The gas nitrous oxide was first identified by Joseph Priestley in 1772. Yearslater, in the late 1790s, the British chemist Humphry Davy began experimenting with the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. He noted its exhilarating effects, and the way it made him want to laugh--which gave the gas its popular name of "laughing gas." Davy published his findings in 1800, remarking that "Asnitrous oxide... appears capable of destroying pain, it may probably be usedwith advantage during surgical operations."
Little attention was paid to Davy's observations, or to those of Henry Hill Hickman (1800-1830), a general practitioner from Shropshire, England, who in 1824 explored methods of painless surgery on animals using both carbon dioxideand nitrous oxide gas. Nevertheless, nitrous oxide became widely known in the first half of the nineteenth century. Davy repeatedly demonstrated the gas's exhilarating effects to gatherings of his friends, and inhalation parties became quite popular. Use spread to the United States as traveling lecturers spread knowledge about the new chemistry to the general public, usually including a demonstration of the effects of nitrous oxide inhalation on audience volunteers. One of these public lectures in Hartford, Connecticut, in December1844, given by Gardner Quincy Colton (1814-1898), was attended by local dentist Dr. Horace Wells (1815-1848). Wells observed that a volunteer, Samuel Cooley, obviously hurt himself while under the influence of nitrous oxide but didn't notice the pain. Wells immediately thought of using the gas to banish pain during tooth extraction; the next day he took some of Colton's gas while afellow dentist removed one of Wells's teeth. As he had expected, Wells felt no pain.
After confirming the anesthetic effect of nitrous oxide on other patients, Wells arranged through his former dental partner, William T. G. Morton (1819-1868), to demonstrate his discovery to a group of Morton's Harvard Medical School classmates in January 1845. Unfortunately, the nitrous oxide was applied incorrectly, and the patient yelped with pain when his tooth was pulled, embarrassing Wells before the group.
After Morton used ether successfully as an anesthetic in 1846, Wells pressedhis claims for primacy as the discoverer of anesthesia. Frustrated in these attempts, Wells began to abuse chloroform. He committed suicide in 1848 afterbeing arrested for throwing acid at two women in New York, New York.
Nitrous oxide was finally made a practical anesthetic by Colton in 1863. Edmund Andrews (1824-1904), a Chicago surgeon, began to use nitrous oxide in combination with oxygen in 1868, and as this method gained popularity, nitrous oxide became a staple in surgical as well as dental practice.