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Romantic Scientists

Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
An 1830 caricature of the medical uses of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, the euphoric effects of which were first investigated in 1799 by Humphry Davy

When the brilliant twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy discovered the potency of nitrous oxide, “laughing gas,” at the recently founded Pneumatic Institution in Bristol in April 1799, he inhaled the new mind-altering substance himself, and shared it with his friends. These included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, already, in his mid-twenties, hiding a growing opium addiction, who noted that he felt “more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced.” The poet Robert Southey, a youthful radical who would later become a conservative-minded poet laureate, also experienced “a sensation perfectly new and delightful,” adding that “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas.”

In Bristol, Davy, Coleridge, and Southey were part of a circle of chemists, poets, and political radicals who surrounded the stout, wheezing, pioneering doctor Thomas Beddoes, founder of the Pneumatic Institution. This is the setting in which Beddoes is best known. Beyond that, he is usually accorded no more than a quizzical page or two in histories of medicine and science, while literary readers often confuse him with his son, the macabre and eccentric poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

Mike Jay sets out to remedy this neglect. His colorful, fast-paced narrative presents the case for taking Beddoes seriously as a prime exemplar of what we have come to call “Romantic Science.” The phrase conjures up the decades at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, when scientific experiment was suffused with an excitement and visionary breadth parallel to that expressed by the contemporary Romantic poets. It seemed to those involved that they were not only exploring the constituents of air and water, the qualities of heat, and the mysteries of electrical forces, but also that perhaps, in the future, their discoveries would alter the very minds of men and women, building a better, freer society. Their dreams, failures, and fears would be devastatingly evoked at the end of this brief period by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein, published in 1818.

Thomas Beddoes was a dreamer, an idealist. His failures, his Shandean digressions, his politics, and his wide-ranging interests all had at their heart a burning belief that the pains of the world, physical and social, must be abolished. The way he hoped to do this, as Jay shows us, was twofold, one route being through medicine, and the other through radical politics and education. Beddoes took his inspiration from the amateur experimenters of the mid-eighteenth century, who often worked in small groups in the provinces, supported by wide-ranging, informal networks. Soon their experimental work would be replaced by more institutionalized research, under the auspices of bodies like the new Royal Institution, where Beddoes’s assistant Humphry Davy would become a professor in 1801, and the long-established Royal Society of London, of which Davy became president in 1820. The careers of Beddoes and his assistant thus spanned this transition, and in the 1790s Beddoes’s radical idealism acted as a bridge between Enlightenment experiment and the soaring aspirations of the younger generation. They too, in different ways, were seeking “the atmosphere of heaven.”

Jay begins his account in medias res, with Beddoes rising fully armed, as it were, from the embers of the riots in Birmingham in July 1791 that destroyed the house and laboratory of Joseph Priestley. Priestley was simultaneously famous for his writings on electricity and air and as the chemist who isolated oxygen (which he called “dephlogisticated air”), and notorious for his campaigning work as a nonconformist minister. The spark of the “Church and King riots” in Birmingham was a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Priestley was targeted by the mob because he was a leader of the campaigns against the Test Acts, which barred dissenters from universities and public offices. In the eyes of the authorities, who at first turned a blind eye to the riots, he was as dangerous as the revolutionaries across the Channel, and critics made hay with the idea that he played with explosive substances in the state as well as the laboratory. “When I see the spirit of liberty in action,” wrote the politician and vigorously conservative polemicist Edmund Burke, “I see a strong principle at work…. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose.”

The thirty-one-year-old Beddoes passed through the ash-strewn streets of Birmingham on his way from Oxford, where he was a reader in chemistry at Pembroke College, to his home in Shropshire. Supremely confident, he was more than ready to be Priestley’s heir. The son of a prosperous tanner (perennially disappointed at his refusal to enter the business), he had taught himself Italian, French, and German as a student at Oxford, and then studied anatomy and chemistry in London and Edinburgh. There he had become fascinated by the behavior of gases, or “airs,” when studying under the Scottish chemist Joseph Black, who had isolated “fixed air,” as carbon dioxide was called, in the 1750s.

From Black, Beddoes also imbibed a passion for another “explosive” subject, geology, which challenged biblical accounts of the creation and age of the earth. Beddoes had spent the summer of 1791 with his student and friend Davies Giddy investigating rock outcrops in Giddy’s home county of Cornwall, where their conversation ranged from discussions of strata and volcanic pressures to the convulsions of the French Revolution and then to upheavals in Beddoes’s own thinking.

Biographers like “turning points,” and Jay identifies two. In the first, the nine-year-old Beddoes watches his adored grandfather gasp for breath after his lung is pierced by a broken rib after a fall from a horse, a horror that eventually directs the boy to medicine. The second is in Cornwall, when he decides to hunt for a cure for consumption—tuberculosis—not by sending patients to breathe good air abroad, but by bringing artificially made “factitious airs,” gases produced in the laboratory, directly to the patients. The unnatural cures of the scientific doctor will replace the inadequate stores of nature.

Beddoes was at the cutting edge of thinking and practice in chemistry. He seemed, therefore, an ideal candidate for the new chair in chemistry then being considered at Oxford. Two things worked against him: his radical political enthusiasm for revolution and reform, and his frustration with the hidebound, backward-looking university. He found far greater support among the informal networks of experimenters in the provinces. These included the members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham, the city at the heart of Britain’s new industrial drive. This small society of dedicated friends, who met monthly around the time of the full moon (hence the name) to discuss their research and ideas, included several figures of genius: the poet and doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles); the industrialist Matthew Boulton and the engineer James Watt, who together revolutionized steam power; the potter Josiah Wedgwood and his sons; as well as Joseph Priestley himself and the Irish educationalist and lover of mechanics Richard Lovell Edgeworth, whose daughter Beddoes married. Political radicals, for the most part, they supported the “rebels” in the American War of Independence and in the early stages of the French Revolution, and also campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Throughout his life, Beddoes found stalwart patrons in this adventurous, influential group.

Beddoes was always doing twenty things at once—turning out epic verse about Alexander the Great, tinkering with engines, hammering at rocks, pondering on Hindu culture, thinking up schemes to cure diabetes or to replace sugar produced by slaves with maple syrup from Canada. He wrote widely, in different modes, including a short, melodramatic novel, The History of Isaac Jenkins, designed to educate the laborers of Shropshire on the dangers of drink and the benefits of basic health care. His main focus now, however, was on “pneumatic” medicine, in which he was determined to use “airs” or gases as a form of cure, particularly for consumption.

He began by administering gas to a local boy and then inhaled oxygen himself (making himself seriously ill with an excessive dose). The next step was to establish a permanent institution for the medical use of gases, where he experimented first on kittens and rabbits and proceeded slowly to the treatment of human patients. Such a move ran counter to general medical practice, which was still reliant on techniques like bleeding and on traditional potions and palliatives. Before Beddoes’s arrival, writes Jay,

Bristol’s medical establishment had been a close-knit and discreet association, publishing nothing beyond the odd learned medical tract, keeping well away from politics and quietly collaborating to shore up their professional network. Beddoes was certain to make enemies; it was yet to be seen whether he would also make friends.

However, Beddoes did have friends, and the greatly respected Erasmus Darwin offered a public endorsement of his crusade against consumption. “Go on, dear Sir,” enthused Darwin, “save the young and the fair of the rising generation from premature death; and rescue the science of medicine from its greatest opprobrium.”

Darwin suggested that Beddoes set up his practice in Bristol, which was cheaper than London, and also the center of a rich nonconformist network, likely to support his innovative work and radical views. On its fringes, in the startlingly picturesque Avon Gorge, beneath the fashionable village of Clifton, lay the small spa of Hotwells, favored by consumptive patients. With Darwin’s introduction, Beddoes approached Richard Lovell Edgeworth, now living in Bristol, who was particularly interested since his beloved second wife, Honora, and his daughter of the same name had both died of consumption. He welcomed the new doctor warmly and within a year Beddoes married his eldest daughter, Anna.

With his assistant James Sadler, Beddoes set up a laboratory to experiment with his gases, canvassing support and announcing his results with grandiose if premature self-congratulation in a published Letter to Erasmus Darwin. This drew in more patrons, including the aristocracy, among whom scientific experiment was considered as much a part of “culture” as music and art. One new enthusiast was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who had her own chemical laboratory at the back of Devonshire House, where friends gathered to watch demonstrations and sometimes to try experiments themselves.

Encouraged by such interest and by promises of funds, Beddoes decided to set up a clinic, taking six to twelve permanent patients who would be treated by inhaling air enriched with different quantities of oxygen. Needing better equipment, he once more looked to Birmingham, this time to James Watt, whose daughter Jessie and son Gregory were both consumptive. Watt designed an ingenious apparatus for administering the gases, but Jessie died soon after she was taken into Beddoes’s care. Her death illustrates a poignant strand of Jay’s book, the contrast between Beddoes’s ebullient and optimistic ambitions and the intensely personal, often heartbreaking significance of his work to his patients and their relatives.

The Duchess of Devonshire also tried, in vain, to argue Beddoes’s cause with her friend Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Banks had so far failed to endorse his schemes, alienated both by Beddoes’s radical politics and by Banks’s perception of the risks involved, as opposed to the speculative gains in health. On the level of treatment, Beddoes’s experiments and his theories greatly upset traditional practitioners. Beyond this, Jay shows convincingly that the medical story was itself profoundly political since Beddoes’s aim was to transform society. Like Darwin and Priestley, he was attracted to the theories of the early-eighteenth-century physician and philosopher David Hartley, who had attempted to give a physiological basis (through the idea of a vibrating mass of filaments in the brain and spine) to John Locke’s theory of learning through the senses and association.

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