Romantic Scientists

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.

But Beddoes was also a materialist, whose notion of “perfectibility” was strictly earthbound. He was brave in his hostility to organized religion. In an early treatise on education for the poor, he declared that if a child’s associations were to be free from prejudice, education must banish religious instruction. Inculcating dogma could only “brutalize the mind and so entirely pervert our sympathies as to make us feel pleasure from the pain of our fellow-creatures.”

By the end of 1794, the Medical Pneumatic Institution, as it was called, had supporters across the country, and Beddoes broadcast its virtues in yet another work, Considerations on the Medical Use of Factitious Airs. He was now well known enough to attract a satire—a sure if dangerous badge of success. This was The Golden Age, a mock-Darwinian poem extolling, in wild hyperbole, his quest for wondrous innovations.

Mike Jay’s The Atmosphere of Heaven is remarkable in its deft interweaving of medicine, politics, and underlying philosophical ideas, tracing Beddoes’s gradual disillusionment with events in France and his reaction to the oppressive laws and treason trials in Britain. There are graphic scenes in Bristol itself where the wars against France after 1793, and the blockade of the port, brought unemployment, hardship, starvation, and rioting.

The political controversies are clarified by the book’s counterhero, Beddoes’s friend Davies Giddy, whose youthful radicalism was fatally compromised when, for his family’s sake, he reluctantly accepted the position of sheriff of Cornwall. The student who had worn a tricolor cockade now had to call out the militia to fire into the air over the heads of striking miners. Yet the friendship survived. Beddoes, who often turned to Giddy for calming advice, fully understood the difficulty of his position. Perhaps remembering Birmingham, he told him, “A riot must be suppressed: that is no less clear than that a conflagration must be stopped.” For all his campaigning, Beddoes railed at the poor for their stupidity and drunkenness just as much as he railed at the rich for their fads and fancies.

In Bristol, Beddoes found new radical allies. In 1795 he joined a local committee to organize a citizens’ petition for peace. Through this he met several young activists, including the poet and satirist Robert Lovell, son of a Bristol Quaker businessman, and the poet Robert Southey, whose family lived nearby. These two young radicals were married to the beautiful Fricker sisters, Mary and Edith, and were busily planning an ideal, egalitarian community on the banks of the Susquehanna. They were soon joined by the equally restless Coleridge, who had grown up not far away, in Devon. A year out of Cambridge, Coleridge was passionately exploring different philosophies and eagerly embracing idealistic schemes: he now promptly became engaged to the third Fricker sister, Sara, and named the Utopian scheme “Pantisocracy.”

For the three young poets, who collaborated on plays and verse, Beddoes’s house, with its large library and rich stock of German literature, became a kind of salon. A frequent visitor was Josiah Wedgwood’s youngest son, Tom. A sweet-natured twenty-two-year-old with a brilliant talent for invention, Tom had been crippled since his youth by mysterious, debilitating illness; he became Beddoes’s patient, friend, and sponsor. With Coleridge and the others, Beddoes led the heated public meetings in opposition to the war against France and published a bold pamphlet, A Word in Defence of the Bill of Rights against the Gagging Bills, in which he argued cogently for freedom of speech and assembly.

The most dramatic period of the Pneumatic Institution now opened. In the second part of Jay’s account, the main role passes from Beddoes himself to his “sons of genius,” who would make their own ambitious experiments, chemical, social, and literary. Once again, familiar networks came into play. On Erasmus Darwin’s recommendation, James Watt’s son Gregory sought relief from his dawning consumption in Cornwall. Here, on the advice of Davies Giddy, he lodged with the family of a largely self-taught apothecary’s apprentice—Humphry Davy. Sharing an interest in chemistry and geology, Watt and Davy became warm friends. They were soon joined by Tom and Jos Wedgwood, who were now wealthy industrialists after their father Josiah’s death in 1795. Eager to support the group’s work, the Wedgwood brothers gave Coleridge a life-saving annuity, while Tom bestowed £1,000 on the Pneumatic Institution.

The extra funds allowed Beddoes to move to new premises in Dowry Square in Hotwells. In October 1798 he hired Humphry Davy as his assistant. After dealing with a flood of patients—to whom they prescribed ordinary remedies rather than airs—Davy and Beddoes continued their experiments. The most famous of these was Davy’s investigation of nitrous oxide, obtained by heating crystals of ammonium nitrate. In April 1799, according to custom, Davy himself was the first guinea pig. The sensation of gradual warmth was followed, as Jay puts it, by “a crescendo of sensations, as if every organ of perception was competing to exercise its new-found freedom to the limit.” It seemed that the wild gas would open a gate to inner freedom, if not political liberty. Davy leaped to his feet, stamping around the room in exhilaration. Over the next few days he took the gas again, and in his own account, the sense of internal drama is intense:

By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised—I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance…I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner I exclaimed to Dr. Kinglake, “Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!

Meanwhile, Beddoes tried nitrous oxide on patients, finding that it brought some movement to paralyzed limbs. As time went on, however, it became clear that the range of responses was immensely wide. Some, like Tom Wedgwood, found that the drug brought only numbing sensations and pounding headaches. This variation was frustrating, and Jay makes a valiant attempt to explain it not by the subjects’ physiology but by their subjective, conditioned responses. The really intoxicating gas was the joy of the Dowry Street circle themselves.

Jay’s discussion of attitudes toward experiment and experiment-based med- icine is particularly suggestive. Anxious to validate his empirical approach, Beddoes, before he moved to Bristol, published a treatise on evidence and proof, as well as the lengthy Observations on the Nature and Cure of Calculus, Sea Scurvy, Consumption, Catarrh and Fever. Squarely addressing his fellow practitioners, he related all these conditions either to the excess or deprivation of oxygen, filling his book with case studies. Both books were attempts to counter the equation of empirical cures with quackery and charlatanism. “Beddoes was advancing a bracingly novel approach to medical treatment: one that submitted all its assumptions to experiment and evidence,” writes Jay. “But he was well aware that the idea of an experimentally based medicine was still problematic.” He had hoped that he would be able to offer case studies in which he could measure responses to particular doses of gases, in order to prove their efficacy. But when the responses to a gas like nitrous oxide were so varied, and it seemed that each experiment gave different results, where was the proof?

Beddoes and Davy have been blamed for not seeing the potential for pain relief in what they had discovered. Jay points out that this was one of the many incidental effects listed in Davy’s notes. The researchers were, however, more interested in “the power of the gas, to increase the sensibility or nervous power, beyond any other agent.” It might lead, they came to believe, to identifying the actual physiological source of pleasure and pain. This was a holy grail of eighteenth-century thinkers like Erasmus Darwin: its discovery would allow a medical route to the social dream, the happiness of the greatest number. Chemistry was becoming visionary and enlightenment giving way to romance. A worried Davies Giddy told Jos Wedgwood that he wished “they would have more frequent recurrence to the dictates of their reason and indulge less frequently in wild flights of unrestrained imagination.” Conversely, the poetic visionaries in the group resented the idea that flights of imagination could be spurred by laboratory experiments, rather than by impulses of mind or soul. Jay puts it well:

For Coleridge to acknowledge the experience [of nitrous oxide] as truly transcendent would be to bring the faultline between materialism and religion into a focus that he wished to avoid. By trapping transcendence itself within a material cause, it threatened to reduce the religious sense to chemistry; and Coleridge, as William Hazlitt would later observe, “always somehow contrived to prefer the unknown to the known.”

Jay briefly acknowledges the scholars of the past twenty years who have tried, slowly, to reestablish Beddoes’s reputation, although since his notes are confined to the primary sources of quotations, the bibliography is the only route for readers to chase up avenues of particular interest. This is a pity, since the book lacks the sense of a community of research that might have reflected Beddoes’s own circle. I would have liked more, too, about other medical experiments of the period, to put Beddoes’s work in a wider setting. But these are minor grumbles, amply compensated by Jay’s skill in combining crisp technical explanations with philosophical analysis, and his stylish creation of dashing characters within a fascinating narrative. He is well qualified to rescue Beddoes from obscurity, having written widely on the 1790s—on madness and visionary extremes in The Air Loom Gang and on radical politics in The Unfortunate Colonel Despard—as well as on drugs in Emperors of Dreams.

Jay’s brio and clarity carries us forward into the lives of his sons of genius, a tale darkened by the early deaths of Tom Wedgwood and Gregory Watt, and by Davy’s swift departure, in 1801, to the Royal Institution. In London his researches on gases and on the Voltaic pile would justify the heading written wistfully on a boyhood notebook: “Newton and Davy.” But as time went on, Davy’s harsh, grumbling treatment of his own brilliant assistant, Michael Faraday, who would later contribute so much to the study of electromagnetism and chemistry, suggests that he forgot the generosity Beddoes and others had shown to him as a youth. His last years were lonely and sad.

Beddoes was not an unqualified optimist. For a long time he jealously opposed the era’s other revolutionary medical advance, Edward Jenner’s work on vaccination. He had his “Hamlet-moods,” as he called them, of blank despair. In its later stages the Pneumatic Institution took on a different guise, renamed the Preventive Medical Institution for Benefit of the Sick and Drooping Poor, and reverting to conventional cures. Beddoes’s disappointment in his pneumatic dreams can be felt in his writing, although Jay makes the unusual point that in his last book, the lengthy Letter to the Right Honourable Sir Joseph Banks (1808), he was once again in prophetic voice. Many of his ideas for a reorganized health system anticipated the reforms of the Victorian era.

Beddoes’s ambitious experiments, like Tom Wedgwood’s anticipation of the photographic process or Charles Babbage’s later invention of the Difference Engine, illustrate that fascinating, frustrating phenomenon, the great discovery that is out of time and must lie dormant until its value is felt. Yet Beddoes stuck to his belief that theories must be advanced, and experiments pursued, however wild they seem. Knowledge must be pursued for its own sake. At the end of the Letter to Banks, as Jay notes movingly, he made no claims for the value of his “factitious airs” in the future,

but neither will he apologise for having pursued his researches wherever they happened to lead. Like a comet, after all, they may return, and reveal their secrets more fully to future generations.