The Nitrous Oxide Experiments of Humphry Davy

Researches, chemical and philosophical chiefly concerning nitrous oxide, or diphlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration by Humphry Davy; 1800; J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, by Biggs and Cottle, Bristol in London.

In 1799 Humphry Davy, the young English chemist and inventor and future president of the Royal Society, began a very radical bout of self experimentation to determine the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide, more commonly know as “Laughing Gas”. With his assistant Dr Kinglake, he would heat crystals of ammonium nitrate, collect the gas released in a green oiled-silk bag, pass it through water vapour to remove impurities and then inhale it through a mouthpiece. The effects were superb. Of these first experiments he described giddiness, flushed cheeks, intense pleasure, and “sublime emotion connected with highly vivid ideas”. The experiments quickly increased in frequency and also intensity. He began to take the gas outside of laboratory conditions, returning alone for solitary sessions in the dark, inhaling huge amounts, “occupied only by an ideal existence”, and also after drinking in the evening – though he continued to be meticulous in his scientific records throughout. Later in the year he would construct an “air-tight breathing box” in which he would sit for hours inhaling enormous quantities of the gas and have even more intense experiences, on more than one occasion nearly dying. A few months after he started the experiments Davy began to allow others to partake, at first his patients but then also perfectly healthy subjects chosen from his circle of family and friends, including the heir to the Wedgwood pottery empire, the future compiler of Roget’s thesaurus, and the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He asked all the participants to write down their experiences, descriptions which ended up forming more than eighty incredibly entertaining pages in the his Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800) which we have featured here.

For more on Davy’s experiments check out Mike Jay’s excellent essay for us ““O, Excellent Air Bag”: Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide”.

Housed at: Internet Archive | From: Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: Pending Clarification
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