Cornish genius pioneered recreational use of laughing gas

The West Cornwall town of Penzance is famous – infamous even – for a few things.

Thanks to Gilbert and Sullivan, its name has become synonymous with pirates – and I grew up there… which is probably an even bigger stain on the town’s reputation than dodgy Victorian musicals, or piracy.

Fortunately for Penzance, I’m not the town’s most famous, renowned and revered son. That honour, undoubtedly, goes to the scientific genius that was Sir Humphry Davy.

A statue of the great man stands guard at the top of Penzance’s main thoroughfare, Market Jew Street, and I was educated (hard to believe, I know) at the local school that is named in his honour.

Apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon, Davy taught himself several sciences and a wide range of other subjects, including theology and philosophy, poetics – and seven languages.

During Humphry Davy School assemblies we were regularly regaled with tales about how Davy’s Safety Lamp had saved countless miners (and probably quite a few canaries) by not igniting the flammable gases found in mines, thus preventing people (and birds in cages) from being blown to smithereens.

We knew he became President of the Royal Society and that he was considered, in his day, to be the preeminent genius of British science.

And we were probably told (when I wasn’t paying attention) that he used electricity to isolate a number of elements for the first time, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine – and inventing the new scientific field of electrochemistry.

But there’s one thing about Sir Humphry that we were never told.

Not once did my teachers tell us the remarkable story of how Sir Humphry pioneered and championed the use of a recreational drug that has been blamed for a number of deaths – including, tragically, that of a teenager in Torpoint earlier this year. Indeed, Sir Humphry himself is reputed to have nearly died a number of times when his experiments with the substance in question – Nitrous Oxide – became increasingly extreme.

To be fair, I went to school in the 1980s when youngsters were more likely to be found sniffing solvents than inhaling nitrous oxide – and my teachers probably didn’t want to give us any additional ideas. Especially not when the highly toxic and hallucinogenic plant datura or ‘Angel’s Trumpet’ could still be found growing in the Penzance’s gloriously sub-tropical Morrab Gardens (it has since been removed, for obvious reasons), and the psilocybin rich Liberty Cap funghi known as ‘magic mushrooms’ could be readily harvested every autumn in the fields that fringe Penwith’s moors.

The deadly delight of ‘glue sniffing’ – or volatile solvent abuse to give its official title – has since fallen out of fashion. But the potentially deadly inhalation of nitrous oxide has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that it hasn’t seen since Sir Humphry hawked it around high society soirees at the very end of the 1700s.

One glorious lithograph print owned by the National Library Of Medicine shows Sir Humphry administering “laughing gas”, as he dubbed it for obvious reasons, to two well dressed ladies who appear to be very much enjoying the experience. Several other cartoons from the era also depict members of the British upper class having raucous fun at laughing gas parties.

Like glue sniffing, it also fell out of favour… but 200 years later, festival fields across the UK have been blighted by balloons and discarded ‘nos’ canisters, with the tell-tale shriek they make when ‘cracked’ ringing out around campsites at all hours of the day and night.

Meanwhile, a string of Premier League footballers have been outed for using what the media (and nobody else) calls ‘hippy crack’, with Manchester United starlet Mason Greenwood being the latest to apologise for his ‘poor judgement’.

Back in Davy’s day, poets were arguably the equivalent of sports stars – and when they were’t wandering as lonely as clouds they were getting as high as them, thanks to Sir Humphry.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – who reportedly wrote his epic poem Kubla Khan under the influence of opium – was one willing laughing gas guinea pig.

In 1799, Coelridge had just returned from Germany enraptured by philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory of ‘Naturphilosophie’, which suggests the human mind is the ultimate source of our reality, and the material world only an illusion projected by it.

In an article titled, Humphry Davy, laughing gas and the era of self-experimentation, the Open University writes: “The dissociative effects of nitrous oxide, in which consciousness seemed to escape and transcend the physical body, made compelling sense of this insight; and Davy’s climactic revelation that ‘nothing exists but thoughts’ would echo it through the century to come.”

If that all sounds a little like something from The Matrix, it will come as no surprise to learn that Coleridge was keener than Colemans to take the ‘Red Pill’ Davy was offering, in the shape of a green silk bag filled with nitrous oxide.

The OU writes: “As Coleridge inhaled and felt its warmth diffusing through his body, he did not reach for extravagant metaphors but stated precisely that the sensation resembled ‘that which I remember once to have experienced after returning from the snow into a warm room’.”

“In a subsequent trial he ‘was more violently acted upon’ and confessed that ‘towards the last I could not avoid, nor felt any wish to avoid, beating the ground with my feet; and after the mouthpiece was removed, I remained for a few seconds motionless, in great ecstacy’.”

The Sir Humphry Davy statue in Penzance

Future Poet Laureate Robert Southey was equally enthusiastic. He waxed lyrical that “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas” and, in a letter to his brother Tom, Southey gushed: “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!”

However, Coleridge and Southey’s enthusiasm for ‘nos’ was naught compared to Sir Humphry’s.

On the Boxing Day of 1799, a 20-year-old Humphry Davy, naked from the waist up and with a thermometer tucked under his armpit, climbed into a sealed box designed by the engineer James Watt specifically for the inhalation of gases. Davy instructed physician Dr Robert Kinglake to release twenty quarts of nitrous oxide into his ‘nos’ box every five minutes for as long as he remained conscious.

Documenting the experience In Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration, Davy wrote: “The moment after, I began to respire 20 quarts of unmingled nitrous oxide, a thrilling, extending from the chest to the extremities, was almost immediately produced.

“I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling, and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation.

“By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised—I imagined that I made discoveries.

“When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of the persons about me.

“My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room, perfectly regardless of what was said to me.

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“As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr Kinglake, ‘Nothing exists but thoughts! The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!”

In its article about the experiments and the profound effect they had on Davy , the OU writes: “Within thirty seconds the sensation of soft, probing pressure had extended to his chest, and the tips of his fingers and toes. This was accompanied by a vibrant burst of pleasure, and a gradual change in the world around him. Objects became brighter and clearer, and the space in the cramped box seemed to expand and take on unfamiliar dimensions.

“Now, under the influence of the largest dose of nitrous oxide anyone had ever taken, these effects were intensified to levels he could not have imagined. His hearing became fantastically acute, allowing him to distinguish every sound in the room and seemingly from far beyond: a vast and distant hum, perhaps the vibration of the universe itself.

“In his field of vision, the objects around him were teasing themselves apart into shining packets of light and energy. He was rising effortlessly into new worlds whose existence he had never suspected. Somehow, the whole experience was irresistibly funny: he had ‘a great disposition to laugh’, as all his senses competed to exercise their new-found freedom to its limit.

“Now the gas took Davy to a dimension he had not previously visited. Objects became dazzling in their intensity, sounds were amplified into a cacophony that echoed through infinite space, the thrillings in his limbs seemed to effervesce and overflow; and then, suddenly, he ‘lost all connection with external things’, and entered a self-enveloping realm of the senses.

“Words, images and ideas jumbled together ‘in such a manner, as to produce perceptions totally novel’: he was no longer in the laboratory, but ‘in a world of newly connected and modified ideas’, where he could theorise without limits and make new discoveries at will.

“Davy’s Boxing Day experiment was the culmination of a freewheeling programme of consciousness expansion into which he had co-opted some of the most remarkable figures of his day.

“Within days of his first self-experiment in April he had offered the gas to his friend Robert Southey, the future Poet Laureate, whose reaction was as effusive as Davy’s own.”

Davy would also publish his experiments in a tome called ‘The Nitrous Oxide Experiments of Humphry Davy’, of which The Public Domain Review writes: “The experiments quickly increased in frequency and also intensity. He began to take the gas outside of laboratory conditions, returning alone for solitary sessions in the dark, inhaling huge amounts, ‘occupied only by an ideal existence’, and also after drinking in the evening – though he continued to be meticulous in his scientific records throughout.

“Later in the year he would construct an ‘air-tight breathing box’ in which he would sit for hours inhaling enormous quantities of the gas and have even more intense experiences, on more than one occasion nearly dying.

“A few months after he started the experiments Davy began to allow others to partake, at first his patients but then also perfectly healthy subjects chosen from his circle of family and friends, including the heir to the Wedgwood pottery empire, the future compiler of Roget’s thesaurus, and the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“He asked all the participants to write down their experiences, descriptions which ended up forming more than 80 incredibly entertaining pages in the his Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800) .”

Physical health risks of nitrous oxide and its legal status

Drugs advice service Frank says:

Physical health risks

  • It is very dangerous to inhale nitrous oxide directly from the canister, and doing it in an enclosed space is also very dangerous.

  • Never place a plastic bag over your head.

  • If you take too much nitrous oxide you risk falling unconscious and/or suffocating from the lack of oxygen. People have died this way.

Other risks include:

  • Dizziness, which might make you act carelessly or dangerously.
  • Heavy regular use of nitrous oxide can lead to a deficiency of vitamin B12 and to a form of anaemia. Severe B12 deficiency can lead to serious nerve damage, causing tingling and numbness in the fingers and toes. This can be very painful and make walking difficult.
  • Regular use can stop you forming white blood cells properly.
  • It can be hard to judge the amount to use safely. If you have too much you can end up fainting, having an accident or worse.

The Law

  • This is a psychoactive drug and is covered by the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, which means it’s illegal to give away or sell.

  • There’s no penalty for possession, unless you’re in prison.

  • Supply and production can get you up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

  • As of 2016, nitrous oxide is covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act and is illegal to supply for its psychoactive effect.

Cornwall Live