Near-Misses in History

In the late 18th century, something strange occurred: a revolution in medicine that should have happened did not.

It started in 1772, when Joseph Priestley, an English theologian, philosopher and chemist, synthesized nitrous oxide. The compound followed two very different trajectories. Within the scientific community, a few researchers followed up on Priestley’s discovery. One, Humphry Davy, noted that nitrous oxide “appears capable of destroying physical pain” and recommended that “it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations.” The British upper class had a different idea. The laugh-inducing compound became a popular recreational drug; laughing gas parties were commonplace. Yet for nearly half a century, Davy’s suggestion was ignored. Not one doctor—or any of those giggling British aristocrats—thought of using nitrous oxide to dull the pain elicited by surgery. Thousands suffered in vain.

That changed in 1845 when a dentist and surgeons from Boston connected the dots. On October 16th, 1846, a team of surgeons administered an anesthetic gas to remove a larger tumor from a woman. She experienced no pain, survived, and modern anesthetics were born. “Gentle, this is no humbug,” declared John C. Warren, a dentist at the Massachusetts General hospital.

It’s difficult to ignore near-misses in history. In his early teens, Blaise Pascal constructed the first mechanical calculator, ideal for a 17th century accountant, yet ignored for 250 years. Mendel’s famous pea experiments were overlooked for decades after his death. Sanctorius Sanctorius invented the thermometer in the 17th century, but it did not become a standard tool for clinicians until the mod 19th century. Davy saw the benefits of nitrous oxide, but doctors ignored him. Why?

To think about progress, you must first understand what stands in the way of progress.

Comments are closed.