he called deflagisticated air. Eventually,
Lavoisier demonstrated that flogiston didn't exist and that the element
needed for combustion was oxygen. Lavoisier and Priestley also studied
how these gases were involved in human and animal respiration.

(09:05):
They worked out the basic pattern of inhaling oxygen and
exhaling carbon dioxide, as well as how plants could restore
oxygen to the air. For example, Priestley discovered that mice
that he had caught in his kitchen survived longer in
a sealed container if they also had a little mint
plant in there with them. He apparently had kind of

(09:28):
a soft spot for these mice and figured out how
quickly he needed to remove them from there so that
this little child did not kill them. Dutch physiologist Jan Ingen,
Who's also detailed how light was involved in this reaction
in plants, outlining the basics of photosynthesis. In seventeen seventy nine,

(09:50):
Samuel Mitchell, who also came up in our past episode
on John Cleves Sims, wrote on what he termed gaseous
oxide of azote. This was an nitrous oxide which Joseph
Priestley had isolated in seventeen seventy two. Priestley is generally
noted as the first to do this, but it is
possible that there were earlier discoveries that weren't documented as well.

(10:12):
In seventeen ninety five, Mitchell described this gas as having
an anesthetic effect, but he also concluded that it was
poisonous and a source of contagion, and he warned against
inhaling it. So Davy read a paper that Mitchell had
written on this in March of seventeen ninety eight. He
thought Mitchell was wrong about this gaseous oxide of a

(10:37):
zote being toxic. So, just to kind of clarify, like,
this was research that had been evolving over about one
hundred years, but in terms of like the specific gases
we were talking about, Baby was learning about things that
had been discovered within the last couple of decades. In
his efforts to prove that Mitchell was incorrect. He started

(10:57):
experimenting with nitrous oxide, including experimenting on himself, and we
will get to that after a sponsor break. Before the break,
we mentioned that Humphrey Davy had started an apprenticeship with

(11:19):
apothecary physician Bingham Borlays in early seventeen ninety five, and
that apprenticeship gave him more access to books and materials
than he would have had otherwise, but this still really
was not much. Bingham Borlays's apothecary shop had the tools
and ingredients that were needed to mix and package medicines,

(11:40):
but this was not a full chemistry lab by any stretch,
and the only chemistry textbooks that Davy had were Lavoisier's
Elementary Treatise, which you mentioned earlier, and William Nicholson's A
Dictionary of Chemistry, exhibiting the present state of the theory
and practice of that science its application to now aatural philosophy.

(12:01):
The processes of manufactures, metallurgy, and numerous other arts dependent
on the properties and habitudes of bodies in the mineral,
vegetable and animal kingdoms, with a considerable number of tables
expressing the elective attractions specific gravities, comparative heats, component parts, combinations,
and other affections of the objects of chemical research. So

(12:24):
Davy learned what he could and cobbled together a lab
from what he could find around the house. A surgeon
had given him an enema syringe and he used it
to make an air pump. He used this to extract
the gas from the air bladders in a seaweed called
bladder wrack, which is common on the coast of Britain.
He analyzed this gas and found that it had a

(12:45):
similar composition to ordinary air. Davy also started trying to
disprove Samuel Mitchell's conclusions about nitrous oxide being a toxic
source of decay and contagion. He used a method that
if Priestley had outlined to produce the gas, and then
exposed mice to it to see whether it killed them,

(13:06):
which it did not. He also exposed meat to it
to see if that made the meat decay faster, which
again it did not, and then he did the same
with open wounds to see if the nitrous oxide seemed
to induce some kind of infection. Probably not surprising at
this point, it did not, and then he cautiously tried

(13:27):
breathing in some of it, which had no apparent ill effect.
These and other experiments started attracting the attention of other
people in Cornwall. One was Scottish inventor James Watt, who
had introduced an improvement to the steam engine in seventeen
seventy six, developing the first truly efficient steam engine. James's son, Gregory,

(13:50):
had started boarding in the Davy home in Penzance in
seventeen ninety seven, and he and Humphrey became close friends.
Gregory had tuberculosis free wondered whether any of the gases
being studied might help him recover. Another was Davy's Giddy,
who later married agronomist Marianne Gilberton changed his last name

(14:12):
to Hers. Giddy was a member of the Royal Society
and High Sheriff of Cornwall. When he heard about Davy's
work and his aptitude for chemistry, Giddy allowed him to
use his laboratory and loaned him books and other materials,
and helped introduce him to other people. James Watt and
Davy's Giddy eventually connected Davy to physician and chemist Thomas Beddows,

(14:36):
who had previously been a reader in chemistry at Oxford.
None of Bettos's lecture notes have survived until today, but
he seems to have been very popular and knowledgeable. There
was some controversy in his background. Though he had been
a strong supporter of the French Revolution in its early years,
and while he saw the violence that grew into the

(14:59):
Reign of Terror a antithetical to the Revolution's goals, he
was still branded as a Jacobin. He butted heads with
the administration at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and according
to some accounts, he was eventually forced out of his position.
He was also an advocate for social and healthcare reform,
seeing things like ignorance, drunkenness, and a lack of education

(15:22):
as sources of illness, but that also meant that he
tended to blame sick people for their own condition, framing
them as lazy and stupid. As Humphrey Davy was experimenting
with gases and his cobbled together chemistry lab, Bedos was
pursuing the idea of medicine through chemistry. In particular, he

(15:43):
thought some of these newly discovered gases might offer a
way to treat illnesses. He used an apparatus designed by
James Watt for some of these experiments. James Watt's son, Gregory,
who we just said was friends with Humphrey, had also
been one of Bedo's patients. Bedos also raised money to

(16:04):
start a hospital, and in October of seventeen ninety eight
he hired Humphrey Davy to be its medical superintendent. Davy
was not a doctor and was also nineteen. This put
an end to Davy's apprenticeship in medicine, something his godfather,
John Tonkin, was really upset about. Tonkin had expected Davy

(16:25):
to follow a respectable path to being a physician, and
he thought Bedos was kind of a quack. To be clear,
Bedos was genuine in his belief that inhaled gases could
treat illnesses, especially tuberculosis, but he was mostly incorrect. Among
other things, he thought that rosy cheeks, which were common
in tuberculosis patients, were caused by inflammation brought on by

(16:48):
too much oxygen. He thought, maybe if they inhaled some
other gas, it might restore the balance of the oxygen
in their bodies. That's not how it worked. I also
feel like there's probably a whole other story to tell
about this guy. He was not who the episode was about,
so I did not get that far into it. But

(17:10):
Beto's Pneumatic Medical Institute opened in hot Wells in Bristol
in the spring of seventeen ninety nine. Hot Wells was
one of England's spa towns, like Bath or Brighton. Although
Bath and Brighton had more luxurious reputations than hot Wells.
Hot Wells was named for its naturally occurring wells and

(17:31):
hot springs. There were some baths and hot wells, but
the water from these hot springs was also consumed for
its reported health benefits and bottled and sold in other
parts of England. At the Pneumatic Institute, Davey started researching gases,
including repeating some of his earlier nitrous oxide experiments, but

(17:53):
this time on a larger scale and with gas that
was purer than what he'd been able to produce previously.
According to his timeline, He did a preliminary test on
April eleventh, seventeen ninety nine. He heated crystals of ammonium nitrate,
collected the gas and hydraulic bellows, and inhaled some of
it to confirm that it was breathable. Then, on April sixteenth,

(18:15):
in the presence of physician doctor Robert Kinglake. He inhaled
three quarts of it from a silk bag. In Davy's
words quote, the first inspirations occasioned a slight degree of giddiness.
This was succeeded by an uncommon sense of fullness of
the head, accompanied with loss of distinct sensation and voluntary power,

(18:37):
a feeling analogous to that produced in the first stage
of intoxication, but unattended by pleasurable sensation. After this, doctor
king Lake took Davy's pulse and said that it seemed
a little quicker and fuller. A second experiment with four
quarts of nitrous oxide from a silk bag started like

(18:57):
the first, but also caused quote a sensation analogous to
gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by a highly
pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The
objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute.
Toward the last inspirations, the thrilling increased, and the sense

(19:19):
of muscular power became greater, and at last, an irresistible
propensity to action was indulged in I recollect but indistinctly
what followed, I know that my motions were various and violent.
Within ten minutes of stopping his inhalation of the gas,
Davy's state of mind was back to normal, but the
thrilling sensation in his extremities lasted a bit longer. His

(19:43):
self experimentation continued from there. Quote Generally, when I breathed
from six to seven quarts, muscular emotions were produced to
a certain extent. Sometimes I manifested my pleasure by stamping
or laughing, only at other times by dance around the
room and vociferating. After a number of experiments, Davey wrote

(20:05):
that with small doses he had five or six minutes
of exhilaration, but with ten quarts of nitrous oxide it
lasted for two to three hours. Holly just made a face.
That's so much nitrous oxide. Yeah, don't do this. All
substances have risks, right, and repercussions Like he doesn't know it,

(20:25):
but he's he's hurting his brain right. December twenty sixth
Davy did an experiment that involved getting into a sealed
box and breathing an astonishing twenty quarts of nitrous oxide,
followed by twenty quarts of air an hour later, he wrote, quote,
I lost all connection with external things. Trains of vivid

(20:48):
visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected
with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions
perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected
and newly mode ideas. I theorized. I imagined that I
made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi delirious
trance by doctor Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth.

(21:11):
Indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the
flight of persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime,
and for a minute I walked around the room perfectly,
regardless of what was said to me. After Davy's state
of mind returned to normal, he said to doctor Kinglake, quote,

(21:31):
nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures,
and pains. We will talk about some of Davy's other
experimental subjects after we take a sponsor break. In addition

(21:55):
to the opening of the Pneumatic Institute, a couple of
other notable things happened in Humphrey Davy's life in seventeen
ninety nine one is that he started publishing works of
poetry in Robert Southey's Annual Anthology. While he only published
a few poems during his lifetime, he wrote a lot
more of them, often in the same journals that he

(22:17):
was using to record his research notes. A lot of
these poems really came to light for the first time
in late twenty twenty three, thanks to efforts to transcribe
all of his notebooks. This effort has involved the work
of more than three thousand volunteers who have found literally
hundreds of unpublished poems. Another moment in seventeen ninety nine

(22:42):
was that the last of his father's debts were paid
off and his mother was able to leave that milliner's shop.
At the Pneumatic Institute, he did experiments using a lot
of different gases, including some in which he almost asphyxiated
himself in the process. The measurements involved these experiments required
him to figure out the residual capacity of the lung,

(23:04):
that is, how much gas is left in the lungs
after a person had exhaled. His estimate was forty one
cubic inches or zero point seventy two leaders, which was
not correct. The average adult's residual lung capacity is more
like three leaders. But he is the first person known
to have tried to quantify this. But the nitrous oxide experiments,

(23:27):
those were definitely the most famous or infamous of what
Davy did in that lab and the words of author
and publisher Joseph Kottle, these experiments quote converted the laboratory
into the region of hilarity and relaxation. Kottle published the
work of a number of English Romantic poets, including Samuel Taylor, Coleridge,

(23:49):
and Robert Southey. You can say that suthy or suthy
according to pronunciation guides. And some of these people that
were published by Kottle became test subjects in Davy's nitrous
oxide express At the institute, Davy and Coleridge became friends,
with Coleridge describing Davy as a man who had been
born a poet before converting poetry into science. When asked

(24:11):
how Davy compared to the men of London, Coleridge answered, quote,
why Davy could eat them all. There is an energy
and elasticity in his mind which enables him to seize
on and analyze all questions, pushing them to their legitimate consequences,
living thoughts spring like turf from under his feet. Here's
how Coleridge wrote about his experience with nitrous oxide. Quote

(24:36):
the first time I inspired the nitrous oxide, I felt
a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame,
resembling that which I remember once to have experienced after
returning from a walk in the snow to a warm room.
The only motion which I felt inclined to make was
that of laughing at those who were looking at me.

(24:56):
My eyes felt distended, and towards the last my heart
beat as if it were leaping up and down. On
removing the mouthpiece, the whole sensation went off almost instantly.
A lot of the people who did this mentioned laughing
or a sense of giddiness after inhaling nitrous oxide, and
of course it is also called laughing gas. Coleridge inhaled

(25:19):
nitrous oxide at the institute at least four times, with
varying levels of effect. On his last visit, he said
he at first thought Davy had given him regular air
by mistake, but then quote, my sensations were highly pleasurable,
not so intense or apparently local, but more unmingled pleasure
than I ever before experienced. Peter Mark Roget, on the

(25:43):
other hand, described feeling vertiginous than having a tingling sensation
in his hands and feet, and then feeling a bit sleepy,
but then he roused, and that was followed by delirium. Quote.
I felt myself totally incapable of speaking, and for some
time lost all consciousness where I was or who was
near me. My whole frame felt as if violently agitated.

(26:05):
I thought I panted violently. My heart seemed to palpate,
and every artery throb with violence. If let us singing
in my ears. All the vital motions seemed to be
irresistibly hurried on, as if their equilibrium had been destroyed,
and everything was running headlong into confusion. All of this

(26:27):
was followed by racing thoughts, and about fifteen minutes after
he had stopped breathing this gas, he felt like things
were turned to normal. Overall, Reget does not seem to
have been a fan of nitrous oxide, saying quote, I
cannot remember that I experienced the least pleasure from any
of these sensations. I can, however, easily conceive that by

(26:49):
frequent repetition, I might reconcile myself to them and possibly
even receive pleasure from the same sensations that were then unpleasant.
I will say, having a bunch of confusion and racing
thoughts does not sound pleasant to me. I have thoughts
we could talk about behind the scenes. So over the

(27:09):
course of ten months of experimentation, Davy tested nitrous oxide
as a treatment for headaches, indigestion, and dental pain. And
he just administered the gas to a number of test subjects,
who wrote descriptions of what they experienced. Based on all
of this work, in eighteen hundred, Davy published Researches Chemical

(27:29):
and Philosophical, chiefly concerning nitrous Oxide or Deflegisticated at Nitrous
Air and its Respiration. This book is five hundred and
eighty pages long, and it details a whole series of
experiments with nitrous oxide that did not involve people inhaling it,
plus the accounts of his own self experimentation and the

(27:53):
experiments with other human test subjects. This work was met
with some skepticism and even ridicule outside of the lab.
To some people, the whole thing was automatically tainted because
of Bedo's reputation. In the words of James Watt Junior.
His research was entirely dismissed by Royal Society President Joseph

(28:13):
Banks for this reason quote he thinks Bedo's a Jacobin
and opposes all Jacobin innovations. Even the purity of my
father's principles does not help Bedos with the contagion of
the connection. I apprehend the Secret Committee of the Royal
Society regarded him as a lost sheep, and it also
seemed like people reported far less dramatic effects from nitrous

(28:37):
oxide when they tried similar experiments somewhere other than the
Pneumatic Institution. For years, though, recreational nitrous oxide became something
of a fad, one that would seen as harmless enough
that at least two different magazines for Boys printed instructions
on how to produce and inhale nitrous oxide. In the

(28:58):
early nineteenth century. There were also nitrous oxide parties, which
were sometimes framed as scientific demonstrations, which took place at
people's homes. Humphrey Davy also used nitrous oxide outside of
the context of his experiments at the institute. He would
sort of walk through town at night with this silk
bag of gas and inhale it while he was composing poetry.

(29:22):
Silk Bag of Gas would be a great album title.
The response from some of the popular press was outright ridicule,
with cartoons and pamphlets lampooning Davy's experiments and the people
who participated in them. This was also the case for
the nitrous oxide parties and other recreational uses of the
gas which went on for decades after Davy's work at

(29:44):
the Institute. For example, in eighteen ten, Cornish clergyman and
poet Richard Polweel wrote a satirical drama in verse about it,
called the Pneumatic Revelers in Eklog. Here's a sample quote.
When I tried it at first on al in society,
their giddiness seemed to betray inebriety, like grave mandarins, their

(30:05):
heads nodding together. But afterwards each was light as a feather,
and they everyone cried twas a pleasure, ecstatic to drink
deeper drafts of the mighty pneumatic, as if by the
wand of a wizard. Entranced. How wildly they shouted and
gambled and danced. Doctor Syntax, who was a character in
a series of satirical and comic poems by William Combe

(30:28):
was depicted in an illustration of a laughing gas party
in eighteen twenty. I will say they were also like
pamphlets and up and flyers and things that were advertisements
for these scientific demonstrations that to me were almost hard
to distinguish from the satirical cartoons about it. They also

(30:51):
came off as a little comical to me. Uh At
the same time as all of that was happening. Though
Davy's experiments were interconnected with the evolution of English Romanticism,
Davy's writing about the effects of the gas were influenced
by the movement's focus on things like personal feelings and
sublimity and beauty, and their experiences with nitrous oxide also

(31:16):
fed into the work of Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor,
Coleridge and Robert Southey. Davy also played a more direct
role in all of this, beyond just his personal friendships
with these literary figures. In eighteen hundred, William Wordsworth asked
him to oversee the production and proofreading on the second

(31:37):
edition of Lyrical Ballads, which was a collection of poems
by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Decades would pass between Davy's experiments
and the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic, which
it is still used for today, and some descriptions of
Davy's life and work characterize him as having missed out
on or overlooked the potential of nitrous oxide in anesthesia.

(32:00):
That's a little overstated, though Davy did write about nitrous
oxide having a potential use quote in surgical operations in
which no great effusion of blood takes place, and he
and some of his associates consulted with at least one surgeon.
But there were several obstacles to the use of nitrous
oxide as anesthesia in seventeen ninety nine and eighteen hundred,

(32:24):
which is when most of the experiments are happening. Part
of it had to do with Davy's understanding of how
the gas and blood circulation worked. He thought that when
somebody inhaled nitrous oxide, it made its way into their blood,
and that any blood loss they experienced would then dampen
the effects of the gas. I don't think that's how

(32:46):
it works, but I did not go diving into the
physiology of this. It's more about that is why he
did not think it was going to be very useful
in procedures that involved a lot of blood loss, and
that is why he specified that it might be good
for procedures that had quote no great effusion of blood.
And then, on a more practical level, the nitrous oxide

(33:07):
that they were producing wasn't particularly potent, and it dissipated
fairly quickly. It would have required just enormous amounts of
it to really provide anesthesia for any kind of lengthy procedure.
They would have had to just continually keep making it
because it wasn't something that could be made and stored
for a really long time. Also, some of the experimental

(33:29):
subjects at the institute described responses to the gas that
themselves sounded painful. It was not an across the board
pleasant experience for everybody who tried it. Attitudes about pain
were also a little bit different in the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. Today, pain is recognized as having

(33:51):
an important function as a signal that something is wrong,
whether it's that someone has put their hand in scalding
water or perhaps they have an infection developing in their body.
This was also true when Davy was living, but doctors
insurgents also saw pain as a sign that the body
was healing or at least capable of healing. Pain also

(34:12):
carried religious and cultural connotations. There was this idea that
people who were in pain had done something to deserve it,
whether they were aware of that or not, or that
pain had been inflicted by God for a specific purpose.
Of course, all of these beliefs are still around today,
but not to the same degree that they were prevalent
at this time. Doctors and dentists just didn't yet have

(34:35):
a focus on preventing or reducing pain in the way
that many do today. Past hosts of the show did
an episode on the development of nitrous oxide use in
anesthesia in twenty twelve. That was called Horace Wells and
the Gas War, and we are going to have that
as an upcoming Saturday Classic. We will also talk about

(34:56):
Davy's life after nitrous oxide next time. Yeah. In the meantime,
do you have listener mail? I do. This is a
listener mail about an episode from a while back, but
I really liked it. This was from Randy. Randy said,
hello ladies, and happy Easter if you celebrate. I have
been catching up on some archived episodes and just listened

(35:17):
to your twenty twenty episode on Mirisaki Shikibu and the
Tale of Genji. I thought i'd share how I was
introduced to her and in part Genji, because I haven't
really heard of anyone else talk about it. I was
a fan of all the Carmen San Diego games as
a kid, but my favorite was Where in Time Is
Carmen san Diego. As the name suggests, it was a

(35:39):
time traveling history version of the games where you stop
Karmen from interfering with major historical events or figures. One
of the figures you help is Brisaki while she is
writing the Tale of Genji. It was one of my
favorite levels in the game. As a budding history and
literary buff the game introduced me to a lot of people, places,
events that either weren't covered in my schooling or were

(36:02):
glossed over. I always thought it was a shame that
more people hadn't heard of it, let alone played anyway,
I enjoyed hearing more about Mirsaki, and we'll be adding
The Tale of Genji to my ever growing to be
read list. I hope you are both doing well and
I look forward to more episodes. Randy. Thanks so much, Randy.

(36:23):
I think I have heard of Where in Time Is
Carmen San Diego, but it's not something I've ever played
and did not know that this was a part of it. Also,
I think I mentioned in the episode on the Sale
of Genji that what I read in college was like
an abridged version that was still something like three hundred

(36:48):
pages long maybe, but was really the first part of
the story, which leaves off the whole resolution of what
happens to Genji later in life. But it also means,
if you want to read the Tale of Genji, it
is a very long book, So I applaud anyone who
takes on that effort. I never read beyond what we

(37:10):
were reading in college, just because I haven't, So thank
you again for this email. If you'd like to send
us a note, We're at History podcast at iHeartRadio dot com.
That is the email address that you can use to
contact Holly and me. You can subscribe to our show,
I'm the iHeartRadio app, or wherever else you like to

(37:32):
get your podcasts, and we'll be back with the rest
of this story on Wednesday. Stuff you Missed in History
Class is a production of iHeartRadio. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio,
visit the iHeartRadio app Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen

(37:53):
to your favorite shows.

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