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Though medical history is filled with quirky characters whose eagerness to heal patients led them to experiment with remedies that are hard to believe today, Dr. Thomas Beddoes has been surprisingly forgotten. And that seems a pity given his own unique contribution to the annals of medical lore and, inadvertently, to science in general.
Born in Shropshire in 1760, Beddoes was a remarkable student who not only excelled in his studies but taught himself French, German, Spanish, and Italian as well. Along with studying at Pembroke College in Oxford, he moved on to the University of Edinburgh where he studied medicine before returning to Oxford and graduating in 1786. He also traveled to France where he met Antoine Lavoisier and returned to become a successsful lecturer at Oxford University.
His outspoken sympathy for the French Revolution eventually cost him his position. Beddoes was forced to resign in 1792 after numerous complaints about his "revolutionary" views, even after prominent figures such as Lavoisier were executed. Though his academic career was essentially over, Beddoes set up a medical practice in the city of Bristol where he specialized in treating infectious diseases, particulary tuberculosis and smallpox.
Like many gentlemen scientists of that era, he also cultivated various scientific interests and was an avid writer with publications in science and medicine. This includes classic essays on treating calculus (gallstones) and scurvy along with scientific papers on geometry and geology. Among other things, he was the first writer to use the word "biology" in the modern sense. One early book, "The History of Isaac Jenkins and Sarah his wife and three children" on the evils of alcoholism became a best-seller and he cultivated friendships with some of the greatest literary minds of his generation. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a close friend and Beddoes' house in Bristol attracted visitors from across Europe.
Personal descriptions of Beddoes tended to vary widely. He was once called "uncommonly short and fat, with little elegance of manners, and nothing characteristic externally of genius or science; extremely silent, and, in a few words, a very bad companion." Another source called him "reserved in manner, and almost dry; but his countenance was very agreeable. . . . Nothing could be a stronger contrast to his apparent coldness in discussion than his wild and active imagination". Along with other scientific interests, he became involved in a controvery over rival hypotheses over how rocks were formed, i.e, whether they were created through volcanic activity (plutonism) or in the oceans (neptunism). Beddoes also became interested in the problem of Earth's age and was one of the early supporters of the concept of an ancient Earth (as opposed to the young Earth suggested by creationists).
The most radical idea for which Beddoes is remembered was his endorsement of pneumatic medicine and treating disease by having patients inhale different gases. The late 18th century saw new developments in gas chemistry with oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, among others, being studied in laboratories across Europe. Collecting anecdotes about patients being cured of diseases through inhaling specific gases, Beddoes began making grandiose claims about using oxygen and carbon dioxide to treat various diseases including tuberculosis, scrofula,palsy, diabetes, ulcers, and various venereal diseases. That he had no actual scientific evidence to support these claims seemed hardly relevant.
Supporting himself and his medical experiments through the high fees that he charged to his patients (this was pre-National Health Service), Beddoes also had no hesitation in using patients as test subjects for the various alternative remedies he devised. His most notorious innovation stemmed from his noticing that people in certain occupations seemed less likely to develop tuberculosis than others. Butchers, in particular, very rarely developed tuberculosis which they often attributed to the "slaughterhouse vapours" they breathed in while they worked. Deciding to try this on his patients, he set up a treatment clinic adjoining a cattle stable so that the cows could poke their heads through a curtain and breathe directly onto the patients as they lay in bed.
Though Beddoes enthusiastically reported that the new remedy seemed to work about half the time with his consumptive patients, it was not particularly popular with the patients or their families. Along with the radical nature of the treatment, they also complained about the smell and proximity to barnyard animals. Undeterred, Beddoes' research experiments with gases continued with animalexperiments where he would actually timed how long it took rabbits to die when breathing pure carbon dioxide or the amount of oxygen needed to intoxicate kittens. He also experimented on himself to see what effect breathing pure oxygen would have on humans, he was forced to stop when he developed nosebleeds. Collecting assorted case studies from sympathetic physicians as well as what he learned from his own patients, Beddoes published extensively on the value of pneumatic medicine. His books and monographs focused on the apparent miracle cures that could be possible by having patients inhale oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide.
But he was convinced that even more could be made possible with the proper research. Assisted by Richard Lovell Edgeworth (who later became his father-in-law), Beddoes established the Pneumatic Institution in 1799 where he could study pneumatic medicine in depth. It was an amazing scientific collaboration with most of the laboratory equipment being developed by James Watt with Humphry Davy being in charge of the laboratory.
It was Davy whose experiments had the greatest scientific importance. Along with his other gas experiments, Davy was the first scientist to describe the properties of nitrous oxide (which he nicknamed "laughing gas"), including testing the gas on himself and other willing subjects. Among the various willing volunteers were Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who was lyrical with his praise of "the great ecstasy" he felt when breathing in the gas), Robert Southey, and the rest of Beddoes' literary circle. Though Davy was the first to notice the anesthetic possibilities in the gas and even suggested that it might be used in surgery, he never bothered experimenting further and this lost opportunity delayed the development of anesthesia for decades.
Focusing instead on the possibilities of pneumatic medicine, Thomas Beddoes and James Watt decided to collaborate in using a special apparatus that Watt had developed to produce "factitious air" (their name for the gas) and administer it to patients. Watt had a very personal reason for his interest in Beddoes' research. His daughter, Jessie, was in the terminal stages of tuberculosis when Erasums Darwin (grandfather of Charles) advised him to bring her to Thomas Beddoes' clinic. Although the carbon dioxide treatment Jessie Watt received did nothing to save her life, Watt was encouraged by the temporary relief that some of the other patients showed (which was likely due to the placebo effect at work). The prototype device Watt designed basically consisted of a small stove with an alembic on top (essentially a small still). Heated by the stove, the materials in the alembic, including calcium carbonate and sulfuric acid, would break down and release different gases that could be breathed in by the patient.
Though Beddoes had hoped to set up a formal hospital, he could never get the widespread support he needed. Eventually, his Pneumatic Institution was converted into a regular hospital in 1800 to handle a large typhus outbreak in Bristol. Beddoes' ambitious plans never survived the loss of Humphry Davy who left in 1801 to join Sir Joseph Banks at the Royal Institution. The Pneumatic Institution closed down a year later. Losing his faith in pneumatic cures by this time, Thomas Beddoes turned to studying new methods of preventative medicine to improve health in the Bristol slums.
Ironically, Thomas Beddoes remained an arch-skeptic concerning the amazing claims of nearby physician, Edward Jenner, whose experiments with cowpox led to the discovery of vaccination. Sadly, along with missing the boat on discovering anesthesia, Beddoes also failed to appreciate that Jenner's discovery was one of the greatest advances in preventative medicine ever made. While he likely saved many lives with his preventative medicine practice, Thomas Beddoes ended up fading up into obscurity by the time of his death in 1808.
Today, he is largely remembered for being the father of eminent poet, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and his own modest contributions. While he still merits a footnote in medical history, Thomas Beddoes' ambitious plan to transform medicine likely died with him.
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