People have been having fun with nitrous oxide – even in the name of science – virtually since its discovery more than 240 years ago.
In January 2012, an attractive woman over 40 and that guy from That ‘70s Show were going through a rough patch (spoiler alert: it didn’t work out). Demi Moore, the woman in question, allegedly turned to the comfort of nitrous oxide, also called “whip-its,” “whippits,” “whippets,” “nossies,” “hippy crack,” and, of course, “laughing gas.”
Moore’s experience with nitrous oxide was not, however, the brief, weightless euphoria that most people report: She collapsed with seizure-like symptoms and was rushed to the hospital. Her subsequent stint in rehab – for eating disorder issues and substance abuse – could have sparked a nationwide soul-searching about nitrous oxide and other inhalants abuse; it mostly just sparked a bunch of snarky headlines.
Nitrous oxide gas is used to make cars go faster and whip cream into a delicious fluff; therapeutic nitrous oxide, surprisingly sweet-tasting, is used in dental procedures and for pain relief – or just a welcome distraction – during childbirth. Recreationally, nitrous oxide is huffed by the cool kids from brightly-colored balloons at festivals and bored teenagers straight from Reddi-Wip canisters in the supermarket aisle; by people with access to nitrous tanks, such as dentists or dental hygienists; by – purportedly – Hollywood actresses and wayward British princes; and, although this tends to go underreported, by people with other drug addiction or psychological issues.
But people have been having fun with nitrous oxide – even in the name of science – virtually since its discovery more than 240 years ago. In fact, it’s only been the last 100 years or so that nitrous oxide has been more often used for “legit” purposes.
Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in 1772 by Joseph Priestly, one of Britain’s foremost chemists and the man who invented soda water; he allowed nitric oxide (NO) to stand in contact with iron filings and water, yielding the gas N20. Priestly was a brilliant scientist, but also an Enlightenment thinker whose staunch belief that scientific inquiry would soon have everything, including dated institutions such as monarchy, sorted eventually landed him in de facto exile in America (this was after a mob of hundreds tore apart his lab and tried to burn down his house in 1791). Priestly’s leaving didn’t, however, mean the end of nitrous oxide investigations in Britain – although it wouldn’t be for another 27 years until someone really looked at nitrous oxide.
That someone was Humphry Davy, a fearless scientific prodigy who’d taught himself French at the age of 14 – so that he could read chemistry books in French. “He was an incredible character, and incredible personality…. he was kind of pure genius. Unbelievably intense, unbelievably brilliant and incredibly ambitious,” explained Mike Jay, author of The Atmosphere of Heaven, an account of scientific investigation into gases in the late 18th century.
Davy grew up in Penzance, a small port town on the Cornish coast; no one, Jay said, had ever come from Penzance. Blessed with an insatiable curiosity coupled with what was likely an eidetic memory, Davy grew up devising his own scientific experiments and making lab equipment out of whatever he had to hand – seaweed bladders, an enema syringe washed ashore after a shipwreck, the insides of a clock. In 1798, at age 18, he became a lab assistant at the Pneumatic Institute in Hotwells, a spa town in decline outside of Bristol, UK. The Pneumatic Institute was the brainchild of Thomas Beddoes, an eccentric, energetic polymath whose primary interest was medicine; it was a medical research facility whose aim was to investigate possible therapeutic uses of newly-discovered gases and chemicals to treat diseases of the lung that were spreading in the increasingly insalubrious air of industrialized Britain. Beddoes had hoped for live patients and he got them in their dozens, although not just consumptives, but people suffering from paralysis, palsy, and syphilis as well.
In April of 1799, Davy, in the Institute’s laboratory and in between administering nitric acid to syphilitic sores, began to investigate nitrous oxide. He started by synthesizing the gas and promptly inhaling it himself. When he didn’t die – and actually seemed quite invigorated by the experience – he and Beddoes began administering it to patients. They started with a 26-year-old man who, “after a course of excessive debauchery,” was unable to move one side of his body. After inhaling the gas, the man soon regained mobility in his arm; Davy and Beddoes also noted that he and other patients seemed to look forward to their “dose of air” and “the pleasure it gave them.”
By the summer, Davy had begun a rigorous course of self-experimentation, taking detailed notes not only the physical effects of nitrous oxide inhalation on his blood pressure or his body temperature, but also on his conscious state – how and what he was feeling when he took the gas. And he was feeling pretty phenomenal: Davy admitted that he was often breathing the gas just “for the sake of enjoyment.” On full moon nights that summer, Jay said, Davy would fill up a bag of gas, grab his notebook, and get high up on Avon Gorge, overlooking the river Avon. His consumption was almost to the point of compulsion – he wrote that just seeing other people breathe was enough to make him want the gas.
But in the interest of scientific investigation, Davy couldn’t rely solely on his descriptions of his own experiences for data. So he enlisted help. After the surgery was shut for the day and the invalids sent home, Davy’s fellow experimenters – doctors, poets, surgeons, playwrights, and chemists – gathered in the Institute’s drawing room. “It was kind of like a salon and Davy was the master of ceremonies,” explained Jay. Davy would administer the gas, using a green oiled-silk bag he’d had made especially to hold the gas, to anyone who wanted to try it, the catch being that they had to write down their experiences. “There were a lot of wordsmiths, so of course there’s a certain amount of competition in describing this sublime experience.”
Among those who Davy invited were the Romantic philosopher-poets Robert Southey, the future Poet Laureate and author of “The Story of The Three Bears,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Their presence was part of Davy, himself a poet of the Romantic bent, trying to get to objectively grips with the subjective, phenomenological experience of being out of one’s head on nitrous oxide. “If you want to construct a language of feeling, as Davy talks about, you can’t do that with chemistry,” said Jay. “You can’t get from there to understanding what happens in the brain… you need people from different disciplines, chemical, medical, but also poetic.”
This inter-disciplinary approach to understanding was a hallmark of the Enlightenment, an era of scientific and philosophical advancement that was only just now running out of steam. Man’s capacity for knowledge seemed limitless and the distinctions of disciplines seemed hardly necessary: “At that time philosopher and chemistry were all looked upon as ways of understanding the world better,” explained Dr. Stephanie Snow, professor of medical history at the University of Manchester and author of Blessed Days of Anaesthesia. “Science at that time was different from how we came to know science from the mid 19th century onwards. It was far more holistic in terms of what it brought together, in the way in which it tried to interrogate things using all the various disciplines.”
Davy’s experiments culminated on December 26, 1799 – Boxing Day – when he, chest bare and a thermometer stuck under one arm, walked into a specially-built sealed box and directed a friend and physician to keep pumping it full of nitrous oxide unless he passed out. After an hour and 15 minutes, Davy was still conscious and his system, he judged, was fully saturated; he exited the box and inhaled 20 more quarts of the gas from oiled silk bags he’d had made especially for huffing nitrous oxide. It was far and away the most nitrous oxide a human had ever inhaled. And Davy was really, really high, out of his head to the point of transcendence. “Nothing exists but thoughts!,” he cried, after the sensation had returned to his limbs and he’d returned to earth. “The world is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!”
Davy’s work, dangerous and slightly mad, made him. In 1800, Davy, just 21, published his work on nitrous oxide, detailing his experiences with it, both objective and subjective, and touching on its potential uses as an anesthetic. Then, rather anticlimactically, Davy moved on to other things. He built a respectable career for himself, eventually becoming President of the Royal Society and a knight, and his self-experimentation was seen as “a kind of emblem of scientific heroism,” said Jay, proof of his laudable commitment to science.
But the gas that launched his career was itself left to founder. Over the next 50 to 60 years, nitrous oxide would be used not as an anesthetic, as Davy had suggested, or even as a curative, but as a good time, or, to use the parlance of the time, a “frolic.” By the 1820s, nitrous oxide had found a home on stage, usually as part of a variety act (this, by the way, was by no means the weirdest thing to show up on British or American stages in the 19th century). And though the names Davy, Southey, and Coleridge were frequently invoked in advertising materials, these were no meetings of expanding minds.
Typically, a show would involve a performer pretending to be a doctor and inviting audience members to come up on stage to try the gas; some shows would enact the chemical reaction to yield it on stage as part of the theatre. “It’s kind of a marvel or curiosity of science, it’s come from the world of science,” Jay said, adding to that the tone of the show was along the lines of “in nitrous veritas,” that under the influence of the gas one’s true nature would be revealed. “It becomes a very popular low-brow entertainment.”
This was how the general public experienced nitrous oxide – as “laughing gas,” the name that it was now known by, and as part of a theatre-type experience (it was simply too difficult a chemical reaction to manage for at-home use). Fairly early on, before Davy’s trials, nitrous oxide had traveled to America – by 1808, medical students at the University of Pennsylvania were sufficiently acquainted with it to both use it for partying and study. In America as in Britain, it languished on the traveling variety show act circuit. Even Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt revolver, toured a nitrous oxide show in the US and Canada in the 1830s, earning enough money to have prototypes of his revolving-barrel gun. Colt advertised his act with a quote from Southey: “The atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas.”
“It was looked upon very much as laughing gas, good for fun and frolic and public experiments and things it was not looked upon as a viable medical therapeutic agent,” said Dr. Snow.
But it was in America that nitrous first began to be used as pain relief in dentistry, inspired by these frolics. In 1844, a dentist called Horace Wells who’d caught a laughing gas act in Hartford, Conn. was inspired to use the gas for his own wisdom tooth extraction. Wells declared a “new era in tooth-pulling” but, as Jay writes in The Atmosphere of Heaven, his attempt to demonstrate the gas at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1845 didn’t go so well (the patient, not properly dosed, cried out). Wells’s reputation was lost. (Wells is also a cautionary tale of the perils of self-experimentation: After the debacle at Mass General, Wells threw himself into experimenting with inhaling chloroform, going on a disastrous four-week bender in New York City. In a delirious fit, he rushed out onto Broadway and threw acid on two women; he was promptly arrested. While in jail on January 24, 1848, he committed suicide by slashing his femoral artery with a razor from his shaving kit. His death, however, was quite painless – he’d first managed to procure some chloroform to inhale.)
Despite Wells’ failure, it actually was a new era for tooth pulling and more. By the 1860s, the gas was routinely used for dental surgery and increasingly being used in general surgery, even as “laughing gas frolics” remained part of variety acts. Why it took so long for the medical establishment to come around to the idea of anesthetics in general and to nitrous oxide in specific is a matter of social and psychological context. According to Jay, “Surgery was conceived as something where you wanted the patient to be awake, it was a kind of macho thing.” The notion of anesthesia was, he said, heavily attacked by the medical profession for drawing attention to the “painfulness of the procedure” and making it less likely that people would go through with it. Then there was the fact that doctors were reluctant to have any potentially volatile chemicals and gases in their surgeries.
“What really moved it was that surgical procedures had progressed, there was much more that they could do. Surgeries were going on so long, that the ability of patients to withstand the pain was becoming a limiting factor,” Jay said. “This is a very inconvenient story, what it says is that everything was there for decades but medical science ignored it for reasons that were nothing to do with the interests of the patient.”
But Dr. Snow offers a somewhat different story. “Pain [in the early 19th century] was understood was to be by and large to be a benefit, it was like the body’s safety net,” she said. “If you were having an operation and you felt pain, that was actually a good thing because the pain was a trigger to the body to maintain its vitality. If you had a patient on the operating table and they sort of cried out and writhed in pain, that was good, it meant that they were alive, there was that vitality there.” Nitrous oxide and other potential anesthetics, such as ether, were seen to depress the body, and suppress its natural inclination towards living; giving the appearance of death, wherein even pain couldn’t rouse the sleeper, was something to avoided.
What changed wasn’t only that doctors needed to operate on people for longer, but rather there was also a fundamental shift in understanding how the body worked in the first half of the 19th century. “There was a lot of work done on the nervous system that gives evidence that it’s actually a hierarchy, that you can suspend some elements, like feeling, and yet maintain higher functions, like breathing,” explained Snow. Snow noted that during the period from Davy’s work on nitrous through the 1850s, import of opiates, for example, dramatically increased, revealing an increased appreciation with not being in pain.