Humphry Davy performed the first physiological experiment on nitrous oxide by inhaling it, 1799. (Don't try this at home!)
Humphry Davy (1778–1829), son of an impoverished Cornish woodcarver, rose meteorically to become a leader in the reformed chemistry movement initiated by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier—albeit a critic of some of its basic premises—and a pioneer in the new field of electrochemistry.
Apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon, Davy taught himself a wide range of other subjects: theology and philosophy, poetics, seven languages, and several sciences, including chemistry. In 1798 he took a position at Thomas Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution, where the use of the newly discovered gases in the cure and prevention of disease was investigated. Davy’s earliest published work (“An Essay on Heat, Light, and the Combinations of Light,” in Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, Principally from the West of England, ed. Beddoes, 1799) was a refutation of Lavoisier’s caloric, arguing, among other points, that heat is motion but light is matter. But his early reputation was made by his book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide . . . and its Respiration (1799). His recommendation that nitrous oxide (laughing gas) be employed as an anesthetic in minor surgical operations was ignored, but breathing it became the highlight of contemporary social gatherings.
In 1801 Davy was appointed—first as a lecturer, then as a professor of chemistry—to the Royal Institution in London, which he molded into a center for advanced research and for polished demonstration lectures delivered to audiences largely made up of fashionable gentlemen and ladies.
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about Humphry Davy.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation