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Doctor and Mrs. Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas.

Laughing Gas Parties Were A Big Hit With 19th Century Society

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During the 19th century, the members of the British upper class engaged in a peculiar form of entertainment known as laughing gas parties. Such parties involved the inhalation of nitrous oxide (N 2O), which was discovered during the 18th century. Such parties spread across the Atlantic to the United States, where the anesthetic and pain reducing effects of nitrous oxide were recognized. Although the novelty of laughing gas parties eventually wore off, nitrous oxide has significant medical uses even today.

When Was Nitrous Oxide Discovered?

Nitrous oxide was first discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, an English chemist. Priestley published this discovery three years later in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air , in which the gas (which he considered to be an ‘air’) was described as being “colorless, sweetish, and of slightly agreeable odor.” Priestley did not conduct further experiments on this gas and the matter was left to rest for the next few decades.

Pneumatic trough, glass collecting cylinders and other equipment used by Priestley in his experiments on gases, including nitrous oxide. (Astrochemist / Public Domain)

Pneumatic trough, glass collecting cylinders and other equipment used by Priestley in his experiments on gases, including nitrous oxide. (Astrochemist / Public Domain )

It was only at the end of the century, in 1799, that interest in nitrous oxide was revived. Around that time, the Pneumatic Institution was established by Thomas Beddoes, an English physician , to conduct research on the therapeutic properties of gases. Beddoes wanted to know if some gases could be used to treat respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis, which was a deadly disease at that time. Beddoes hired the 20-year-old Humphry Davy as the first superintendent of the institution.

How Was Nitrous Oxide Used?

While Beddoes ran the clinic where patients could stay when they received treatment at the institution, Davy carried out the experiments on various gases, including nitrous oxide. Additionally, the Scottish inventor, James Watt (whose steam engine contributed greatly to the Industrial Revolution ) had developed an apparatus for Beddoes that would allow him to deliver gases to his patients more efficiently. The nitrous oxide gas at the Pneumatic Institution was stored in large, green silk bags and its patients would inhale the gas from a tube while holding his/her nose.

Balloon and nitrous oxide canister after use of laughing gas, used as a legal high. (iredding01 / Adobe)

Balloon and nitrous oxide canister after use of laughing gas, used as a legal high. ( iredding01 / Adobe)

Although the gases were tested on various animals, experiments were conducted on human beings as well and Davy became a human guinea pig. Davy recorded the sensation he felt while inhaling the nitrous oxide gas, which included a pleasurable thrill in his body. Having experimented on himself for several more months and arriving at the conclusion that the gas was not harmful to human beings, he invited fellow researchers, some friends, and patients at the institute to try the gas for themselves. Although each attained the same euphoric feeling that Davy experienced, each describe it differently. For instance, one of his friends, the poet Robert Southey, in a letter to his brother, wrote that “Davy has actually invented a new pleasure for which language has no name.”

The Laughing Gas Parties Start

Taking into account the effects of nitrous oxide on the human body, Davy named it ‘laughing gas’. It was known also as ‘intoxicating gas’ or ‘gas of Paradise’. Davy continued to organize such laughing gas parties for his friends and asked them to record their experience. Although the immediate effects of the gas were obvious, little did Davy realize its side effects. Davy became addicted to the gas, but fortunately for him, was able to get rid of his addiction and went on to conduct research in other areas.

Depiction of Davy’s laughing gas parties and exhibitions in the 19th century. (Almapater44 / Public Domain)

Depiction of Davy’s laughing gas parties and exhibitions in the 19th century. (Almapater44 / Public Domain )

While Davy pursued other scientific interests, laughing gas parties and exhibitions became popular, not only in England but also in the United States. In was during one of these performances that the medical significance of nitrous oxide was realized. On the 10th of December 1844, Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut and his wife, Elizabeth, attended a laughing gas performance staged by Gardner Quincy Colton. One of Wells’ acquaintances, Sam Cooley, had injured his leg during the performance. As he had been administered a low dose of laughing gas, however, Cooley seemed to show no signs of pain. Wells wondered if the gas could be used for medical purposes .

The Use of Nitrous Oxide for Medical Purposed Discovered

Wells hypothesized that while a low dose of nitrous oxide resulted in intoxication, a higher dose would induce insensibility. Like Davy before him, Wells decided to make himself a guinea pig. The dentist had been having some trouble with an erupting wisdom tooth and this was the perfect occasion to test his hypothesis. Having taken a high dose of nitrous oxide, the dentist had his tooth extracted by Colton without feeling any pain, thus proving his hypothesis.

Humphry Davy's “Anaesthetic Midwifery” outlines potential anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide in relieving pain during surgery. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Humphry Davy's “Anaesthetic Midwifery” outlines potential anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide in relieving pain during surgery. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In spite of this discovery, Wells’ career went into decline. His first public demonstration of laughing gas as an anesthesia was a failure but he did not give up, going to Europe to find support for his discovery. He was not successful there either and when he returned to the United States, found that ether anesthesia was firmly established. Nitrous oxide had lost its popularity and Wells began to investigate chloroform anesthesia. Wells experimented with the gas on himself with disastrous result. He got addicted to it and one day under the influence of the gas rushed out into the street and threw sulfuric acid over the clothes of two prostitutes. He was sent to the Tombs Prison in New York and once his mind cleared and he realized what he had done he committed suicide.

The significance of nitrous oxide in the field of anesthesia outlived Wells and this gas, which was once used merely for entertainment, is still used for certain types of surgical procedures even today.

Top image: Doctor and Mrs. Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas. Source: Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 .

By Wu Mingren

References

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Kelsey-Sugg, A., 2019. The laughing gas parties of the 1700s — and how they sparked a medical breakthrough. ABC News. [Online] Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-20/laughing-gas-parties-discovery-of-anaesthesia/10811060
Roberts, J., 2017. High Times. Science History Institute. [Online] Available at: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/high-times
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Nitrous oxide. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/nitrous-oxide
Walton, G., 2014. Nitrous Oxide or Laughing Gas Exhibitions and Parties. Geri Walton Unique Histories. [Online] Available at: https://www.geriwalton.com/nitrous-oxide-or-laughing-gas/
www.general-anaesthesia.com, 2019. Horace Wells. BLTC. [Online] Available at: https://www.general-anaesthesia.com/people/horace-wells.html
www.general-anaesthesia.com, 2019. Laughing Gas Party. BLTC. [Online] Available at: https://www.general-anaesthesia.com/people/laughinggas.html

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