Romantic Scientists

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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 …

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