The Atmosphere of Heaven

Mike Jay

In addition to Mike Jay‘s reputation for thrilling, formidable histories of the strange, a couple of personal connections drew me to this biography. A hero of my late teens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose fevered poetry helped pave the bridge for me from literary imagination to chemically altered states, pops up here and there as a significant figure surrounding its subject, Dr Thomas Beddoes. Along with many others, Coleridge sampled the wonders of the nitrous oxide high courtesy of Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institution in Bristol.

Further, this fascinating hotbed of medical treatment and experimentation in the late 18th and early 19th century was located just around the corner from where I resided for a brief but inspiring time, up the hill towards Clifton village, northwest out of Bristol’s centre. My efforts to digest some of the interesting local history wherever I live are a bit belated; but the rewards and pleasures of Jay’s rich narrative extend so far beyond “local history” that this mattered very little in the end.

Beddoes conceived the Pneumatic Institution as part of his rather advanced philosophy of social welfare, to work towards alleviating the burgeoning ranks of the “sick and drooping poor”. But alongside this genuine urge to help and reform society was the experimental ambition of a talented and learned physician operating in the formative stage of modern chemistry. Beddoes was convinced that “factitious airs” (i.e. synthesized gases) held undreamed-of potential for the treatment of disease. Well aware that his avowed commitment to follow where experiment leads may lead to failure as well as success, he could hardly have expected what the Pneumatic Institution, most famously, landed him with: nitrous oxide, which at the time was neither failure nor success.

Tentative signs of medical benefits were swamped by the bizarre and high-spirited sensations and behaviour it induced in Beddoes and his circle of friends (including a rather restrained Coleridge) and colleagues. Its most notable proponent was Beddoes’ most famous protegé, the young Humphry Davy. Rugged Cornish poetic yearnings and beckoning scientific glory fuelled his youth to an extent that a potent psychoactive addition to the mix hardly seemed necessary; but Davy relished the wild gas, pursuing it all the way to a place where “nothing exists but thoughts”.

In the atmosphere of unexpected miracles of consciousness, scientific ambition, and high-spirited camaraderie, it’s hard not to see Beddoes’ Institution—in this aspect, at least—as some kind of forerunner of Tim Leary’s early days with the Harvard Psilocybin Project. But nitrous oxide wasn’t destined for greatness in consciousness expansion; decades after Beddoes and Davy had passed away, it eventually changed the face of medicine forever as an anaesthetic.

This story of the unfolding of new scientific vistas, some harnessed for present benefit, some curiously mismatched with the times and destined for the future, is told with unflagging energy and intelligence by Jay. The politically tumultuous run-up to the Institution is sketched vividly, and whether talking of the complexities of British politics and society during the Industrial Revolution or the scientific particulars of Beddoes’ work and its implications, Jay speaks with authority and engaging clarity. Ending with exquisite irony, insight and compassion, this is a resoundingly satisfying read.