Early Use of Laughing Gas

Nitrous Oxide was discovered first by Joseph Priestley. Priestley followed upon the initial findings of Joseph Black and discovered nitrous oxide by heating ammonium nitrate and passing the resulting gas through water. However, even though Joseph Priestley is attributed with the finding of the gas, the person responsible for the early uses of nitrous oxide is Humphrey Davy. Humphrey Davy was a chemist who had been working at the Pneumatic Institute of Bristol, England, which had been created in order to find applications of gases which can be used for curative purposes.

Humphrey Davy experimented heavily with Joseph Priestley’s creation, and tried numerous different experiments. One of them was the effect nitrous oxide had when it was breathed in by a person. Humphrey observed a lot of people, and also experimented by releasing the gas on the visitors in his institute. What he found was that the gas made people laugh uncontrollably, and suppressed their senses such as feeling and emotions. This amazing discovery led Humphrey to refer to the gas as a ‘laughing gas’.

Moreover, not only did Humphrey find out that nitrous oxide was able to make people laugh excessively, but he also managed to point out that the gas had a serious aesthetic effect that left people numb to pain. This was the time when Humphrey Davy also came up with the term ‘laughing gas’ for Nitrous Oxide. Funnily enough, given the nature of the Pneumatic Institute and how it was supposed to find curative effects of gases, the medical prospects of Nitrous oxide are mentioned just a couple of times throughout their accounts. Only at the end of the book does Humphrey Davy give the suggestion that Nitrous Oxide could be used for surgical purposes, helping people avoid the pain as they were operated upon.

However, given the nature of the gas as well as its medical prospects, it wasn’t until the next 40 years when any significant process was made regarding the use of the gas for medicinal purposes. During that time, the primary use of nitrous oxide was only for recreational purposes. There were public shows and caravans that had special chambers, where people could pay to go and inhale nitrous oxide for a minute or two.

The gas made the people laugh uncontrollably and do silly things, and until the effects of the drug wore out, they were happy. However, as the effects of the gas came to a sudden end, the people would stop and wonder what they had been doing, confused. Around 40 years after Humphrey Davy’s published work on nitrous oxide, a doctor by the name of Horace Wells was the person to make the first ever anesthetic use of nitrous oxide. At one of these public shows, Horace observed that a person, who had injured himself, kept walking and laughing as if he felt no pain. Curious by this observation, Horace arranged for an experiment, and the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic was born in the world of medicine.