Make Me Laugh, Will You?

The field of surgery has changed remarkably over the years because of various advances in instruments, drugs and anesthetic agents. One of the reasons why patients can go into and come out of the surgery comfortably is because of advances in general anaesthesia of which Nitrous Oxide gas plays a vital part. Known to the world as Laughing Gas, this gas has had a number of experimenters regaling in all its glory.

Sir Humphry Davy was born on 17thDecember 1778. He was born in Penzance, Cornwall in England. He loved poetry and has written over one hundred and sixty poems, though he showed them only to his friends. Only eight of them were actually published.

Though he was interested in poetry during his teenage years, slowly another interest took over him. He became more inclined towards science and conducted a number of experiments to satisfy his curiosity. Using a powerful electrical battery at the Royal Institution, he created the first incandescent light by passing electrical current through a strip of platinum. It wasn’t of any practical use at that time because it was neither bright nor did it last long, but he was the one who first told the world that it could be done.

On 2ndOctober 1798 Sir Davy joined the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol. This was a place of research and various scientific trialing. Here a number of gases were discovered, and their properties were studied extensively. This was the institution where Sir Davy first came in contact with Nitrous Oxide gas, in lay man’s terms, the Laughing Gas.

It was on the morning of boxing day when twenty-year-old Sir Humphry Davy stepped into a sealed box designed by engineer James Watt. He used this device to inhale different gases and decipher their effects on the human body and mind. He requested Dr Robert Kinglake to release nitrous oxide into the sealed box that day. Sir Davy was soon under the effect of the gas, which he had already previously experienced a number of times.

He describes it in his notebook saying –

Initially following inhalation, I experienced a benign sweet smell. This was followed by a gentle pressure in the head if I continued to inhale the gas. Within half an hour this gentle pressure extended to my chest and fingers and toes. The world slowly changed around me, and I experienced incredible joy. Everything became brighter and clearer!

He slowly started increasing the doses and ended up inhaling the largest dose ever used. The effects on him were greatly intensified. His hearing improved dramatically, so much so that he could distinguish every sound in the room however faint they were. Somehow, everything seemed funny and he couldn’t help himself from laughing uncontrollably. He was transported into a whole new world which seemed so distant from his present state. Images floated in front of him, bright and dazzling making magnificent shapes (as per

He never wanted to come back but was abruptly brought back by Dr Kinglake who removed the breathing tube from his mouth. He walked majestically to Dr Kinglake still under the influence of the gas and declared – “Nothing exists but thoughts!’, he blurted. ‘The world is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!”(courtesy- O, Excellent Air Bag)

After experiencing the effects of the gas, Sir Davy experimented on his poet friend Robert Southey. Like, Davy Southey too was amazed by the effects. He wrote to his brother saying-

O, Tom! Such a gas has Davy discovered, the gasoeus oxyd! O, Tom! I have had some; it made me laugh and tingle in every toe and finger-tip. Davy has actually invented a new pleasure for which language has no name. O, Tom! I am going for more this evening; it makes one strong and so happy, so gloriously happy! O, excellent air-bag!

 After this, the experimentation turned into a kind of party. Every evening, after the Pneumatic Institution had closed doctors, patients, chemists, surgeons and poets would come and experiment on each other with the Laughing Gas. Davy was the Master Of ceremony of these parties. Davy had anyways started inhaling 3 to 4 times a day. Davy asked all his subjects to give a short written summary of what they had experienced after inhaling the gas.

Davy would also experiment by himself extensively. He would wander at night with a green silk bag filled with nitrous oxide and a notebook and spend his time in the park writing poems. To the extent that he obviously became addicted to it. He even admits that “ the desire to breathe the gas is awakened in me by the sight of a person breathing, or even by that of an air-bag or air-holder”.He began making the experiments more dangerous where he would drink a glass of wine bottoms up and then inhale the gas the next instant and pass out for more than an hour. He would also experiment with nitic oxide which turned acid in his mouth and ended up burning his mouth.

By 1800, Davy had written a 580-page report on all the findings of his experiments of nitrous oxide and its effects. Davy had a laboratory assistant by name Michael Faraday who enhanced Davy’s work and goes on to become even more famous than him.

Davy spent his last few months of life writing Consolations in Travel, a very popular collection of poetry on science and philosophy. On February 20th, 1829, he had his stroke which left him fighting for his life for several months. In May 1829 he died in his hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland.


  • The gas was first synthesised in 1772 by Joseph Priestley
  • Bacteria in oceans and soil emit nitrous oxide
  • It is called “Laughing gas” because after inhaling it, it sends you into a euphoric state.
  • It is used in racing to make the engine more powerful, and also as an oxidizer in rocket motors
  • Nitrous oxide works rapidly and can relax a patient within 3 minutes.
  • No one is allergic to nitrous oxide.

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018

My theme for this month is DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED. You can read all other posts here







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