Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius, by Mike Jay

Thomas Beddoes, the ostensible subject of the latest book from science and medicine writer Mike Jay, is one of science's also-rans. He is mostly remembered for his good intentions, the most notable being the Pneumatic Institution he set up outside Bristol, England. There, while his compatriots were busily fighting Napoleon, Beddoes and his assistants spent their days administering nitrous oxide to anyone and anything that crossed the institution's threshold - to kittens and consumptives, to the worried well and the merely curious, and, last but not least, to themselves and the people in their social circle. The young Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of those people; so was future poet laureate Robert Southey.

Beddoes's role in this story was that of a supporting character. The idea for a Pneumatic Institution was his, but the idea for nitrous oxide was not. Joseph Priestly, the chemist and radical dissenter, was the first to synthesize it, while Humphry Davy, Beddoes's ambitious assistant, was the first to realize its potential, both as an anesthetic and as a psychoactive agent. Davy, in turn, would go on to bigger and better things. In 1801, he jumped ship to the Royal Institution in London, ending up, about 20 years later, as the president of the country's premier scientific society, the Royal Society.

Jay's is not the first biography of Beddoes. There was the authorized biography, commissioned by his widow and published just three years after his death, and since that time there have been several excellent studies, including those by the late Roy Porter and the University of Toronto's own Trevor Levere. There is always room for one more biography - the recent outpouring of Darwin biographies is proof enough of that - but at no point does Jay tell us where and how he is breaking new ground in revisiting a familiar subject. This is a particularly surprising omission for a book published by an academic press.

Story continues below advertisement

The biggest problem is that the book's length exceeds its subject

Unlike Coleridge and Southey, Beddoes never wavered in his support for the French Revolution, and this made him a favourite target for establishment wags and cartoonists. And while many of his views were eminently sensible (he opposed slavery and dreamed of a day when doctors would put their patients first), some of his theories were anything but. This was true first and foremost of his "cow-house therapy" for tuberculosis (sufferers were placed in a room with cows on the assumption that the animals' exhalations might do them some good).

I mention these facts not to make fun of Beddoes but to underscore how easy it is to caricature him. Jay avoids this trap, and that is to his credit. But there are other perils in writing about a man like Beddoes, and here Jay is less successful. The biggest problem is that the book's length exceeds its subject. Beddoes's connections with the early Romantics mean that he is exceptionally well documented, but Jay gives us so many details that the man himself never quite rises above them.

Jay also has a great deal to say about the industrialists and provincial scientists who took an interest in Beddoes's work. In this, I suspect that he is trying to repeat the formula that worked so well for Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men. Certainly there is a high overlap in the characters, with Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, James Keir, James Watt and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, all members of the original Lunar Society, occupying centre stage in Jay's narrative. But Uglow, for my money, does the better job in bringing these same men to life, if only because her narrative, while rich, never gets bogged down in "grinding detail" (Jay's complaint with one of the books he had to read).

This is a pity, for Jay is a perfectly capable writer. The proof is in the last three chapters of the book, where, after many long pages about the French Revolution and the Bristol Bridge Riots, we finally come to the nub of the story. Here Jay has several interesting things to say about nitrous oxide's effects on its original users, noting that the hilarity and euphoria it induced were to a great extent a function of the warm social ties that already existed within this group, and that these effects, once put into words, "built upon one another, capturing in rare detail an unfamiliar state of mind but creating a closed circle and a self-referential language as they did so."

Jay's portfolio includes two books on drugs, one a history, the other an anthology, and as such I kept hoping he might say something on why laughing gas, as nitrous oxide is more commonly known, has never quite caught on as a recreational drug. There is the occasional panic - in 2001, The New York Times was excitedly calling nitrous oxide a "fast, cheap high with a big price tag" - but actual prevalence rates, when they are even available, remain surprisingly low. If figures from south of the border are to be trusted, the drug really only appeals to one age group: young people 18 to 25 years old. This might help explain why the young Romantics took such a lively interest in Beddoes's "unnatural experiments."

Jessica Warner is a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and a faculty member of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to