Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) and his ‘legal highs’ – by Iona Jenkins

“I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder working gas of delight”.

Sir Humphry Davy first investigated gases in Bristol in 1797. He prepared and inhaled nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

He determined the effects of inhaling laughing gas by self-experimentation. The method used was to heat crystals of ammonium nitrate, collect the gas released in an oiled silk-bag, pass the gas through water vapour to remove impurities, and then inhale the gas through a mouthpiece.

He described the ‘superb’ effects to be giddiness, flushed cheeks, intense pleasure and “sublime emotion connected with highly vivid ideas”. He became fixated or even ‘addicted’ to the gas; taking the gas outside of the laboratory for solitary sessions in darkened rooms, he inhaled huge amounts, and coupled with substantial alcohol consumption he described himself to be “occupied only by an ideal existence”.

His desire for more intense experiences lead to the development of an “air-tight breathing box” in which he would sit for hours inhaling enormous quantities of the gas and on more than one occasion nearly died; nitrous oxide dissolves in the bloodstream, reducing the amount of oxygen flowing to the brain and other vital organs. This can have consequences such as blackouts, seizures and heart attacks. There is also a risk of asphyxiation, which can lead to brain damage or death.

However, he was meticulous in his scientific records and developed its use for anaesthesia: “As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place”.
Nitrous oxide is a popular agent still utilized by dentists today due to its painkilling ability. It is much less toxic (when used in mild doses) than alternatives such as chloroform and ether, which is also explosive. The main use for the gas is usually as a mild sedative and analgesic.

In 1813, he collected a medal for his electro-chemical work from Napoleon.

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