Nitrous oxide was first synthesized by the English chemist and philosopher Joseph Priestley in 1772. He then published his discovery in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in 1775 and “denominated [it] ‘dephlogisticated air’ … [describing it as] colourless, sweetish, and of slightly agreeable odour.” However, it was the British chemist Sir Humphry Davy who realized nitrous oxide or laughing gas, as it came to be called, was the perfect anesthetic for surgery.
Davy learned this after he joined the “Pneumatic Institution” and began to investigate the medical powers of factitious airs and gases, which included experimenting with nitrous oxide. Besides experimenting with the gas on animals, fish, and insects, Davy also became involved in the first human trials, and he experimented with it himself, thereby discovering its abilities and also becoming addicted to it.
The same year that Napoleon Bonaparte orchestrated a coup and became the First consul of the Republic, was the same year that nitrous oxide was noticed to cause a pleasurable sensation. It was thus soon marketed as a recreational drug with laughing gas exhibitions and parties conducted regularly. At these events, the gas was reported to be easily inhaled. Davy maintained that it involved nothing more than having “it “pressed out of a gasometer into a bladder provided with a pipe and cock,” from which the person inhaled it. Davey also noted that when he tried it, he “closed his nostrils, and exhausted his lungs, breathed four quarts of … [the] gas from and into a silk bag.” In addition, because it produced pleasurable excitement and often lots of laughter, beside acquiring the nickname of “laughing gas” it was also called “intoxicating gas” or “gas of Paradise.”
When trying nitrous oxide, many people reported experiencing euphoric feelings. For instance, Davy reported that when he first tried it he felt giddy, “but in less than half a minute the respiration being continued, the giddiness diminished and was succeeded by a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by pleasurable thrilling in the chest and extremities. His sight became dazzled, and his hearing more acute. Towards the last inspiration, the thrilling increased, and at last an irresistible propensity to action was indulged in.”
Robert Southey, the English poet of the Romantic school, also tried nitrous oxide. He published his experience claiming:
“My first definite sensation was a dizziness, a fullness in the head, such as to induce a fear of falling. This was momentary. When I took the bag from my mouth, I immediately laughed. The laugh was involuntary but highly pleasurable, accompanied by a thrill all through me; and a tingling in my toes and fingers, a sensation perfectly new and delightful.”
Although most people noted similar intoxicating and pleasurable feelings, there were some people who had a different experience at the laughing gas exhibitions. They either had no reaction, found the experience painful, or exhibited unusual or strange behavior. Some of the strange behavior observed was documented in newspapers or books. The Morning Post in 1819 described an exhibition given by Dr. Thornton at Shade’s Concert Room in Soho Square. At the exhibition one young man who tried the gas behaved extremely odd.
“[He] laughed like a hyena, howled like a wolf, threw his hands out like the talon of an eagle, and sprung forward like a tiger, ending [his experience] by crawling like a spider, and lastly looking for his leg.”
More reports of strange behavior were written about some twenty years later when students at St. Thomas’ Hospital were introduced to the extraordinary powers of laughing gas. For instance, there was a report:
“In an instant … [he] was twirling round the yard like a dervish in an enthusiasm, and laughing as obstreperously as if the spirit of all Joe Miller’s Jokes had been discharged upon him at once.”
Witnesses to another experimenter of the gas reported the following:
[The experimenter’s] face was as burnished as a new copper kettle, and off he darted, overturning men and tables with equal impetuosity, until he made his way into one of the amphitheatres, where he commenced the exordium of a Pindaric speech, and [then suddenly] stopped, looking quite bashful, as he was commencing the third sentence.”
Davy witnessed numerous people inhale gas who acted strangely at laughing gas exhibitions, and he wrote about them. In one case, a gentleman who was supposedly reserved and shy, was anything but that after inhaling the gas. According to Davy, he “imagined he was at the head of his own table enjoying himself with his friends, and became quite uproarious about filling bumpers and fresh bottles with wine.” Another supposedly remarkable experience occurred with John Leyden, who Davy described “of sanguine-nervous temperament.” Davy was standing next to the Reverend Sydney Smith, and, after inhaling the gas, Leyden began to act oddly. Davy wrote:
“[Leyden suddenly fixed] his eye with a peculiar expression on … Reverend Smith [as we] stood wondering what was to happen … Leyden [then] started up, clenched his fists and holding them up, still fixing his gaze on Mr. Smith, marched slowly toward him with the exclamation, solemnly pronounced, ‘Confound him — I’ll murder him now!’ Notwithstanding this alarming threat, and the ferocious expression of his countenance, it did not appear he had any intention of slaying his friend; for he stopped short … His organs of ideality and destructiveness had been for the time excited, and he was in a sort of dreaming delirium.”
Laughing gas exhibitions produced experiences that were anything but normal. For instance, In 1838, three different doctors decided to try nitrous oxide at a public exhibition. Dr. Henry Phillpots, who was also the Bishop of Exeter, and a Dr. Pusey of Oxford inhaled the gas at the same time. They then “looked at each other with great earnestness, then grinned with Satanic feeling, and ultimately burst out in the most frantic fits of laughter.” The Bishop then crossed himself in Catholic fashion, fell down upon his knees, “and muttered out several parts of Pope Gregory’s famous declarations to respect apostolic authority.” Dr. Pusey, while crying fire, ran up and down the room. Then he unexpectedly “sat down as if quite exhausted and counted his beads with great coolness and unconcern.” The third man, a Dr. Bowring, who was dressed prim and proper with his collar buttoned up to his neck, did an about face once he inhaled the gas.
“[H]e began to laugh very loud; after which he commenced to strip off his clothes, and scratch himself violently from head to foot, as if he had got the itch or the Egyptian leprosy. He then put on a red, flaming, Kilmarnnock night cap, and ran about the room … bleating like a great overgrown calf; which frightened all the ladies, and offered no little amusement to the male part of the audience.”
The idea of using the gas in any other way than conducting laughing gas exhibitions or nitrous oxide parties did not occur to anyone until 11 December 1844. An American dentist named Horace Wells, demonstrated that nitrous oxide was an effective anesthetic against pain. He used the gas to alleviate pain while having his own tooth extracted by an associate. His demonstration proved so successful it soon led to the acceptance of nitrous oxide as a dental anesthetic. Unfortunately, attempts to use nitrous oxide for hospital surgical procedures were far less effective. Sulfuric ether and chloroform (first used in surgery in 1846 and 1847 respectively) were proven to provide the pain relief patients sought.
For all those who tried nitrous oxide, most never forgot their first experience. One poet didn’t and forever immortalized that moment in a poem he titled The Land of ‘Laughing-Gas’:
“I breathed a whiff of laughing-gas and soared
Through a dense bank of clouds, and found myself
In a fair land.
The drowsy zephyrs clung
To the thick drifts of pearly blossom, which
Breathed incense from the branches; here and there
I stretched myself upon a velvet slope
Of marish moss, and, sinking down,
The lute-like voice grow fainter, fainter still,
Distant and dream-like, lose itself in space,
—And I awoke upon the dentist’s chair.”
-  “Laughing Gas,” in Leeds Times, 15 December 1838, p. 6.
-  “Nitrous Oxide, or Laughing Gas,” in The Freeman’s Journal, 28 November 1838, p. 3.
-  Davy, Sir Humphry, The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, 1839, p. 272.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., 301.
-  “The Nitrous Oxyde, or Laughing Gas,” in Morning Post, 24 November 1819, p. 4.
-  “Laughing Gas,” p. 6.
-  “Nitrous Oxide, or Laughing Gas,” in Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 1 December 1838, p. 1.
-  Chambers Edinburgh Journal, Vol. XI, 1843, p. 107.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  “Experiments on the Nitrous-oxide, or Laughing Gas,” in Northern Liberator, 15 December 1838, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  MacKenna, Robert William, Verses, 1897, p. 58-59.