John Barrell

  • The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius by Mike Jay
    Yale, 294 pp, £20.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12439 2

In 1794 Robert Watt, an Edinburgh wine merchant, together with a few associates, was arrested for allegedly framing a plot to seize the Edinburgh post office, the banks and the castle, and to issue a demand that George III dismiss the government of William Pitt and make peace with the French Republic. Just before the arrests, an English medical student studying in Edinburgh, John Edmonds Stock, had been sent down to London by Watt with a letter to the London Corresponding Society inviting them to mount a similar insurrection. Hearing just in time that he was a wanted man, he disappeared, to resurface later in Philadelphia, where he continued his medical studies. When he thought it safe Stock returned to Britain, probably about 1803, and was taken on by the radical Dr Thomas Beddoes as an assistant at his Medical Institution for the Benefit of the Sick and Drooping Poor at the Hotwells, Bristol; and when Beddoes died a few years later, his widow, Anna, commissioned Stock to write up his life and works. He responded by producing what is probably the most boring biography ever written, and I should know, because I am probably the only person ever to have read it twice – once because I wanted to know about Stock, and once in preparation for writing this review.

It is boring on a heroic scale: excluding the appendices (which, being extracts from Beddoes’s writings, are not boring), it is 413 pages long, without chapter breaks, without even a line space to vary the monotony of solid print. In Coleridge’s term, it is a biographia literaria, a history of Beddoes’s thought and writings more than of the events of his life, and the main literary device, if it can be called that, by which it binds the narrative together, is the frequent repetition of the word ‘next’. ‘The next chapter discusses’; ‘Dr Beddoes next turns to’; ‘he next considers’: paragraph after paragraph starts like this; it really is that relentless. To Beddoes’s friends, it seemed that Stock was burying him all over again. Dr John King, the other, more popular assistant at the Hotwells institution, described Stock as a ‘literary undertaker’; Robert Southey told Coleridge, who told Beddoes’s protégé Humphry Davy, that ‘the proper vignette for the work would be a funeral lamp beside an urn and Dr Stock in the act of placing an extinguisher on it’ (Coleridge had wanted the commission himself, but would probably never have completed it).

Mike Jay’s new book on Beddoes is fascinating, exciting, entertaining, where Stock’s is dull, dull, dull. And yet the more I enjoyed it, the more I began to revise my opinion of what Stock achieved, though perhaps not to the point where I will feel obliged to read him for a third time. Anna Beddoes had given him an impossible task. Her marriage had not been entirely successful, and though she had always been true to Beddoes in her fashion, she had been no more constant than he had been attentive. She had had affairs of a sort – they probably went no further than sighs, holding hands, occasional kisses – with the 20-year-old Davy, with Davy’s eventual successor as president of the Royal Society (and Beddoes’s closest friend and adviser), Davies Giddy, and with other men. Her husband, who was passionate about everything but sex, had been relieved rather than annoyed, but that probably made her sense of guilt, after his premature death, no easier to bear, especially as she may have been half hoping he would die, believing that after a shortish interval she and Giddy would be married. But Giddy married someone else, and Anna was left with the duty and the penance of keeping her husband’s flame alive by ensuring that his achievements were properly memorialised.

But what were his achievements? Beddoes was certainly a remarkable man, a man of extraordinary learning and range, of astonishing energy, with a capacity for intellectual enthusiasm and industry almost beyond belief. As an undergraduate he had written (though not published) a complete Flora Britannica; he had an MA and a medical degree from Oxford, though he had studied mainly in the advanced School of Medicine at Edinburgh. As a geologist he was in the vanguard of research, concentrating on granites and basalts, and helping confirm that the earth was far, far older than orthodox religion could allow itself to acknowledge. In his late twenties he became a reader in chemistry at Oxford, regularly drawing immense numbers to lectures at which he expounded the latest discoveries and controversies in what was at that moment the most exciting of the natural sciences. Had it not been for his support for the French Revolution, in his early thirties he would have been offered the Regius Chair of Chemistry created specifically for him. His interest in the iron industry, then centred on his home county of Shropshire, led him to write important papers on the chemical processes involved in the conversion of cast into malleable iron. He was the author of some of the most incisive political pamphlets of the 1790s. His much reprinted short story ‘The History of Isaac Jenkins’, offering advice in simple language to the families of the labouring poor, anticipated Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts and, unlike More, managed to address the poor respectfully, and without enjoining on them obedience to the Church of England and deference to their superiors. He was a good enough poet to win the friendship, though not on that account only, of Southey and Coleridge during their most innovative period. He translated medical works from German, Italian and Spanish, and had a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek and French. These modern languages he had taught himself as a teenager. It had taken him two months to master French, a little less for Italian, for German a little more. He was fully informed about advances in contemporary European chemistry and medicine, and about German literature, philosophy and biblical criticism. His photographic memory made him invincible at whist. He was capable, surely, of achieving great things. But what had he achieved? What was there for Stock to memorialise?

Beddoes had planned to become a physician since the age of nine and he never ceased to believe that medicine was the most important of all studies, that the other sciences were chiefly of value as they contributed to medical knowledge. He believed too that the medical profession in Britain was no longer directed, if it had ever been, by the humane values and motives which had prompted his decision to join it. It ignored the ailments of the poor, and devoted itself to peddling to the rich untested, expensive treatments and cures which were at best ineffectual, at worst dangerous. He was determined to make a major contribution to medical knowledge, by finding a palliative treatment, if possible a cure, proven by experiment, for consumption, the disease which in two of its forms, phthisis and scrofula, appeared to afflict Britain more than any other nation in Europe. His studies persuaded him that the most productive line of research would be in the branch of chemistry which was at that moment the most rapidly advancing, and which most engaged his own interest: the chemistry of air. Ordinary air was being broken down into its constituent elements, though they were not uniformly recognised as such. At Edinburgh Beddoes had attached himself to Joseph Black, who had been the first to isolate what he called ‘fixed air’, carbon dioxide. In England, Joseph Priestley was believed to have been the first to isolate ‘dephlogisticated’ air, a discovery which Lavoisier would shortly claim as his own, renaming the new gas oxygène and at the same time destroying the phlogiston theory to which both Black and Priestley were wedded. A visit to France, where he worked with Guyton de Morveau and Lavoisier, developed Beddoes’s fascination with the new chemistry of air. The fact that carbon dioxide would not support animal life, but that oxygen apparently enhanced respiration – Priestley had inhaled it, and reported that his chest ‘felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards’ – led Beddoes to believe that the different properties of these and other gases might offer new and dramatic therapies for a wide range of diseases, especially, but by no means exclusively, those in which respiration was affected.

He embraced this possibility with a mixture of vital enthusiasm and wary scepticism. He threw himself with great energy into the project by which he determined to make his great contribution, but was too intellectually honest to stifle a concern that he was committing himself to a hypothesis he could not help suspecting was suspiciously simple. For it was only too evidently analogous to the ‘Brunonian’ theory of medicine, invented by the Scottish physician John Brown, who had taught that health was an equilibrium between the ‘excitability’ of the nervous system, and the external stimuli by which it was activated. Every disease was the result either of insufficient stimulation, and therefore of wasted excitability, apparent in a slowed heart rate and a general feeling of lassitude, or of excessive stimulation, leading to a raised temperature and heart rate. Most diseases were of the first kind, ‘asthenic’, and could be treated by ingesting stimulants, most usefully alcohol. Diseases of the second kind could be treated by sedatives or a little light bleeding.

Beddoes was careful not to identify himself too closely with Brown’s system, which had been taken up more on the Continent than in Britain, and whose star was clearly fading by the mid 1790s. But while insisting that there was ‘full as much to reject as to receive’ in Brunonianism, what he certainly did receive from it, and eagerly embrace, was the structure it offered, which placed good health at the mid-point of a line graduated to left and right with various degrees of ill-health caused by excess or lack. He noticed that some of the effects produced by inhaling pure oxygen were similar to some of the symptoms of those suffering from the variety of phthisis he termed ‘florid consumption’: a vivid redness of the cheeks, lips and tongue, for example. He experimented on himself, inhaling large quantities of oxygen-enriched air over a period of seven weeks, and convinced himself he had come to exhibit many of the appearances of a florid consumptive. If, as physicians believed, consumption was becoming steadily more prevalent in Britain, might not this be because ‘the inhabitants of this country, almost without exception, breathe a freer and purer air than their ancestors’? Weren’t those with an excess of vital energy, and thus predisposed to pulmonary consumption, made ill by fresh air? And might not the florid consumption therefore be treated, and in its earliest stages even cured, by the respiration of air ‘of a reduced standard’; lower, that is, in oxygen, and with a stronger admixture of one or other of the gases that scientists now knew how to isolate and collect? There were, on the other hand, many more diseases that arose ‘from the defect than the excess of vital energy’: typhus, hysteria, diabetes, varieties of scrofula, paralysis, scurvy, perhaps even hydrophobia, might all be successfully treated with ‘hyperoxygenated’ air. In short, as Jay puts it, ‘pneumatic chemistry … promised a cornucopia of new stimulants and sedatives, delivered in concentrations unknown in nature, with therapeutic effects that could thus far only be guessed at.’

But Beddoes’s ambition went much further. In 1793 he published an essay in the form of a letter to Erasmus Darwin announcing, somewhat prematurely, A New Method of Treating Pulmonary Consumption, and some Other Diseases hitherto found Incurable. The peroration of this work announced a vision of the future in which pneumatic therapy was associated with the largest ambitions of the age. ‘Many circumstances,’ he told Darwin, ‘seem to indicate that a great revolution in this art [of medicine] is at hand.’

We owe to PNEUMATIC CHEMISTRY the command of the elements which compose animal substances; now it is difficult not to believe that much depends on the due proportion of these ingredients; and it is the business of PNEUMATIC MEDICINE to apply them with caution and intelligence to the restoration and preservation of health. – And if you do not, as I am almost sure you do not, think it absurd to suppose the organisation of man equally susceptible of improvement from culture with that of various animals and vegetables, you will agree with me in entertaining hopes not only of a beneficial change in the practice of medicine, but in the constitution of human nature itself.

This declaration says even more than it appears to. Those who made the revolution in France, or who, like Beddoes, had supported it in Britain and elsewhere, had looked for far more than a fairer, more equal, uncorrupt system of government which, starting in America and France, would be imitated across the globe. They too had looked for ‘a beneficial change … in the constitution of human nature itself’. By 30 June 1793 however, when he dated this letter and sent it to the printers, Beddoes, like many other early supporters, had lost faith in a revolution now fully under the direction of the ‘shuffling, smooth-tongued villainy of Robespierre’, and (though only for another fortnight) the ‘dark, sanguinary ambition of Marat’. Pneumatic medicine was no longer a part of the great revolution emanating from France; it had replaced that revolution in Beddoes’s ambition for the future.

Thus, supported though his theory was only by a few reports of moderately successful treatments, Beddoes staked on it not only his own future fame but the future happiness of mankind. His plan was to open what would be in effect an experimental hospital at which those suffering from pulmonary consumption, and who no longer received any benefit from other palliatives, could be treated with ‘factitious airs’, and he mounted a great fund-raising drive to this end. He promoted his new science of pneumatic medicine with enormous energy, but, at first, with no great success. His politics did not help, for if he abhorred the Jacobin ascendancy in France, he was widely known to be (in the words of his father-in-law, Richard Edgeworth) a ‘little fat democrat’, utterly hostile to the corrupt, repressive and belligerent government of Pitt, which enjoyed, however, huge support among those with the longest purses. And perhaps, for all his hyperbolic puffing of the therapeutic benefits of artificial airs, there was something in his pleas for funds that did not quite convince. For, as Jay shows, though he could be too much of an enthusiast for his scheme to admit to potential backers how much it depended on his faith and hope as well as on their charity, he was too good a scientist to deny that his belief in the benefits of pneumatic therapy was an educated guess, not much more than a hunch. At times he seemed to be asking for funds simply in order to have the chance to find out whether there was anything worth pursuing in his theory. It was a fair pitch, for it was certainly a good idea to see if the very latest advances in the chemistry of air had any implications for the treatment of diseases of the respiratory system; but that was a long way from inviting backers to invest in a dead cert.

With an impressive list of endorsements, from Black, Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and with the financial backing of his patient Tom Wedgwood, himself a gifted experimental chemist when he was well enough to be so, in 1799 Beddoes finally managed to open his Pneumatic Institute in Hotwells. There was nowhere better in Britain to supply him with patients, for the whole village had become something like a hospice for consumptives, a resort of last resort for those who had tried every remedy without success. The apparatus which synthesised the various airs Beddoes used on his patients and which allowed them to be comfortably inhaled was designed, manufactured and installed by Watt, whose daughter Jessy had already died of consumption, despite but not because of Beddoes’s pneumatic therapy, and whose son Gregory Beddoes would also fail to cure. The record of the short-lived Pneumatic Institute was no less disappointing, as it became steadily clearer that the promising results Beddoes believed had been achieved by his early experiments and those of his medical correspondents were not being replicated.

The institute began, however, with the biggest of bangs. Needing a laboratory assistant, Beddoes hired, at the recommendation of Giddy, the son of Grace Davy, a Cornish lodging-house keeper with whom Gregory Watt had stayed in his nomadic search for health. Humphry was a promising teenage poet and a self-taught experimental chemist who claimed to have overthrown Lavoisier’s caloric theory of heat and to have achieved other significant advances in knowledge using apparatus assembled from a broken clock and an enema tube rescued from a local shipwreck. As soon as he arrived at the institute he began experimenting with nitrous oxide, a gas first synthesised by Priestley, and described in a paper by the American physician Samuel Latham Mitchill, who corresponded with Beddoes in heroic couplets, as the cause of all degenerative diseases including scurvy, cancer and leprosy. Nitrous oxide was, Mitchill announced, abroad in the atmosphere, the source of all putrefaction and decay; inhaling it, he warned, would produce ‘sudden extinction of life’. A wonderfully incautious self-experimenter, Davy inhaled it and lived. The air Mitchill had produced, he realised, was not pure nitrous oxide but a mixture which included nitric oxide, which was indeed a toxin. Davy was mainly interested in following up this discovery, Jay suggests, because it seemed to lead, once again, beyond the chemistry of Lavoisier, towards an understanding of how and why the same elements might be differently compounded to form different substances. That there might be therapeutic benefits in nitrous oxide became a serious possibility only when he started to collect it by heating ammonium nitrate crystals in Watt’s apparatus and, in Jay’s description, ‘inserted a breathing-tube into the air-holder, pinched his nostrils closed to exclude all atmospheric air, placed the other end of the tube between his lips and began to inhale’.

What a gas! Davy found himself immediately suffused with feelings of indescribable, thrilling pleasure. His senses became amazingly acute, and it seemed he was inhabiting a new universe of sensation. He felt strong, active, to a superhuman degree, and, leaping out of his chair, he ran, jumped and shouted around the room in ecstasy. As the effects of the gas wore off, Davy experienced no violent come-down, only a slow and pleasurable diminution of the intensity of his feelings. The huge stimulus the gas appeared to have given to Davy’s life-force led Beddoes immediately to try out the gas on a patient paralysed down one side of his body. After a few treatments the man could flex his palsied arm; then he could grasp things with his palsied hand; soon he could walk without crutches. Beddoes, an asthmatic, was at first reluctant to inhale the gas himself, but now decided to try a small dose, and felt ‘bathed all over’, he reported, ‘with a bucket of good humour’. It removed the pain of his indigestion, and as with Davy, he had no unpleasant after-effects. Southey tried it, loved it, kept coming back for more; Richard Edgeworth ‘capered about the room without having any power to restrain himself’. Roget, the future author of the Thesaurus, did not quite say he enjoyed it, but experienced many of the same effects as the others. Coleridge reported that it brought him ‘more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced’. He ‘could not avoid, nor felt any wish to avoid, beating the ground with my feet’.

Jay’s description of the wild highs induced by nitrous oxide is a tour de force, and so is his account of the bad trips, and the no-trips, it soon also turned out to deliver. Beddoes was especially keen to try it out on his most generous financial backer, Tom Wedgwood, who suffered from an undiagnosed illness that sapped his energy and caused him the most acute pain. The effects seemed wondrous: Tom felt ‘as if I was going to mount to the top of the room’; his fatigue left him; he brimmed all over with vigour. Subsequent doses, however, were unpleasant, leaving him with severe headaches, numbness, lassitude. Apart from Anna Beddoes, who reported ‘uniform pleasurable sensations’, the gas, unaccountably, failed to reproduce in women the boisterous ecstasy enjoyed by men. According to the poet and publisher Joseph Cottle, who remained sceptical and unimpressed by the experiments at the institute, one woman duly became ‘a temporary maniac’; but ‘hysteria’, to a greater or lesser degree according to the size of the dose, was the reaction usually attributed to women. Were their constitutions, like Tom Wedgwood’s, too weak to benefit from the gas? Jay is probably right that well-brought-up middle-class women, sitting in a chair and inhaling the gas with a circle of curious, excited young men standing round, managed in spite of everything to hold on to the inhibitions they were being eagerly invited to shed, though at the cost of considerable distress. Nor did the gas turn out to work its magic except in Bristol. Joseph Priestley in Philadelphia, and Watt and Boulton in Birmingham, tried inhaling nitrous oxide and wondered what all the fuss was about. Maria Edgeworth believed that ‘great faith’ was necessary if the pleasurable effects of the drug were to be experienced to the utmost; in Bristol, Davy’s overflowing enthusiasm for his discovery could be soaked up by those who came to try the gas. It was harder to get high in his absence.

Davy continued to experiment on himself, inhaling carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, hydrocarbonate, coming close to killing himself but without glimpsing further therapeutic possibilities. Meanwhile, though there were few further therapeutic successes with nitrous oxide, and many unrecorded failures, Beddoes refused to be disheartened. He published an account of the first few months’ work at the institute which suggested huge benefits would arise from the gas, and invited subscribers to congratulate themselves on what had been achieved. As Jay points out, he wrote as if the original aim of the institute, to find a pneumatic therapy for consumption, was yesterday’s project. ‘I easily gave up my first hypothesis,’ he acknowledged airily. He had, indeed, moved on to a second hypothesis, which he had first discussed a few years earlier. It had been noticed that butchers were apparently exempt from pulmonary consumption. They themselves were reported to believe that this was the result of inhaling the steam that emerged as they cut open the carcases of newly slaughtered animals, and there was evidence from the Continent that sufferers from phthisis obtained some relief from their symptoms by sitting for long periods in slaughterhouses. Unwilling, however, to inflict the full horrors of this treatment on his delicate patients, Beddoes compromised, establishing a cow-house at the back of the institute and inviting patients to spend days or weeks there, breathing the cows’ breath in an atmosphere impregnated with ‘putrid animal effluvia’. This did not work.

Meanwhile, Davy was preparing his own account of the experiments with nitrous oxide. For him they had been a success story, on account of the evidence they offered of the complex properties of nitrogen and oxygen and the variety of their combinations, which, as Jay puts it, ‘spoke to the unimagined complexity of the imponderable forces, fluxes or bonds that must be capable of existing between them’. He was a good deal more interested in the properties and behaviour of nitrous oxide than in its possible uses in medicine, but when he did turn to them, he drove a coach and horses through Beddoes’s ambitions and the aims of the institute. In so far as the theory of pneumatic medicine was based on Brown’s system, the experiments with nitrous oxide failed to confirm it. According to Brown’s system, nitrous oxide should either have been a stimulus to be applied to flagging excitability or a sedative to an overstimulated constitution. Davy’s gas, however, seemed to function as both. And Davy challenged the hypothesis on which much of pneumatic medicine was based, since there was no known principle by which a gas, inhaled through the lungs, could serve to repair any other malfunctioning organ. Pneumatic medicine, he concluded, was ‘an art yet in its infancy, weak, almost useless’. Thus, at 21 years old, Davy had destroyed the dream that had given meaning and direction to Beddoes’s life and had sustained him through the apparent failure of the revolution in France. But Beddoes bore Davy no grudge. With great fortitude he came to terms with the realisation that what had been discovered at the institute was not the power to transform human nature but a recreational drug – and there was no Timothy Leary on hand to say they were the same thing. Though Davy soon saw the possible use of nitrous oxide in ‘surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place’, this, like the word ‘anaesthetic’ itself, would not be developed for decades.

Beddoes died in 1808, deflated indeed: at his autopsy, conducted by King and Stock, it was discovered that one of his lungs had collapsed many years earlier. He had scattered his great knowledge like wild oats, he wrote to Davy just before he died, ‘from which neither branch nor blossom nor fruit has resulted’. Stock’s Memoirs of the Life of Thomas Beddoes was published less than three years later, when Beddoes’s own assessment of his life’s achievements would have been challenged by few except his most loyal friends. Almost Stock’s main task was to offer consolation to Anna, and he set about doing so, not so much by minimising the failure of pneumatic medicine as by focusing his attention elsewhere. Stock had come to know Beddoes when his hope of discovering in pneumatic chemistry a miracle cure for consumption, or for any other disease, had been all but extinguished. The clinic at Hotwells was no longer the Pneumatic Institution but the Medical Institution for the Benefit of the Sick and Drooping Poor. Its patients, by the thousand, were treated free, but its real aim was disclosed by its unofficial name, the Preventive Medical Institution. Beddoes believed that prevention was far more important than therapeutic medicine, but that, because there was no money in it for physicians, it was shamefully neglected. Stock certainly agreed, and believed that Beddoes’s contribution to the prevention of illness was where his great and lasting achievement was to be looked for.

Preventive medicine was not a new enthusiasm of Beddoes’s, resorted to as a second-best alternative to pneumatic therapy. As early as 1794 he had published A Guide for Self-Preservation and Parental Affection, a cheap work written in simple language and designed to teach the poor how, by diet, cleanliness, fresh air and so on, they could preserve their health and that of their children. In 1798 in Bristol he began a course of 72 public lectures, delivered three times a week, on preventive medicine, and then ran a second course specifically intended for a female audience. In 1799 he produced an Essay on the causes, early signs, and prevention of pulmonary consumption for the use of parents and preceptors. In 1801-2 he published the three volumes, some 1200 pages, of Hygeia, advice on preventive medicine aimed at the ‘middling and affluent classes’, a collection of long essays on ‘personal prudence and prejudices respecting health; personal imprudence, causes and effects; physiology of middle and upper class individuals; temperature, hardiness and diet; scrophula; consumption; premature mortality; nervous disorders; prevention of insanity in England; madness and contagion.’ The following year he published a book of instruction on the prevention of illness aimed at ‘people of all capacities’. ‘Were this small volume estimated according to its intrinsic merit,’ Stock wrote, ‘it would take place, both for design and execution, of some of the proudest folios, with which the shelves of the physicians are loaded.’ Much, probably most of what Beddoes had achieved by way of preventive medicine was to be looked for in his practice, not in his writings, but it was the writings which survived, full of excellent advice, and testimony to the honesty and humanitarianism of a man in danger of being remembered, and forgotten, on account of his commitment to a failed theory. Accordingly, Stock made the very most of them. Over a fifth of his long book, some 87 pages, is devoted to a summary of Hygeia alone, and some of Beddoes’s many other writings on preventive medicine are summarised at comparable and tedious length.

Jay pays full tribute to Beddoes’s achievements of this kind. But preventive medicine is not and never has been sexy, and he is fortunate that he has no need to go into the elaborate detail Stock offers us about this aspect of Beddoes’s career. Unlike Stock, he has no widow to console, no mocking contemporaries to confront, and no need to rescue his own reputation by proving that he had not wasted his time as the assistant to a fanatic reformer riding a hobby-horse. But that is only one reason why Jay’s superb book, learned and full of insight, is so much more enjoyable than Stock’s. I can hardly think of a word to say against it, except that I was surprised to find Jay describing Beddoes’s delightful ‘Domiciliary Verses’ as a ‘delicate miniature … which unfolds a scene of domestic contentment that would find consummate expression in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”’. It is a eulogy to an itinerant Irish labourer whose chimneyless cottage back home, full of peat-smoke and wood-smoke, is all the more insidiously cosy for his disregard of the advice about opening windows in the Guide for Self-Preservation. I read it as Stock did, as a gentle parody, probably of the sentimental cottagery of Southey and Cottle.