Give Now  »

Noon Edition

How Nitrous Oxide Got Its Nickname

Nitrous oxide is famously known as laughing gas. (Ronnie Pitman, Flickr)

n our modern world of scientific studies involving human beings—from the large scale drug testing common in end stage pharmaceutical development to annual survey data collected by sociologists—rarely do we see scientists experiment on themselves. In centuries past, however, it was not so uncommon to see scientists treating themselves like guinea pigs and, moreover, some crucial scientific discoveries were made by scientists who did so.

Inhaling Carbon Monoxide

One such scientific product of self experimentation was the discovery of the anesthetic benefits of nitrous oxide, made in 1799 by the British chemist Humphry Davy. Investigating the medical benefits of inhaled gases, Davy performed extensive experiments on himself. He inhaled a variety of lethal gases from carbon monoxide to carbonic acid before stumbling onto nitrous oxide and nearly killing himself in the process.

Davy never actually made the leap to considering it as an anesthetic for surgical procedures as it’s used extensively today. This was made some forty years after his discovery. But Davy’s investigation laid the groundwork for its incorporation into modern medicine.

Come Over To Huff Some Nitrous Oxide And Play Some Croquet

With little public money in research, scientists in Davey’s time were often wealthy socialites, the opposite to today’s stereotype of the scientist cloistered in a lab.

When Davy discovered the pleasant effects of nitrous oxide he did what a socialite would do with such a discovery: he began sharing it with his buddies and holding huffing parties that remained popular in Britain for years after his initial discovery.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this post/podcast episode misspelled the scientist’s name as “Humphrey Davey.” This 2018 re-run has credited the correct scientist, Humphry Davy.

Sources And Further Reading:

  • R. Holmes. The age of wonder: how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science. Pantheon, 2009.
  • P. Warren. Surgical treatment of pulmonary and cardiac disease. Web
Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science