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If you've ever spent time in a science class, you have an idea how you're supposed to do science. You got your test tubes; you got your Bunsen burner; you got your lab coat on. You get your chemicals. You do some experiments, mix things together, see if anything explodes. That's how we do science now but once upon a time, it was done differently - very differently, according to our science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: OK. It's the spring of 1799. We're in England with a young scientist, maybe 19, 20 years old.

Mr. RICHARD HOLMES (Author, "Age of Wonder"): Young guy - this is Humphry Davy.

KRULWICH: And young Mr. Davy, says the British historian Richard Holmes, is about to inhale four quarts of carbon monoxide directly into his lungs. He's got a bag of gas in his hand.

Mr. HOLMES: Yes, that's right. They've made mouthpieces. These are silken bags, and they have wooden mouthpieces.

KRULWICH: So, you clamp your teeth onto it.

Mr. HOLMES: Yeah, you clamp your mouth to it, and you inhale.

KRULWICH: And you inhale.

(Soundbite of inhaling)

KRULWICH: Yes. So, as Humphry Davy inhales his third quart of carbon monoxide, in his lab notes he later writes this...

Mr. HOLMES: I seemed sinking into annihilation and had just power enough to drop the mouthpiece from my unclosed lips. I faintly articulated: I do not think I shall die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: For real? I do not think I shall die.

Mr. HOLMES: Think I shall die. And we know from the description what he did. He staggered out of the barge(ph) into the little garden that's still there, and he was sick on the lawn.

KRULWICH: He got chest pains. His cheeks turned purple. He lost his memory.

Mr. HOLMES: He actually lost consciousness, and he was pretty ill for the rest of the day.

KRULWICH: And then he did it again - a week later with a gas he called carbonic acid.

Mr. HOLMES: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: And if this strikes you as a little odd, consider what was going on at the time. Since the days of Aristotle, air had always been considered a single, pure substance.

Mr. HOLMES: It's air. It's the basic stuff: earth, air, fire, water.

KRULWICH: But scientists in France and Britain at the time had discovered that actually, air is a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide - different gases.

Mr. HOLMES: And therefore, you could begin to isolate these gases separately.

KRULWICH: And maybe pick and choose different kinds of air to put into people's lungs.

Mr. HOLMES: And of course, the great scourge of the age is tuberculosis.

KRULWICH: So if you could come up with a new combination of gases, a new kind of air, maybe you could help people breathe easier or repair their lungs, maybe even you could cure tuberculosis.

Mr. HOLMES: Because if you think, you know, tuberculosis, they understood was an infection, a lung infection. If you put a different kind of air in there, a different kind of gas, why wouldn't this heal? Why wouldn't it? Let's try it.

KRULWICH: Let's try it.

Mr. HOLMES: OK?

KRULWICH: So in the 1790s, people set up labs and hospitals and research facilities, and Humphry Davy was a young researcher who tried everything: carbon monoxide, then carbon dioxide, then nitrous oxide or laughing gas -which he offered not only to sick people, but also to, well, his poet friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLMES: His most famous subject for this is none other than Coleridge, the poet.

KRULWICH: Who? Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

Mr. HOLMES: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the man who wrote "Kubla Khan."

KRULWICH: And Coleridge's friend, another poet, Robert Southey, got so happy from laughing gas, he wrote this to his brother...

Mr. HOLMES: Oh, Tom. Such a gas has Davy discovered. The gaseous oxide. Oh, Tom. I have had some of it. It made me laugh and tingle in every toe and fingertip. Oh, Tom, I'm going for more this evening. It makes one strong and happy, so gloriously happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: You don't get that kind of enthusiasm in a lot of labs today.

Mr. HOLMES: Right. I wonder, I wonder, but I...

KRULWICH: But what I want to know is, did any of these gases - the laughing gases or any of them - did they help cure tuberculosis in anybody?

Mr. HOLMES: And the answer is no.

KRULWICH: No.

Mr. HOLMES: And Davy realized quite soon, and his science was good, is that he never put forward in his papers that they would cure.

KRULWICH: But he did have one curious observation. One time during these gas experiments, he had a toothache. And he's sucking in gas, laughing gas.

Mr. HOLMES: And he suddenly realizes the pain of the toothache has temporarily disappeared.

KRULWICH: So the pain goes, and then after an interval, it returns. And he thinks, hmm. Maybe the gas caused a temporary secession of pain. Now, this is 1799 and in 1799, doctors had no word anesthesia, and sort of odd ideas about pain.

Mr. HOLMES: So much so that, I mean, pain relief had been used, I mean, in surgery. You would give people a strong drink in some but of course, that's not a general anesthetic at all.

KRULWICH: Humphry Davy described his own loss of pain in a scientific paper, which was then published.

Mr. HOLMES: Where he actually says it's evident that this gas could be used in surgery.

KRULWICH: Oh, so he proposes it.

Mr. HOLMES: Yes, he proposed it.

KRULWICH: But the proposal, says Richard Holmes, was ahead of its time.

Mr. HOLMES: The idea that you could have pain-free surgery was completely radical, novel - so much so that many surgeons believed that pain was necessary in surgical operations because it was proof that the body was fighting back and would heal itself.

KRULWICH: So, bring on the pain...

Mr. HOLMES: Bring on the pain.

KRULWICH: ...was an idea - for doctors would say, bring on the pain.

Mr. HOLMES: Bring on the pain.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (as Fanny Burney) I saw the glitter of polished steel. I closed my eyes.

KRULWICH: In 1811, a young English novelist named Fanny Burney needed an operation. And she describes how her doctors came to her and literally asked...

Mr. HOLMES: Did you scream when you gave birth to your children? And she said, yes, of course I did. And the surgeon says, good. All will be well. You will be able to scream.

Unidentified Woman: (as Fanny Burney) I began a scream that lasted un-intermittingly during the whole time of the incision.

KRULWICH: And that's their idea of anesthesia?

Mr. HOLMES: It's exactly what I said. They were reassured, the fact that she would express the pain, she would cope with it.

KRULWICH: So, if a kid were to develop a way to avoid the pain...

Mr. HOLMES: Yes.

KRULWICH: ...there wouldn't be doctors lining up for it?

Mr. HOLMES: No. They might be very frightened of this.

KRULWICH: And in fact, it took 40 years for doctors to come around. And for that whole time, they didn't use anesthesia in surgery even though, in many cases, laughing gas was available.

Mr. HOLMES: Perfectly designed - surgery taking place at home. They could have used it, all right, but they simply didn't know the science. It hadn't got out at that point. It's a tragedy.

KRULWICH: But the point, says Richard Holmes, is that too often, we think about the history of science as a story of progress, of things just getting better and better and better. And we don't remember the oopses and the lapses.

Mr. HOLMES: And the mistakes seem to me as crucial as the successes. So, scientific progress is not necessarily inevitable. It takes people of passion and recklessness, often, to pursue it.

KRULWICH: And even the most passionate and most wonderfully reckless, like Humphry Davy, can discover something that really helps and nobody notices - for a while.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find more on this story and many others by Robert Krulwich, at npr.org, including one about why time seems to move faster as you get older, and a report on people who think their loved ones are impostors, and a face-off between German auto engineering and honeybees.

You can find MORNING EDITION on Twitter, by the way, @MORNINGEDITION. I'm on Twitter as well, @nprinskeep. You can find me, as well as the show, on Facebook.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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