Chemical Experimentation and Human Sensation

Posted: January 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

How do you imagine Wordsworth would have felt about such experiments?

Humphry Davy
(1778 – 1829)


In 1799 Humphry Davy, the young English chemist and inventor and future president of the Royal Society, began a very radical bout of self experimentation to determine the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide, more commonly know as “Laughing Gas”. With his assistant Dr Kinglake, he would heat crystals of ammonium nitrate, collect the gas released in a green oiled-silk bag, pass it through water vapour to remove impurities and then inhale it through a mouthpiece. The effects were superb. Of these first experiments he described giddiness, flushed cheeks, intense pleasure, and “sublime emotion connected with highly vivid ideas”. …

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 eighty incredibly entertaining pages in the his Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800).

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