A Brief History of Happy Gas - Nitrous Oxide

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Posted Apr 5th, 2016

A Brief History of Happy Gas - Nitrous Oxide

Pain control and medicine

Before the early eighteen hundreds, people simply had to “bite the bullet” during surgery. Two important discoveries ushered in the age of modern anesthesia. The discovery of the sedative and pain killing effects of the gasses nitrous oxide and ether revolutionized the practices of medical and dental surgery.

While ether is no longer used because of its explosive potential, nitrous oxide is still in. Nitrous Oxide common use is also called laughing gas or happy gas due to its intoxicating effects when inhaled. 

What is nitrous oxide also known as happy gas?

Nitrous Oxide is also called laughing gas or happy gas due to its intoxicating effects when inhaled. It was initially discovered around 1772 by the English scientist and clergyman Joseph Priestley (who was also famous for being the first to isolate other important gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide among others). A couple of decades passed before its sedative and pain killing effects began to be appreciated.

The History of Nitrous Oxide (Happy Gas)

Humphrey Davy, another British scientist, experimented on himself and his friends with the gas. "I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder working gas of delight" wrote poet Robert Southey after being introduced to nitrous oxide by Davy. Even though Davy noted that the gas might be used "with advantage during surgical operations” no one thought to try it as a surgi- cal anesthetic for almost 50 years. Instead, it became widely known for its entertainment value with opportunists staging public exhibitions. These took place in traveling medicine shows and carnivals. For a small fee people could laugh and act silly while they breathed the intoxicating gas.

Samuel Colt was one such entrepreneur to profit from nitrous oxide and he used the money to develop and produce his pistol – the infamous Colt 45. In 1844 in Hartford, Connecticut, a local dentist named Horace Wells attended one of these capers being hosted by a man named Colton.

He became intrigued when one of the volunteers, while still under the effects of the gas, injured his leg as he stumbled into some nearby benches. Wells noticed that the man was completely unaware of his injury because he was feeling no pain. He immediately thought about apply- ing this pain killer in his work Dr. Wells wanted to test the possibilities so he approached Colton and invited him to participate in an experiment the next day.

Colton agreed and administered nitrous oxide to Dr. Wells while another local dentist extracted one of Wells' molars. Dr. Wells experi- enced no pain during the procedure, and the birth of nitrous oxide as a dental and medical painkiller had arrived. The story does not end happily, however. The following year Dr. Wells demonstrated his discovery at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. A patient was anesthetized and a tooth was extracted. Unfortunately the gas had not taken full effect and the patient screamed. The crowd booed Wells off the stage.

This public humiliation eventually led to Dr. Wells losing his reputation as a dentist, and finally to his suicide three years later. Ironically, 150 years after his premature death, his discovery would be adopted by dental practices worldwide, and Wells would be honored as - the "Discoverer of Anesthesia".

Where is nitrous oxide used today?

Today nitrous oxide is routinely used alongside other anesthetic agents in operating rooms everywhere. It’s also used as a mild sedative and analgesic during child birth, for emergency medical care and for dental procedures.

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