The Atmosphere of Heaven: the Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of Genius

Patricia Fara enjoys the tale of a radical chemist whose volunteers were eager to take part in his experiments with laughing gas

Author: Mike Jay
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Price (RRP): £20

London’s first one-way street was introduced at the beginning of the early 19th century to cope with the frequent jams caused by horse-drawn carriages stationed outside the newly-founded Royal Institution.

Lecturing in the auditorium now familiar from the televised Christmas lectures, the chemist and electrical expert Humphry Davy – now most famous for his miner’s safety lamp and a prototype for Victor Frankenstein – regularly attracted large and fashionable audiences to watch his spectacular demonstrations.

The son of a Cornish woodcarver, Davy was such a flamboyant orator and adroit social climber that he became president of the Royal Society. Even so, his metropolitan career had got off to an ignominious start when he was lampooned by the caricaturist James Gillray for his experiments on nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas because of the intense pleasure it induced when inhaled.

To the delight of the men and women in the audience, chaos ensued after eminent volunteers refused to hand back Davy’s experimental breathing apparatus, but instead cavorted uncontrollably around the stage, convulsed in inexplicable fits of laughter, their hands and feet jerking.

In Mike Jay’s most recent book, The Atmosphere of Heaven, Davy features as the protégé of its central character Thomas Beddoes, an innovative doctor and chemical experimenter who was forced to resign from his Oxford post because of his radical politics. A few years later, he established his notorious but short-lived Pneumatic Institution at Bristol, installing Davy as superintendent to investigate the therapeutic effects of gases.

Although Beddoes felt he was too fat and wheezy to experiment on himself, there was no shortage of patients and friends willing to try out nitrous oxide and experience what the poet Robert Southey described as “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens… a new pleasure for which language has no name”.

Fifty years later, this recreational drug would come into vogue as a powerful anaesthetic, but although Davy did observe its numbing effects, he prided himself on his stoic endurance of pain. Like the surgeons he treated, Davy was too busy enjoying himself and examining his own reactions to develop new medical applications.

Refreshingly, The Atmosphere of Heaven is not a straightforward cradle-to-grave biography, but a racily written narrative that explores a singularly exciting period of scientific history. From his opening chapter on the destruction of Joseph Priestley’s laboratory by Birmingham rioters, Jay repeatedly exposes the suspicious attitudes of establishment Englishmen towards any research associated with France – and in particular gases, literally explosive indicators of revolutionary tendencies. His plot revolves around some well-known figures – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood – although they appear within less usual contexts of political activity.

For anyone who enjoyed Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men or Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, this is a must-read account of Enlightenment enthusiasm.

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