By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 2, 2010

9. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 235-265

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Davy on the Gas, 1-4
In the 1790s, Joseph Banks began hearing about experiments conducted at a "Pneumatic Institute" in Bristol by Thomas Beddoes, a former lecturer at Oxford. They involved experiments on humans, who were breathing in various gases to see what effect they might have on their conditions and diseases. Beddoes was seeking funds for his research, but the nature of the experiments caused Banks to turn him down. But when one of Beddoes's assistants, a twenty-one-year-old chemist from Cornwall named Humphry Davy, came to London in 1801, Banks invited Davy to meet with him.

Davy was mostly self-educated and had never traveled abroad, but he demonstrated an impressive knowledge of the advances in chemistry that had been made in France by Antoine Lavoisier. Davy's father, Robert, had inherited a large estate in Cornwall, where he practiced his skill as a woodcarver. In 1776, he married Grace Millet, who had been raised since the age of five by a surgeon in Penzance, John Tonkin, who had adopted her along with her two sisters when their parents died. Humphry was Robert and Davy's oldest of their five children. Tonkin became Humphry's benefactor (Robert Davy seems to have been somewhat feckless) and paid for his grammar school education in Penzance and later in Truro. But Humphry had to leave school when his father, who was deeply in debt, died suddenly in December 1794.

In February 1795, sixteen-year-old Humphry was indentured to the surgeon and apothecary John Bingham Borlase, who was a friend of Tonkin's. Davy moved into Tonkin's house, and turned his attic rooms into a painting studio and laboratory, with paining and chemical supplies generously supplied by Tonkin. He also took French lessons from an émigré priest who was one of his mother's lodgers, which enabled him to read "the language of Enlightenment science: the language of Laplace, Lamarck and Cuvier; the language of the Encyclopédie and the Biographie Universelle; the language of the Académie des Sciences, the only scientific body which rivalled the Royal Society in London. Above all it was the language of the greatest chemist of the day, Antoine Lavoisier."

Davy's voracious reading turned him into a skeptic and a materialist. He began to write essays denying the existence of the soul and wrote in his notebooks "two supreme declarations of faith.... The first was: 'Man is capable of an infinite degree of Happiness.' The second was: 'The perfectibility of science is absolutely indefinite.'" His "radical ideas about the nature of material reality" led him to a fascination with chemistry. In Tonkin's library he found both a standard English work, William Nicholson's Dictionary of Chemistry, published in 1795, and Antoine Lavoisier's Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789.

Humphry Davy, 1803
Chemistry of the time was liberating itself not only from its roots in alchemy, but also from the ancient belief in four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Water had been shown by Lavoisier to be compounded of hydrogen and oxygen in 1785, and his experiment was repeated by Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle in 1800. Fire had been thought to be caused by a substance known as "phlogiston," a theory still held by Joseph Priestley. Lavoisier thought it was the result of the combination of carbon and oxygen in the presence of a substance he called "caloric." Air was known to be composed of oxygen and nitrogen and other gases, and both Priestley and Lavoisier had demonstrated the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals, though the full significance of this exchange hadn't yet been made apparent. And the variety of minerals found in earth led to suspicions that it, too, was not a single "element." The undermining of the traditional notion of four elements was revolutionary because "it was counter-intuitive: it went against common sense and common appearances."

Davy recognized that the task of the chemist was to further decompose and analyze substances. Twelve elements had been established, including hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. By 1808, John Dalton was proposing a "Table of 20 Elements," the basis of the the Periodic Table created by Dmitri Mendeleyev in 1869. Banks was eager to establish Great Britain as a leader in chemistry, a task tragically simplified by the execution of France's greatest chemist, Lavoisier, by order of the Revolutionary Convention in 1794, a consequence of his earlier role as a tax collector and a feud with Jean-Paul Marat. Lavoisier had been an anglophile and a devotee of the empirical scientific method promulgated by Francis Bacon. In Lavoisier's words, "We ought to form no idea but what is a necessary consequence, and immediate effect, of an experiment or observation.... We should proceed from known facts to the unknown." This became Davy's creed as well.

John Davy later recalled his brother's early laboratory: "His apparatus consisted chiefly of phials, wine-glasses, teacups, tobacco pipes, and earthen crucibles; and his materials were chiefly the mineral acids and alkalis in common use in medicine. He began his experimental trials in his bedroom in Mr Tonkin's house." In 1797, Tokin took in a new lodger, Gregory Watt, the son of the Scottish engineer James Watt. Gregory wrote home to his father about Davy and his experiments, and Watt in turn wrote to his friend Thomas Beddoes in Bristol. Beddoes had been a lecturer at Oxford, but was forced to resign his fellowship because of his outspoken republican and atheist views. One of his students at Oxford had been Davies Giddy, a Cornishman who also knew Davy.

Thomas Beddoes
Beddoes decided to put an idea he had in effect: the Bristol Pneumatic Medical Institute, which would provide free medical care and research. He was already experimenting with drugs and diet to treat various diseases, and became interested in the chemistry of respiration, theorizing that inhaled gases entering the bloodstream might bring about cures for diseases. Though he applied to Banks for a grant from the Royal Society, he was forced to solicit his funds from private philanthropies, particularly William Henry Lambton, who bankrolled Beddoes's project in exchange for tutorial of his sons. Hearing about Davy, he decided the young man, not yet twenty, would be perfect as an assistant in his research.

Anna Beddoes, 1787
On October 1, 1798, Davy was released from his indenture and became supervisor of Beddoes's institution. In Bristol he met Beddoes's twenty-four-year-old wife, Anna, a pretty, energetic woman who was half-sister to the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Humphry was smitten with his employer's wife. That winter, Thomas Beddoes published Davy's first essays, in one of which he challenged "the imaginary fluid caloric" proposed by Lavoisier. He also wrote an essay, "On Heat, Light and the Combinations of Light," in which he set forth "an entire cosmological vision, in which the whole universe was powered by starlight as well as Newtonian gravity, and would eventually be understood as a single unified idea." He also speculated that human consciousness was a function of physiological processes, "making an almost metaphysical claim that chemistry might prove to be the path to ultimate knowledge." And in an essay in which he pointed out the interrelationship between oxygen-breathing animals and carbon dioxide breathing plants as suggesting an equilibrium in nature, he anticipated "what is now known as the 'carbon cycle.'"

In the spring of 1799, Davy began a series of experiments with gas inhalations. For the first time, he had a well-equipped laboratory, including gas-inhalation equipment which was designed for him by James Watt and based on balloon technology. He studied the work of human respiration and then tried the effects of inhaling hydrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous gases. Before subjecting any of his patients to the tests, he tried them out himself, nearly killing himself with carbon monoxide, as well as suffering fainting fits, nausea, and headaches. Fortunately, he kept a supply of oxygen at hand.  He finally settled on nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, as the most promising gas for trials.
At first Davy was largely concerned with the process of respiration, and possible therapeutic benefits. Later, with his human subjects, he became more interested in the physiological reactions of the whole body; and effects of pleasure and pain. Finally he became fascinated by purely psychological responses. 
There were risks to using nitrous oxide, which some, including Priestley, considered lethal, and the ammonium nitrate that was heated to produce it could explode. But Davy went ahead with it and experienced giddiness and euphoria. He wrote a poem about it:
Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire
Have I beheld a rapture-waking form;
My bosom burns with no unhallowed fire:
Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm
Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre filled
Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound
Yet are my limbs with inward transport thrilled
And clad with newborn mightiness around.
He began regularly experimenting with nitrous oxide, carefully annotating his physical and emotional reactions to the gas, noting once that "he was 'more irritable than usual,' though that might have had other 'moral' causes. In retrospect it appears that these 'moral causes' might have been connected with Anna Beddoes." One evening he decided to take a larger dose than usual, during which he briefly lost consciousness. He was disappointed that the gas gave him no spiritual revelation or insight into the universe, which may have made him overlook the potential of the gas as an anesthetic.

In May 1799 he began clinical trials on the institution's patients. He pioneered the use of "blind" trials by not telling the patients how much nitrous oxide they were inhaling or even if they were actually inhaling plain air, as some of them were. He was fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of the gas, and began to glimpse the possibility of its anesthetic use in surgery. In addition to patients, he also tried it out on friends and family, including Anna Beddoes. In a couple of instance women who inhaled the gas had such extreme, even hysterical reactions that it launched the notion that the gas could be used to make women lose their inhibitions and become sexually aroused.  Among others who partook of the gas were Robert Southey, several members of the Edgeworth family, Gregory and James Watt, and Peter Mark Roget, who would go on to compile the eponymous thesaurus. Southey reported that the gas made him "gloriously happy!" Maria Edgeworth visited her half-sister at the time and observed that Anna showed unusual "grace, genius, vivacity, and kindness."
Cartoon by James Gillray, "Scientific Researches! - New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! - or - an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air" (1802).  Davy is shown with the bellows behind the desk.

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