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What A Gas: Part II

Nitrous Oxide has always been used more for fun than for medicine.

In our previous article, we detailed the discovery of nitrous oxide, better and more affectionately known as laughing gas. The intrepid discoverer of this esteemed gas was none other than the famous Joseph Priestly, but it would fall to the more pedestrian Humphry Davy to figure out what to really do with it.

While nobody thought to do surgical procedures with nitrous until well into the nineteenth century, great use was made of the gas recreationally. Davy himself threw parties at which the attendees inhaled copious amounts of the giggly stuff. He managed to have quite a few celebrities at these gatherings, including the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Peter Roget of Roget's Thesaurus fame. As the late pharmacologist Dr. David R. Nagle remarked, this group "was a group of gay spirits who were more interested in seeking 'pleasurable effects' -- getting drunk -- than in scientific research."[1] The group found inhaling nitrous oxide to be a little less hazardous than alcohol and with fewer side effects. Far too giddy with the idea of a cheap buzz, Davy contemplated abandoning science altogether:

Davy apparently thought of marketing the new gas, for he calculated that he could supply it in bags at a lower price than was then being charged for alcoholic beverages -- and alcohol at the end of the eighteenth century was notoriously cheap.[2]

Let's Get This Show on the Road

An individual caught the whiff of a get-rich-quick scheme in the States, too -- American medical student Gardner Quincy Colton. He also thought nitrous oxide might compete with alcohol. When his first public demonstration of the gas gained him $535, he quit medical school altogether and peddled cheap thrills full-time. An advertisement for his nitrous-oxide demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1844 read as follows:

A Grand Exhibition of the effects produced by inhaling Nitrous Oxid [sic], Exhilarating or Laughing Gas! will be given at Union Hall this [Tuesday] Evening, Dec. 10th, 1844.
Forty gallons of Gas will be prepared and administered to all in the audience who desire to inhale it.
Twelve Young Men have volunteered to inhale the Gas, to commence the entertainment.
Eight Strong Men are engaged to occupy the front seats to protect those under the influence of the Gas from injuring themselves or others... Probably no one will attempt to fight.
The effect of the Gas is to make those who inhale it either Laugh, Sing, Dance, Speak, or Fight, and so forth, according to the leading trait of their character ... The Gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability.[3]

"The Freaks of the Subjects Were Amazing"

In recounting this episode, Dr. Ernest A. Wells, friend of Horace's son (but no relation) recalls the episode of that fateful evening. "...there was an exhibition of the effects of the so-called "laughing gas", preceded by a short lecture given by a Dr. Colton who then, and for many years after, made these entertainments his sole occupation...." We consider that a very genial description of a dope-peddler.[4] Ernest continues:

The gas used in these lectures by Dr. Colton was contained in a rubber bag, and was administered through a horrible wooden faucet, similar to the contraptions used in country cider barrels. It was given in quantities only sufficient to exhilarate or stimulate the subjects, and reacted upon them in divers and sundry ways. Some danced, some sang, others made impassioned orations, or indulged in serious arguments with imaginary opponents, while in many instances the freaks of the subjects were amazing....[5]

On the evening of December 10, one Dr. Horace Wells was present to observe a sometime daguerrotyper, pistolmaker, railroad stationmaster and mail route agent named Sam "Colonel" Cooley get tanked on nitrous. Dr. Ernest sets the scene:

At length Sam Cooley took the gas and proved to be an interesting subject. He careened about the stage in an extraordinary manner when suddenly he espied in the audience an imaginary enemy and sprung over the ropes and after him. The innocent spectator, frightened out of his seven wits, summarily abandoned his seat and fled, running like a deer around the hall with Cooley in hot pursuit, the audience on its feet applauding in delight. The terrified victim finally dodged, vaulted over a settee and rushed down an aisle, Cooley a close second. Half way to the front the pursuer came to himself, looked about foolishly, and amid shouts of laughter and applause slid into his seat near to Dr. [Horace] Wells. Presently he was seen to roll up his trousers and gaze in a puzzled sort of way at an excoriated and bloody leg...[6]

All's Wells that Ends Wells

Horace Wells, being a dentist and concerned human being, asked Sam how that had ever happened. Sam expressed bewilderment: "I've no idea," he said. Breathless, Horace asked, "Didn't you feel it at all?" Upon being told no, the epiphany hit him: "A new era in tooth-pulling!" Delighted, Wells ran all the way to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to demonstrate his new idea. Unfortunately, he did not give the patient enough gas. During the surgical procedure, the patient cried out in pain, and the students at the clinic "booed and jeered."[7] Wells returned to Hartford a broken man, and shortly thereafter a pupil of his, one William Morton, stole the technique and popularized it.

Wells wrote several stern letters to the editor of the Hartford Courant, trying to defend his honor and rightful place in the annals of anesthesiology. He detailed the above story and noted Morton's recent successes with the same principle, concluding, "After making the above statements of facts, I leave it for the public to decide to whom belongs the honor of this discovery." Unfortunately, nobody listened. Demoralized, Wells went into a breakdown and died in 1848. However, the legacy left in his passing was one that benefits all of us, or at least all of us with health insurance, and he himself got a statue erected in his honor in New Haven. Unfortunately for him, the statue erected to the founder of anesthesiology in Boston doesn't bear anybody's name -- they couldn't decide who it was.

Footnotes

  1. Nagle, 3:33
  2. Brecher, 312
  3. Hartford Courant, Dec. 10, 1844
  4. Tercentenary Commission. The Tercentenary Commission goes so far as to intimate Colton was actually Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver: "Colt... was himself a showman in the thirties, and in at least one advertisement in Portland, Maine, October 13, 1832, advertised, under the name of Dr. S. Coult, practical chemist, an exhibition showing the effects of nitrous oxide gas. (p. 4)" While the similarity is striking, we can't lend credence to the idea that Colt was ever in medical school. Interestingly, Colton himself was still referred to as "doctor", despite his academically deadbeat status
  5. Tercentenary Commission, p. 6. We highly approve of a 1933 publication using "freak" as a verb.
  6. Tercentenary Commission, p.7
  7. Tercentenary Commission, p.8

Bibliography

  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. Thomas E. Keys. The History of Surgical Anesthesia. Schuman's, 1945. [Out of Print]
  6. Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. The Consumers Union Report - Licit and Illicit Drugs. (referenced online at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cumenu.htm) Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, 1997.
  7. David R. Nagle. "Anesthetic Addiction and Drunkenness". International Journal of the Addictions, 3:33. .

 
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