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What A Gas: Part I

Who discovered nitrous and why did it take them so long?

Only new readers of History House will be surprised to learn that the same organization that publishes Consumer Reports puts out one of the most authoritative sociological drug studies in the United States. Yes, the same people who busy themselves rating minivans and toasters for soccer moms produced a fat book with chapter titles like "A Dope Fiend's Paradise", "Supplying Heroin Legally to Addicts", and "How to Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace" for their dope smoking soccer playing kids. That book bears the concise title Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana -- including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Adding insult to injury, they also strongly advocate legalization of both marijuana and heroin. Our favorite chapter of this illustriously apellated book is "The Historic Antecedents to Glue-Sniffing", in which the reader is entertained with all manner of recreational inhalants, or rather, stories thereof. In accordance with the Ecclesiastes principle -- there is nothing new under the sun -- such amusements have a lengthy history. As Edward A. Preble and Gabriel V. Laury note in Fall 1967's International Journal of the Addictions,

In the ancient Judaic world, the vapors from burnt spices and aromatic gums were considered part of a pleasurable act of worship. In Proverbs 27:9, it is said that 'ointment and perfume rejoice the heart,' Perfumes were widely used in Egyptian worship. Stone altars have been unearthed in Babylon and Palestine which have been used for burning incense made of aromatic wood and spices.[1]

The Consumers Union replies that, "[w]hile casual readers today may interpret such practices as mere satisfaction of the desire for pleasant odors, this is almost certainly an error; in many or most cases, a psychoactive drug was being inhaled.[2] Indeed, there are historical references to burning bales of marijuana in ancient China, India, by the Scythians outside of Greece, and Old Testament Israelites,[3] plus North and South American indigenous peoples.[4] So after people had been inahling things to make them loopy for several millenia, Joseph Priestley finally applied science to the problem and invented nitrous oxide in 1776 by introducing iron to nitrous peroxide.[5] This gave the world laughing gas, from which it was never to recover. (1776 was a rough year for the world -- the US came onto the scene, too. Coincidence?) All this ought to have been enough to maintain Priestley's popularity with the neighbors. Unfortunately, his status as a sympathizer for the budding French Revolution led to the pillaging and burning of his house in 1791. He was in France at the time.

In the United States at about the same time, an American chemist and physician named Lantham Mitchell, looking for more proper uses, gave some animals nitrous oxide, killing them quite dead.[6] He declared the substance poisonous, and thought that it might even contribute to the spread of disease by carrying pathogens. In 1775, though, at the tender age of 17, a hardy soul named Humphry Davy decided to give it a go himself and took a fat snoot-full:

Instead of dying, he experienced many pleasurable sensations; he felt an agreeable sense of giddiness, a relaxation of the muscles, noticed his hearing to be more acute, and in general felt so cheerful that he was compelled to laugh.[7]

The Bard Indulges

Davy, who was a surgical assistant, subsequently took a whiff when a pesky wisdom tooth bothered him. The instant relief of his pain gave him ideas about the gas's utility. One must remember that the "surgical assistant" in those days helped with the actual procedure but also held down screaming, thrashing patients, who were quite awake during invasive procedures. Davy published a book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide in 1800. By this time there had been minor explorations into anesthesiology through chemical means; some of these had even made it into Shakespeare. The Friar in Romeo and Juliet makes reference to a certain liquid [IV.1.93-97], as does Iago in Othello [III.3.330-333], and Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra [I.5.3-6]:

Cleo.: Ha, ha! Give me to drink mandragora.
Char.: Why, madam?
Cleo.: That I might sleep out this great gap of time My Antony is away.

This scant pharmacological knowledge notwithstanding,[8] most folks in Europe looking to cure pain for entertainment or scientific reasons seemed much happier following people like Franz Mesmer around, who had managed to convince everybody that he'd harnessed "the powers of the cosmic energies."[9] Essentially, Mesmer would wave a magnet about and scores of patients would claim to be cured. Mesmer found that the limiting step in his healing process was the size of the magnet, so he rubbed it on a stick for awhile and announced the stick was conducting the magic energies now, too. This solved his problem, for he could point the stick at large groups of people,[10] whereas he could only cure one at a time with the magnet. Before long he decided that he really didn't need the stick at all, and these cosmic energies emanated from his very being; he rechristened this ability as his "animal magnetism". Mesmer was the rage in Paris, until a commission headed by Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and author of Fart Proudly, debunked him in the 1780s.

What a Pain in the Gass

Against this sort of competition, we should not be surprised that the intrepid Davy was eventually knighted and elected president of Britain's Royal Society, though the use of nitrous oxide during surgical procedures did not become commonplace for another forty years. What took so long? Turns out the medical men of the period were so accepting of pain during surgical procedures the idea of eliminating it never even entered their heads. The modern reader may scoff, but the reality is that Davy himself cauterized a dog bite wound on his own leg without a dose of nitrous even after he discovered it.[11] While nobody thought to do surgical procedures with nitrous until well into the nineteenth century, great use was of course made of the gas recreationally, of which plenty more next time.

Further Reading

The invention of anasthetic actually made surgery much more deadly, as it encouraged much longer operations well before the widespread use of sanitary operating procedures. On the role this played in President Garfield's death, Garfield's Lengthy Demise. On the history of medicine in general, read Why Only Women Get Hysterical. Finally, for fun stories about drug research, don't forget to hit LSD and the CIA.


  1. International Journal of the Addictions, 2:271-2
  2. Brecher, p.311
  3. Walton, p. 2-23
  4. Brecher, p.311
  5. Priestly also discovered oxygen in 1771. His suggestion that oxygen inhalation might prove beneficial for certain lung diseases spawned a fad of "pneumatic medicine". These treatments entailed the inhalation of oxygen, and also hydrogen (!) and nitrogen for such diverse maladies as asthma, consumption (tuberculosis), paralysis, scurvy, hysteria and cancer. Keys p.14-15
  6. This reminds us of ether testing in America in the 1840s, when the William Morton mentioned below first tested it on a puppy, and followed up with goldfish and insects.
  7. Keys, p.15
  8. Mandragora contains scopolamines, atropines, and a few other alkaloids that genuinely do reduce pain
  9. Keys, p.12
  10. Yes, he had more magnetism than he could shake a stick at.
  11. Bergman p. 534-41


  1. Robert P. Walton. Marijuana, America's New Drug Problem. J. B. Lippincott, 1938. [Out of Print]
  2. Norman A. Bergman. Humpry Davy's Contribution to the Introduction of Anesthesia: A New Perspective, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. University of Chicago Press, 1991. [Out of Print]
  3. Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut. The Discoverer of Anaesthesia:Dr. Horace Wells of Hartford Tercentenary Commission. Yale University Press, 1933. [Out of Print]
  4. Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana - Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Little, Brown and Co., 1972. [Out of Print]
  5. Jonathon Green. Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. Henry Holt, 1996.
  6. Thomas E. Keys. The History of Surgical Anesthesia. Schuman's, 1945. [Out of Print]
  7. David R. Nagle. "Anesthetic Addiction and Drunkenness". International Journal of the Addictions, 3:33. .

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