Until now Thomas Beddoes has been little more than a footnote in accounts of the scientific and political ferment of the Romantic era. But Mike Jay’s challenging biography puts him centre stage, revealing an eccentric thinker whose ideas attracted some of the most brilliant figures of the age, among them Coleridge, the Wedgwoods and the great Humphry Davy who, when Beddoes discovered him, was just a science-mad teenager concocting “thunder powder” for fireworks.
The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and his Sons of GeniusThe Sunday Times review by John Carey
by Mike Jay
Beddoes, a Shropshire tanner’s son born in 1760, had a ravenous appetite for knowledge. In addition to the Latin and Greek he learnt at Bridgnorth grammar school, he taught himself French, German, Spanish and Italian. He read chemistry at Oxford and medicine at Edinburgh. A keen botanist, he wrote a complete Flora of the British Isles, and his interest in Hindu culture led him to study ancient India’s Vedic and Brahmanic texts. He was up to date with the newest German biblical criticism and, a practising geologist, he was among the first to replace Bible-based guesses about the earth’s age with a true understanding of the vastness of geological time.
But, like other great Romantics, he lacked a sense of humour, and found it hard to see when he was being ridiculous. He harangued the upper classes about their addiction to “the enervating luxury of tea”, and campaigned for the introduction of “rational toys” for children. Their current playthings, he lamented, were “useless”, and should be replaced by miniature garden tools and chemistry sets. Passionate enthusiasms gripped him. He fell head over heels for the French revolution, ardently justifying it even when it plunged into massacre and atrocity. In medicine he was possessed by the notion that inhaling a particular gas, oxygen, or perhaps hydrogen or carbon dioxide, would cure tuberculosis and a wide variety of other ailments including asthma, scrofula, palsy, diabetes, typhus, ulcers and “obstinate venereal complaints”. He had, it seems clear, no evidence whatsoever for these claims. He timed how long it took for rabbits to die when exposed to different gases, and measured the amount of oxygen breathed by kittens when agitated or drunk on sherry. But his researches proved inconclusive, and when he inhaled oxygen himself it gave him a fever and nosebleeds.
Despite these setbacks, his faith in “pneumatic medicine” remained unshaken. He founded a Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, which was both a laboratory and a clinic, with patients doubling as human guinea pigs. One of the first was the inventor James Watt’s consumptive daughter, Jessie, whom he treated with inhalations of carbon dioxide. She died in a few weeks, but she had already been far gone when she came to him, and other patients seemed to show temporary improvement. He was convinced that his revolutionary therapy would transform human life, and that “a convenient small apparatus” for producing remedial gases would soon be “ranked among the ordinary items of household furniture”. He persuaded Watt to design a prototype, consisting of a portable stove with an alembic mounted on top, which would allow the householder, with the aid of a few simple ingredients such as red-hot chalk and sulphuric acid, to release all the gases necessary for health.
He had noticed that some occupations were less prone to tuberculosis than others. Butchers, it seemed, seldom got it, and when he questioned them they ascribed their immunity to the steams and vapours of the slaughterhouse that were “very wholesome to swallow”. Enlightened, he concluded that it would be beneficial “to imitate the exhalation of a cow-house” in the sickroom, so he accommodated consumptive patients in a building adjoining a cattle stall, where the cows could poke their heads through a curtain and breathe on them. He was soon able to report that the experiment had shown “promise of success” in three out of six cases, and that “for mere temperature, living with cows is the most delicious thing imaginable”. Not everyone agreed. One patient objected to the “cow dung, etc” that was an inevitable by-product of the therapy, and satirists mischievously put it about that Beddoes had upset Bristol’s lodging-house keepers by taking cows into invalids’ bedrooms.
When he signed on young Davy as his assistant the affairs of the Pneumatic Institution entered a new phase, for Davy succeeded in synthesising nitrous oxide or “laughing gas” as it came to be known. He testified that inhaling it induced feelings of transcendence. “I seemed to be a sublime being, superior to other mortals.” This was not, in fact, very different from the way Davy felt even when ungassed. But nitrous oxide also gave him a heightened sense of aliveness. Colours were more dazzling, sounds more acute, and he seemed bonded with nature so that tearing a leaf from a tree caused pain in his own body. Laughing gas provided a passport to a “parallel world”, and members of the Beddoes circle who entered it had difficulty putting their sensations into words. Coleridge described it as “great ecstasy”; another declared “I feel like the sound of a harp”, and the poet Robert Southey imagined that “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas”. One of Beddoes’s assistants was a young doctor Peter Roget, later editor of the great thesaurus of the English language. He had been collecting lists of synonyms since he was eight, but despite the mass of words at his disposal laughing gas seems to have defeated him, and he recorded rather lamely that “thoughts rushed like a torrent through my mind”.
In the midst of these poetic recreations the medical potential of nitrous oxide was tragically missed. Davy went so far as to note that, as it eliminated pain, it might be a “great advantage during surgical operations”. But it was not until the 1860s that first dentists and then surgeons began to use it as an anaesthetic, so for half a century patients continued to endure unanaesthetised agonies. The reason, Jay thinks, was that pain and surgery had become so linked in the human brain that imagining them separate required a mental leap too great even for Beddoes’s sons of genius.
When Davy was lured away to metropolitan glory by the Royal Institution, Beddoes went through a rather sad time. He was short and tubby, and his wife Anna, Maria Edgeworth’s sister, made a determined (though unsuccessful) bid to seduce his tall, handsome best friend. His belief in pneumatic cures faltered, and he devoted himself to teaching preventive medicine to the inhabitants of Bristol’s insanitary slums. Ironically, he remained sceptical about the greatest advance in preventive medicine of his lifetime, Jenner’s discovery of a smallpox vaccine. This was typical of the contradictions in his character. He was an idealist as well as a scientist, so sheer, unfounded belief could outweigh proof and evidence. It is this irrationality that makes Jay’s study of him so arresting, and makes Beddoes so vividly representative of a moment in history when, with tyranny and priestcraft vanquished, liberty triumphant, and science opening a golden future, mankind seemed, briefly, to be on the threshold of paradise.
The Atmosphere of Heaven by Mike Jay
Yale £20 pp304