Discover the Fascinating Story of Anesthesia!

Background and Experiments with Nitrous Oxide:

  • Thomas Beddoes established the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, England, to explore the therapeutic use of various gases, including nitrous oxide, in treating pulmonary tuberculosis.
  • Humphry Davy, a young chemist, was recruited to oversee the laboratory at the institution. He conducted experiments with nitrous oxide, exploring its effects on himself and others.
  • Despite initial concerns about the safety of nitrous oxide due to experiments that ended badly, Davy continued his investigations through self-experimentation.

Davy’s Experiences with Nitrous Oxide:

  • Davy found that inhaling nitrous oxide led to pleasurable sensations, giddiness, muscle relaxation, heightened hearing, and a cheerful mood. He became fascinated by its effects.
  • He described using nitrous oxide to alleviate the pain and discomfort of a wisdom tooth eruption. The pain diminished after inhaling the gas, but he also noted that the pain seemed to return after the effects wore off.

Davy’s Proposal for Surgical Anesthesia:

  • Davy’s experiments and observations led him to suggest that nitrous oxide might be useful in surgical procedures to alleviate pain. He proposed that it could be advantageous for surgeries involving minimal blood loss.

Missed Opportunity for Anesthesia Discovery:

  • Despite his insights and proposal, Davy’s suggestion for using nitrous oxide as a surgical anesthetic went unnoticed and unexplored by the medical community.
  • The passage refers to this missed opportunity as “missing the gold ring,” implying that Davy could have made one of the most significant discoveries in the history of medicine had his proposal been recognized and acted upon.

In essence, Humphry Davy conducted pioneering experiments with nitrous oxide, experiencing its effects and proposing its potential use as an anesthetic for surgical procedures. However, his proposal was not embraced at the time, and the medical community did not recognize the full potential of anesthesia until later developments. This excerpt describes the historical setting and the variables that prevented Davy from making a significant medical breakthrough.


Bergman NA. Samuel Latham Mitchill (1764–1831). A neglected American pioneer of anesthesia. JAMA 1985;253:675–8.

Davy H. Researches, chemical and philosophical; chiefly concern- ing nitrous oxide or dephlogisticated nitrous air and its respiration. Bristol: Biggs and Cottle, 1800. pp. 1–580.

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