A brief history of laughing gas May 3, 2010Posted by Colleen in Biology, Chemistry, Health, History of Science, Medicine.
As a science major, signing lab safety forms is just a normal part of the beginning of every semester for me. We always cover the proper protocol for experiments we’ll be conducting in the lab and the things we probably shouldn’t do in order to remain alive. We take all of this for granted, but hundreds of years ago, the methods for scientific experiment were far different.
The story “The Not-So-Funny Tale Of Laughing Gas” on NPR’s Morning Edition talks about this. In 1799, a young scientists, about 21 years old, named Humphry Davy was doing testing on different gases as potential cures for Tuberculosis, a major problem of the time. To test these different gases (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, etc.), he inhaled the gases himself and wrote about his reactions to them. Let’s just say, it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. While none of these gases could actually be used to cure tuberculosis, he did notice one of these gases had a particular effect on him. While testing the gas nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, Davy noticed that the toothache that he had been experiencing was gone after the nitrous oxide was inhaled and then later came back. He proposed that this gas could potentially be used in surgery to keep the patients from feeling the pain. Unfortunately, there was no knowledge of any kind of anesthesia at the time and the idea of a pain-free surgery was such a novel idea. Pain was thought to be a sign of a healthy body that would heal quite well, so people shied away from the idea. It would take about 40 years before people would begin to consider Davy’s discovery.