Item – Theses Canada

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Wiedemer, Jenene,1971-
Anesthesia and entertainment :nitrous oxide in nineteenth century America.
Ph. D. -- University of Toronto, 2006
Ottawa :Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque et Archives Canada,[2009]
3 microfiches
Includes bibliographical references.
This thesis combines approaches from the history of science and medicine with the history of popular culture to explain how nitrous oxide was used and understood during the Nineteenth-Century, and how the contexts in which it was used contributed to the adoption of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. I contend that to understand how this substance was understood medically, we need to uncover its greater cultural significance. Concentrating on events in America, this thesis discusses how nitrous oxide fell out favor as an object of medical inquiry early in the Nineteenth-Century, how Horace Wells' 1845 nitrous oxide demonstration was bound to fail, and how nitrous oxide came to be adopted as a surgical anesthetic in the 1860s. All of these questions are answered by teasing out the larger cultural role played by the gas as an object of popular entertainment. The key to understanding the multiple functions that this gas played in the nineteenth century can be found by examining both what medical professionals believed about the gas and how these beliefs related to the larger cultural milieu. Nitrous oxide inhalation was large scale entertainment, attracting audiences of up to 3000 people. These exhibitions became more and more popular as their middle class audiences interpreted the gas as a way to distinguish the moral individual from one with a blackened inner character, a continuing social problem throughout the Nineteenth-Century. Horace Wells failed to convince the medical elite that the gas quelled pain because, unlike Morton with ether, he was unable to disassociate nitrous oxide from its reputation as a substance associated with mass entertainment. Nitrous oxide was finally adopted as an anesthetic in dentistry during the 1860s when G. Q. Colton, the showman, was able to separate nitrous oxide from "laughing gas". Colton changed the locations, technology and terminology surrounding nitrous oxide, and consequently introduced it into medical culture as an anesthetic, while keeping laughing gas in the realm of entertainment. This thesis is an example of the importance of interdisciplinary historical work and a call for further examination into the cultural significance of a substance that has until now been understood primarily in the context of the history of anesthesia.