The Atmosphere of Heaven The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius Mike Jay

Publication date:
15 Nov 2010
Yale University Press
304 pages:
24 b-w illus.

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 widely on the history of science and medicine, and particularly on the discovery of psychoactive drugs during the 18th and 19th centuries. His books on the subject include Emperors of Dreams: drugs in the nineteenth century (2000, revised edition 2011) and most recently High Society: mind-altering drugs in history and culture (2010), which accompanied the exhibition he curated at Wellcome Collection in London. The Atmosphere of Heaven is also the third book in his series of biographical narratives of political reformers in 1790s Britain. It follows The Air Loom Gang (2003, revised edition forthcoming 2012) and The Unfortunate Colonel Despard (2004).

For more information on his work, and links to reviews, articles and podcasts on The Atmosphere of Heaven, visit his website at

‘Magnificent!’ -Oliver Sacks

‘Enthralling’ -Richard Holmes

‘A superb book, learned and full of insight…fascinating, exciting, entertaining’ -London Review of Books

‘A vivid and thrilling biography…it is also a powerful account of the meaning of science’ -New Scientist

‘Dashing characters within a fascinating narrative…The Atmosphere of Heaven is remarkable in its deft interweaving of medicine, politics and underlying philosophical ideas’ -New York Review of Books

‘Brilliantly researched and written’ -Publishers’ Weekly

‘A superb achievement, blessedly lucid, full of good stories…lively, informative and rich in detail of an extraordinary era’ -Literary Review

‘The Atmosphere of Heaven is serious historical writing that can be read like a novel’ -The Lancet

‘For anyone who enjoyed Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men or Richard Holmes The Age of Wonder, this is a must-read account of Enlightenment enthusiasm’ -BBC History Magazine

‘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