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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.2 (2002) 161-176

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Why Did Humphry Davy and Associates Not Pursue the Pain-Alleviating Effects of Nitrous Oxide?

Margaret C. Jacob and Michael J. Sauter

Historians have long debated why it took until well into the nineteenth century before medical practitioners utilized the pain-killing potential of nitrous oxide (commonly known as laughing gas). In a recent review of Norman A. Bergman’s The Genesis of Surgical Anesthesia, Douglas R. Bacon notes that “why Davy, Hickman, and others who clearly demonstrated the anesthetic state in animals did not take the next step and apply their knowledge to human patients undergoing surgery . . . is one of the great unanswered questions of the history of anesthesiology.” 1 The Bergman book now commands a noticeable place in the history of anesthesia. Significantly, it seeks to elude the question, holding simply that it is “futile to try to designate any one individual or group as the discoverer of anesthesia.” 2 We are intervening into the historical discussion because there is new manuscript evidence, and we are convinced that the question is best answered by approaching it from three interlocking perspectives: the social milieu within which Davy and his scientific and literary friends lived, their theoretical commitments and experimental protocols, and the technology available to [End Page 161] them in 1800. The social milieu set limits and permissions, determining in broad terms the directions given to inherited scientific methods and beliefs. Similarly, technological factors, such as the materials used for the inhalation of gases, while not governed by social milieu, were not challenged or altered experimentally because of the context within which the gases were used and understood.

In this article we present the evidence as we see it, hoping to find a satisfactory answer as to why Davy, his mentor, Thomas Beddoes, and their intellectual friends found pleasure in the gas but did not pursue development of it as a palliative against pain. This circle embarked upon their research at Beddoes’s new Pneumatic Institute at Bristol. Help in reconstructing the institute’s ambiance comes from Watt family letters, only available since 1995, and from the Davy papers at the Royal Institution in London that have been available for some time. Of particular interest are what the letters tell us about the sons of James Watt, the famous improver of the steam engine, and in particular Gregory Watt, an intimate of Davy’s circle. Gregory’s letters illuminate the milieu of their circle that for a time included men at the eye of the romantic storm, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. At its periphery stood the other Watts, James senior and junior, the young Wedgwoods and Boultons, and various British radicals who clustered around Joseph Priestley.

We begin with Gregory Watt, whose chronically poor health took him out of Scotland, where he had been a student at Glasgow, and into the life of the young Davy. Watt’s parents had suggested travel, especially to warmer environments, before any serious decision could be made about his role in the family steam engine business. In 1797– 1798 Gregory (b. 1777) became a boarder in Penzance at the home of Mrs. Davy, the mother of Humphry (b. 1778). Gregory’s ensuing close friendship with Davy helped propel the latter toward scientific pursuits, and through the Watt family, Davy acquired a place in the Bristol laboratory and treatment center. Gregory may be said to have “discovered” Davy. Thomas Beddoes, a close friend of James Watt with whom he worked to design a wooden chamber for the inhalation of gases, assumed the tutelage of Davy just as he also assisted the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge with his scientific interests. 3 In Bristol, Davy, [End Page 162] Beddoes, and Gregory Watt came into direct contact with the major literary figures of the day. 4 All possessed an avid interest in poetry and Gregory read, while Southey eventually published, Davy’s...


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