The Atmosphere of Heaven


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The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius

Mike Jay

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The stranger-than-fiction story of the Enlightenment visionaries who discovered the unexpected effects of inhaling nitrous oxide

At the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, England, founded in the closing years of the eighteenth century, dramatic experiments with gases precipitated not only a revolution in scientific medicine but also in the history of ideas. Guided by the energy of maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, the institution was both laboratory and hospital—the first example of a modern medical research institution. But when its members discovered the mind-altering properties of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, their experiments devolved into a pioneering exploration of consciousness with far-reaching and unforeseen effects.

This riveting book is the first to tell the story of Dr. Beddoes and the brilliant circle who surrounded him: Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, who supported his ideas; James Watt, who designed and built his laboratory; Thomas Wedgwood, who funded it; and the dazzling young chemistry assistant, Humphry Davy, who identified nitrous oxide and tested it on himself, with spectacular results. Medical historian Mike Jay charts the chaotic rise and fall of the institution in this fast-paced account, and reveals its crucial influence—on modern drug culture, attitudes toward objective and subjective knowledge, the development of anesthetic surgery, and the birth of the Romantic movement.

Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and is a specialist in the study of drugs. His books include the award-winning The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness. He lives in London.

Praise for Mike Jay’s The Air Loom Gang:


The Air Loom Gang is a wonderful book to read. . . .beautifully written, with all the drama, the rich characterization, the subtlety, of a fine novel."—Oliver Sacks

"The pursuit of science in the evolution of culture does not get much more hair-raising than this. Mike Jay's The Atmosphere of Heaven has an uncanny ability to bring everything together through Dr Thomas Beddoes' experimental gases: hopes for the elimination of all disease, the politics of scientific research, the perpetual threat of political invasion, all in the tense period at the turn of the nineteenth century.  This is history written as it should be." - George Rousseau, Oxford University, author, with Roy Porter, of Gout: The Patrician Malady

"Magnificent!" - Oliver Sacks

"Enthralling. This is exactly the kind of cross-cultural biography we need. Lively and sympathetic, it restores the renegade Dr Thomas Beddoes to his rightful place in scientific history, but also to his revolutionary circle of literary friends." - Richard Holmes

"Mike Jay's wonderfully sympathetic account is written vividly and with narrative flair. Bringing together medicine, chemistry, and politics, The Atmosphere of Heaven is a compelling read." - Trevor Levere

"Jay wonderfully restores Beddoes’s reputation as a courageous and painstaking scientist, physician, revolutionary firebrand and social reformer – truly, one of the giants of rational thought." — Jay Rath,  Fortean Times

"Fascinating, exciting, entertaining … 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 … [A] superb book, learned and full of insight … I can hardly think of a bad word to say against it." — John Barrell, London Review of Books

‘The book opens a window on a fascinating time in medical history.' — David Knight, Social History of Medicine Vol 23 No.1, April 2010

". . .brilliantly researched. . . .Fans of scientific biography and history of science, as well as history buffs in general, will be engrossed by Jay's marvelous study of an unusual man and the political and intellectual ferment of his time."—Publishers Weekly

'Excellent and eminently readable book…Mike Jay has succeeded in capturing the excitement of the times…a thoroughly inspiring, informative and enjoyable read.' — Gabriel Scally, International Journal of Epidemiology

'A brilliantly researched book and written in a lively style.' — Sharon Ruston, Times Higher Education

"…. an outstanding work of historical non-fiction…. The book is full of fascinating research, which manages to thread together science, politics, and philosophy in an extremely engaging and well written narrative…..The Atmosphere of Heaven is a must read."—Literary Review

“The book makes good use of primary sources, and is an engaging read.”—Leslie Tomory, AMBIX Vol.58 No.1
ISBN: 9780300168914
Publication Date: November 2, 2010
304 pages, x
24 b/w illus.

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