This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
The births at first seemed to come at very short intervals; but see how long it was between the fourth and the fifth birth. It was soon after that my mind became involved in inventions--a hereditary outgrowth--and the electric mallet and then the dental engine, the parent of your surgical engine, to be found in the principal hospitals of this city, took such possession of my whole soul, that my air analgesic was left slumbering. It was not until August, 1875--nineteen years after--that it again came up in full force, without any previous warning.
This time it was no law of association that revived it; but it seemed the whispering of some one in the air--some ethereal spirit, if you please--which instituted it, and advanced the following problem: "Nitrous oxide gas is composed of the same elements as ordinary air, with a larger equivalent of oxygen, except it is a chemical compound, not a mechanical mixture, and its anaesthetic effects are said to be due to the excess of oxygen. If this be a fact, then why can you not produce a similar effect by rapid breathing for a minute, more or less, by which a larger quantity of oxygen is presented in the lungs for absorption by the blood?"
This query was soon answered by asking myself another: "If the rapid inhalation of air into the lungs does not increase the heart's action and cause it to drive the blood in exact ratio to the inhalations, then I can produce partial anaesthesia from this excess of oxygen brought about by the voluntary movements over their ordinary involuntary action of the lungs." The next question was: Will my heart be affected by this excess of air in the lungs to such an extent that there will be a full reciprocity between them? Without making any trial of it, I argued that, while there is no other muscular movement than that of the chest as under the control of the will, and as nature has given to the will the perfect control over the lungs to supply more or less air, as is demanded by the pneumogastric nerve for the immediate wants of the economy, when the involuntary action is not sufficient; and the heart not being under the control of the will, and its action never accelerated or diminished except by a specific poison, or from the general activity of the person in violent running or working, the blood is forced into the heart faster and must get rid of it, when a larger supply of oxygen is demanded and rapid breathing must occur, or asphyxia result. I was not long in deciding that the heart would not be accelerated but a trifle--say a tenth--and, under the circumstances, I said: "The air is an anaesthetic."
From this rapid course of argument, I was so profoundly convinced of its truth, that without having first tried it upon my own person, I would have sat where I was, upon the curbstone, and had a tooth removed with the perfect expectation of absence of pain and of still being conscious of touch. While yet walking with my children, I commenced to breathe as rapidly as possible, and, as anticipated, found my steps growing shorter and shorter, until I came to a stand, showing to my mind clearly that my argument in advance was right, so far as locomotion was concerned; and, upon referring to my pulse, I found but little acceleration.
To what other conclusion could I arrive from this argument, with the foundation laid nineteen years before, when I established on my own person by experiment the fact of analgesia as induced from chloroform, with the many experiments in rapid respiration on tooth bone?
From this moment until its first application to the extraction of a tooth you can well imagine my suspense. That I might not fail in the very first attempt, I compelled myself and others in my household to breathe rapidly to investigate the phenomenon. This gave me some idea as to the proper method of proceeding in its administering.
The first case soon appeared, and was a perfect success, going far beyond my anticipations, for the effect was such as to produce a partial paralysis of the hands and arms to the elbow. Again and again I tried it in every case of extraction and many other experiments, doubting my own senses for a long time at a result so anomalous and paradoxical. I was reminded just here of a phenomenon which gave me additional proof--that of blowing a dull fire to revive it. For a minute or so one blows and blows in rapid succession until, rising from the effort, a sense of giddiness for a few moments so overcomes that the upright position is with difficulty maintained. In this condition you are fitted for having a tooth extracted or an abscess lanced.
Believing that I had something new to offer which might be of use to suffering humanity, I read the first article upon it Nov. 17, 1875, before the Franklin Institute. Shortly after I was invited before the Northern Medical Society of this city to address them thereon. A number of medical gentlemen have been using it in their practice, while the bulk of them have spurned it as "negative" and preposterous, without an effort at trying it, which I can now very well understand.
Unless one is aware of the fact that in the use of any agent which has the power to suspend the volition, it can be taken to that point where he is still conscious of touch and hearing, and at the same time not cognizant of pain inflicted, the action of rapid breathing could not be understood. And I regret to say that of three-fourths of the medical men I have talked with on the subject they had not been aware of such a possibility from ether and chloroform. Until this analgesic state could be established in their minds it was impossible to convince them that the excess of oxygen, as obtained by rapid breathing, could be made to produce a similar effect. I should have been as reluctant as any one to believe it, had I not personally experienced the effect while performing an operation which would otherwise have been very painful. Such a result could not well be reached by any course of reasoning.