Do the names Joseph Priestly, Humphry Davy and Horace Wells mean anything to you? They should, if you know your nitrous oxide history. And you should no matter what letters—DDS or DMD—follow your surname.
1772 – "Phlogisticated Nitrous Air": Nitrous oxide is first synthesized by English chemist and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley. In his 1775 publication "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Airs," Priestly described producing "nitrous airs" after heating iron filings soaked in nitric acid. (Priestly also discovered oxygen (c. 1774)—and carbonated water, and was run out of England in 1794 after voicing support for the American and French revolutions.)
1794 – "Factitious Airs": English physician and philosopher Thomas Beddoes and Scottish engineer James Watt publish "Considerations on the Medical Use and on the Production of Factitious Airs" in 1794.
Watt was hired by Beddoes to invent a machine capable of producing "factitious airs," i.e. N2O, and a breathing apparatus (oiled silk bags connected to a mouthpiece via a tube) for administration. Beddoes theorized that factitious airs could be used to treat tuberculosis and other lung diseases.
1798: Beddoes establishes the "Pneumatic Institution for Relieving Diseases by Medical Airs" in Bristol, England, where N2O was produced in quantity to treat patients with a range of lung diseases and other maladies. Humphry Davy, who would later become a renown chemist and inventor, was employed at the institution to experiment with the gas and investigate its medical uses. Davy experimented extensively on himself, and friends and anyone else willing including notable scientists, philosophers and poets of the time. Davy took extensive notes on his and others' experiences with nitrous.
1799 – "Laughing Gas": Nitrous oxide becomes popular as a recreational drug used at "laughing gas parties" for members of the upper class in British society. It was known to cause euphoria, laughing, dancing, mild hallucinations and generally silly behavior. Limited quantities of the gas prevented more widespread recreational use. It was a favorite pastime of medical students at universities.
1800: Humphry Davy publishes "Researches, Chemical and Philosophical" about his experiments with nitrous oxide, in which he notes the analgesic effect and potential surgical uses of N2O. Despite Davy's comments on the anesthetic uses of nitrous, it continued to be used primarily for recreational purposes.
1820s – Laughing Gas as Entertainment: Nitrous oxide gains notoriety among the public (in Britain and the U.S.) as a curiosity of science in stage demonstrations put on by showmen. The demonstrations typically involved a phony doctor giving nitrous oxide to volunteers from the audience for entertainment. Posters advertising the demonstrations glorified nitrous for its ability to "make those who inhale it either LAUGH, SING, DANCE, SPEAK or FIGHT, etc. etc."
1830s: Samuel Colt (who later made his name in the world of firearms) tours the U.S. and Canada with a portable lab giving laughing gas demonstrations, after being introduced to the gas by a chemist employed at Colt's father's textile plant. He called himself "the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta," and gained some renown as a man of medicine. At one point, he was asked to cure an outbreak of cholera by treating patients with nitrous oxide.
1844: Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist in Hartford, Conn., attends a nitrous oxide demonstration put on by Gardner Quincy Colton; during the show a man who had taken nitrous injured his legs after stumbling and reported that he felt no pain. Wells' interest was piqued. He employed Colton the next day to administer the gas to Wells himself and had a neighboring dentist, Dr. John Mankey Riggs (who later became known as the first periodontics specialist), extract a molar; Wells felt no pain during the extraction and immediately saw nitrous oxide's potential uses in dentistry.
Wells, with assistance from Colton and Riggs, used nitrous oxide as an anesthetic on patients; he recorded successful use in about a dozen dental surgery cases at his practice in Hartford (failure in only two cases).
1845: Wells travels to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to demonstrate the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic to the medical professional community. The demonstration went awry after the patient cried out during the procedure presumably due to inadequate dosing. Wells was ridiculed as a fraud and his reputation was destroyed. He abandoned dentistry and became a traveling salesman. (Later, Wells continued his quest to find an anesthetic and experimented on himself with ether and chloroform, the latter of which he became addicted. In 1848, after one long period of "experimentation," Wells became deranged and reportedly threw sulfuric acid on the clothes of two women; he was arrested and sentenced to Tombs prison in New York. After regaining sobriety, Wells, racked with guilt over his actions, committed suicide by slicing his femoral artery after inhaling chloroform.)
1861: Gardner Quincy Colton's interest in nitrous oxide is reignited after witnessing the negative effects of chloroform and ether. He returned to public nitrous oxide demonstrations.
1863: Colton partners with dentists to establish Colton Dental Association, with clinics in New Haven, CT and New York City. (Colton administered the gas while the dentists treated patients, primarily extracting teeth.) Colton, et al administered nitrous to over 25,000 patients over the course of the next three years; dentists and medical professionals finally start to accept and adopt the use of nitrous.
1864: The American Dental Association officially recognizes Dr. Wells as the discoverer of N2O as an analgesic/anesthetic.
1870: The American Medical Association officially recognizes Dr. Wells' achievement.
2015: DOCS Education offers Adult Single-Dose Sedation and Nitrous Oxide, a two-day course in Dallas, Texas October 23 - 24. Sign up now!
So, there you have it. Now you can dazzle all of your patients and dentist friends with your detailed knowledge of how nitrous oxide came to be one of the most commonly used anesthetics in dentistry and medicine.
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