History of Inhalants
While nobody thought to do surgical procedures with nitrous until well into
the nineteenth century, great use was made of the gas recreationally. Davy himself
threw parties at which the attendees inhaled copious amounts of the giggly stuff.
He managed to have quite a few celebrities at these gatherings, including the
poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Peter Roget of Roget's Thesaurus
fame. As the late pharmacologist Dr. David R. Nagle remarked, this group "was
a group of gay spirits who were more interested in seeking 'pleasurable effects'
-- getting drunk -- than in scientific research." The group found inhaling
nitrous oxide to be a little less hazardous than alcohol and with fewer side
effects. Far too giddy with the idea of a cheap buzz, Davy contemplated abandoning
Davy apparently thought of marketing the new gas, for he calculated that he
could supply it in bags at a lower price than was then being charged for alcoholic
beverages -- and alcohol at the end of the eighteenth century was notoriously
Let's Get This Show on the Road
An individual caught the whiff of a get-rich-quick scheme in the States, too
-- American medical student Gardner Quincy Colton. He also thought nitrous oxide
might compete with alcohol. When his first public demonstration of the gas gained
him $535, he quit medical school altogether and peddled cheap thrills full-time.
An advertisement for his nitrous-oxide demonstration in Hartford, Connecticut,
in 1844 read as follows:
A Grand Exhibition of the effects produced by inhaling Nitrous Oxid [sic],
Exhilarating or Laughing Gas! will be given at Union Hall this [Tuesday] Evening,
Dec. 10th, 1844.
Forty gallons of Gas will be prepared and administered to all in the audience
who desire to inhale it.
Twelve Young Men have volunteered to inhale the Gas, to commence the entertainment.
Eight Strong Men are engaged to occupy the front seats to protect those under
the influence of the Gas from injuring themselves or others... Probably no one
will attempt to fight.
The effect of the Gas is to make those who inhale it either Laugh, Sing, Dance,
Speak, or Fight, and so forth, according to the leading trait of their character
... The Gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability.
"The Freaks of the Subjects Were Amazing"
In recounting this episode, Dr. Ernest A. Wells, friend of Horace's son (but
no relation) recalls the episode of that fateful evening. "...there was
an exhibition of the effects of the so-called "laughing gas", preceded
by a short lecture given by a Dr. Colton who then, and for many years after,
made these entertainments his sole occupation...." We consider that a very
genial description of a dope-peddler. Ernest continues:
The gas used in these lectures by Dr. Colton was contained in a rubber bag,
and was administered through a horrible wooden faucet, similar to the contraptions
used in country cider barrels. It was given in quantities only sufficient to
exhilarate or stimulate the subjects, and reacted upon them in divers and sundry
ways. Some danced, some sang, others made impassioned orations, or indulged
in serious arguments with imaginary opponents, while in many instances the freaks
of the subjects were amazing....
On the evening of December 10, one Dr. Horace Wells was present to observe
a sometime daguerrotyper, pistolmaker, railroad stationmaster and mail route
agent named Sam "Colonel" Cooley get tanked on nitrous. Dr. Ernest
sets the scene:
At length Sam Cooley took the gas and proved to be an interesting subject.
He careened about the stage in an extraordinary manner when suddenly he espied
in the audience an imaginary enemy and sprung over the ropes and after him.
The innocent spectator, frightened out of his seven wits, summarily abandoned
his seat and fled, running like a deer around the hall with Cooley in hot pursuit,
the audience on its feet applauding in delight. The terrified victim finally
dodged, vaulted over a settee and rushed down an aisle, Cooley a close second.
Half way to the front the pursuer came to himself, looked about foolishly, and
amid shouts of laughter and applause slid into his seat near to Dr. [Horace]
Wells. Presently he was seen to roll up his trousers and gaze in a puzzled sort
of way at an excoriated and bloody leg...
All's Wells that Ends Wells
Horace Wells, being a dentist and concerned human being, asked Sam how that
had ever happened. Sam expressed bewilderment: "I've no idea," he
said. Breathless, Horace asked, "Didn't you feel it at all?" Upon
being told no, the epiphany hit him: "A new era in tooth-pulling!"
Delighted, Wells ran all the way to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston
to demonstrate his new idea. Unfortunately, he did not give the patient enough
gas. During the surgical procedure, the patient cried out in pain, and the students
at the clinic "booed and jeered." Wells returned to Hartford a
broken man, and shortly thereafter a pupil of his, one William Morton, stole
the technique and popularized it.
Wells wrote several stern letters to the editor of the Hartford Courant, trying
to defend his honor and rightful place in the annals of anesthesiology. He detailed
the above story and noted Morton's recent successes with the same principle,
concluding, "After making the above statements of facts, I leave it for
the public to decide to whom belongs the honor of this discovery." Unfortunately,
nobody listened. Demoralized, Wells went into a breakdown and died in 1848.
However, the legacy left in his passing was one that benefits all of us, or
at least all of us with health insurance, and he himself got a statue erected
in his honor in New Haven. Unfortunately for him, the statue erected to the
founder of anesthesiology in Boston doesn't bear anybody's name -- they couldn't
decide who it was.
1. Nagle, 3:33
2. Brecher, 312
3. Hartford Courant, Dec. 10, 1844
4. Tercentenary Commission. The Tercentenary Commission goes so far as to intimate
Colton was actually Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver: "Colt... was
himself a showman in the thirties, and in at least one advertisement in Portland,
Maine, October 13, 1832, advertised, under the name of Dr. S. Coult, practical
chemist, an exhibition showing the effects of nitrous oxide gas. (p. 4)"
While the similarity is striking, we can't lend credence to the idea that Colt
was ever in medical school. Interestingly, Colton himself was still referred
to as "doctor", despite his academically deadbeat status
5. Tercentenary Commission, p. 6. We highly approve of a 1933 publication using
"freak" as a verb.
6. Tercentenary Commission, p.7
7. Tercentenary Commission, p.8
1. Robert P. Walton. Marijuana, America's New Drug Problem. J. B. Lippincott,
1938. [Out of Print]
2. Norman A. Bergman. Humpry Davy's Contribution to the Introduction of Anesthesia:
A New Perspective, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. University of Chicago
Press, 1991. [Out of Print]
3. Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut. The Discoverer of Anaesthesia:Dr.
Horace Wells of Hartford Tercentenary Commission. Yale University Press, 1933.
[Out of Print]
4. Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit
Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants,
Hallucinogens, and Marijuana - Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Little,
Brown and Co., 1972. [Out of Print]
5. Thomas E. Keys. The History of Surgical Anesthesia. Schuman's, 1945. [Out
6. Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports. The Consumers Union
Report - Licit and Illicit Drugs. (referenced online at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cumenu.htm)
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, 1997.
7. David R. Nagle. "Anesthetic Addiction and Drunkenness". International
Journal of the Addictions, 3:33. .
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