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The LOL gas - A numbing comedy or an ironic tragedy?

There are many things in the field of the medicine the origins of which would make you say, “What? No. That can’t be right. Seriously?”

But, as incredulous as these stories are, their existence, and our progress today is testament to the fact that progress can come from the most unlikely of places. One such story is the story of a particular inhalational anesthetic, known today as N2O.

In 1772, a chemist called Joseph Priestly, blew air over iron filings that were dipped in nitric oxide and managed to collect the resultant gas. To his excitement, the air that was produced was pleasant to the smell and did not burn. As was custom in the 1700s, Priestly inhaled the gas himself and found that it made him extremely happy. And so nitrous oxide was born.

Fast forward 72 years. In 1844, the first demonstration of the use of nitrous oxide for anesthesia was done by a dentist called Horace Wells. So what happened? Why did it take seventy years for this particular anesthetic to come into the medical field and change dental and neuro surgery for ever?

Turns out, nitrous oxide has another curious little property that was much cooler than its anesthetic ability. About twenty years after Priestly invented this gas and found a way to store it, a young man by the name of Humphrey Davy was exposed to it. Davy was the superintendent of the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol, UK. The whole purpose of this institute was to identify newly synthesized gases and see if they offered any kind of curative property. So Davy’s job was to basically understand the chemical and physical properties of these gases and to test their effects, within safety limits, on people.

As all great chemists of the day did, Davy tested it on himself and wrote that the gas, when inhaled, “produces euphoria, merriment and gives the inhaler, giggles.” He also reports giddiness and a profound numbness. As a small after thought, Davy mentions that “As nitrous oxide 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.”

Then for forty years Nitrous Oxide disappeared from the medical field. However, it began gaining fame as something else. In the late 1700s, a few years after Priestly invented it, the British high class began having “Laughing gas” parties which was basically large gatherings where people inhaled nitrous oxide and spent hours laughing and giggling together. In the early 1800’s the drug made its way across the Atlantic to the United States to the little town of Hartford, Connecticut. Samuel Colt was a yong entrepreneur who had just returned from travelling the world and had seen how lucrative this laughing gas could be. He immediately acquired a small quantity of the gas and with a fake doctor’s ID, went from town to town and gave people a whiff of the “laughing gas” for a price. He toured numerous cities in the United States and Canada and made a small fortune. Years later, with the money he made from his laughing gas escapades, Colt went on to master combustibles and pioneered the bad ass Colt 45 pistol. The Laughing gas continued its tour around the world, however. Eventually, the story of Nitrous oxide boomeranged back to Hartford, Connecticut in 1844.

On a warm summer evening, a dentist came upon one of these “gassed men” stumble and hurt himself but not show any pain at all. This piqued his curiosity. The young Horace Wells immediately procured this gas and realized quickly that it had the potential to numb even severe pain. Excited by this, he tried it on one of his patients while extracting a tooth and the results were wonderful. Charged, Wells arranged for a public demonstration at the prestigious Harvard Medical School. Unfortunately, the crowd was difficult, and the procedure was not successful. Rather than see the merits of this incredible gas, the experiment became a source of ridicule and Wells was booed off the stage. Wells was shattered and his reputation was ruined. He retreated into his home and few years later committed suicide.

 

Dr. Horace Wells

 

The irony of the laughing gas pushing a proponent into depression and suicide was lost on many at the time.

It was twenty years after the experiment of Horace Wells, that nitrous oxide again came into the medical stage. In 1863, one of Wells’ assistants, Gardner Colton, began using the gas in his clinic for dental extraction. The gas slowly gained popularity as people realized the comfort it offered and the amount of money there was to be made in it.

 

Initial apparatus used to deliver the gas. 

 

Eventually, after a hundred years and a tragic death, Nitrous Oxide finally found its place in the arsenal of anesthetic gases.  Today nitrous oxide is a powerful tool for the anesthetist. Even though it is not used as a solo anesthetic drug, it is used with other inhalational anesthetics to compound their actions. In addition, Nitrous oxide mixed with oxygen, also known as Entonox, is used in labor rooms and emergency rooms to alleviate pain in acute scenarios.

From a recreational abuse drug to a veritable anesthetic, the story of Nitrous Oxide is the anesthetic version of the “Rags to riches dream.”

LOL.

 A wooden engraving circa 1840 showing the used of Nitrous Oxide and the method to prepare it. 

A wooden engraving circa 1840 showing the used of Nitrous Oxide and the method to prepare it. 

Author: Narendran Sairam (Facebook)

Sources and citations

1.Boyle, H. Edmund G. “NITROUS OXIDE: HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT.” British Medical Journal, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 27 Jan. 1934, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2444118/.
2.Klein, Christopher. “10 Things You May Not Know About Samuel Colt.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 18 July 2014, www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-samuel-colt.
3.“Nitrous Oxide (N2O).” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Apr. 2016, www.britannica.com/science/nitrous-oxide.
4.David Zuck. “Nitrous Oxide: Are You Having a Laugh?” Education in Chemistry, Royal Society of Chemistry, 29 Feb. 2012, eic.rsc.org/feature/nitrous-oxide-are-you-having-a-laugh/2020202.article.