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History Of Laughing Gas

Photo of Gardner Quincy Colton from Wellcome Library

Source, The Wellcome Library 

While today it’s mostly responsible for the great videos of patients post wisdom teeth extraction, there are some patients who can’t even get through cleaning without the calming effects of the gas. Laughing gas was one of the biggest assets to dentistry back in the day and helped a dark industry grow.


In the 1800s, an English chemist named Humphry Davy started self-experimenting to see how nitrous oxide affected people. He and His assistant, Dr. Kinglak, would collect the gas from ammonium nitrate crystals, purify it through water, and finally inhale through a mouthpiece. Davy and Kinglake rather enjoyed the experimentations as they were put in a state of ease and relaxation. Davy referred to it as an “ideal existence.” Over the years, the self-experimentation become more extreme. At one point Davy created an air-tight box where he would sit for hours inhaling mostly gas. It comes as no surprise that Davy had a couple of near-death experiences, but through all the “experiments,” he was consistent at taking thorough notes on the experience.


Although Davy researched nitrous oxide extensively, Gardner Quincy Colton and Horace Wells were the ones who helped integrate the gas into dentistry. Colton was a traveling showman who had left medical school to make public demonstrations and lectures on the effects of the gas. During one of his shows in Hartford, Connecticut in 1844, Wells sat amazed in the audience. The performance had shown how an audience member didn’t feel pain from his injured leg because he inhaled the gas. Wells was ecstatic about the possibilities this could hold for dentistry. In that same year, Wells tried to prove the pain relieving qualities of nitrous oxide by inhaling the gas before his own tooth was pulled. He quickly realized while the gas doesn’t help specifically with pain relief, it has amazing relaxation effects for procedures.

Colton also ended up becoming a big proponent for helping to integrate nitrous oxide in dentistry. Years after his influence in the life of Wells and a failed attempt at finding gold in California, Colton headed back to the east coast to start a Dental Association. Colton and his partners became very successful in pushing nitrous oxide into the industry and had tens of thousands of successful tooth extractions. Nitrous Oxide soon got its nickname “laughing gas” and became popular not only for dentistry but for the use of general anesthesia in other medical practices.

Not many of the dental tools discovered or invented over 150 years ago are still used today. What’s your favorite part of this history? What other tools do you think have revolutionized dentistry? Comment and let us know!

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