The Atmosphere of Heaven

Yale University Press

London and New Haven 2009







‘Magnificent!’   Oliver Sacks


‘Enthralling. This is exactly the kind of cross-cultural biography we need. Lively and sympathetic, it restores the renegade Dr. Thomas Beddoes to his rightful place in scientific history, but also to his revolutionary circle of literary friends’   Richard Holmes


“Brilliantly researched and written…fans of scientific biography and history of science, as well as history buffs in general, will be engrossed by Jay’s marvellous study”
Publishers Weekly


“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


“A vivid and thrilling biography, superbly evocative of times when excitements and dangers fluidly crossed social and scientific boundaries. It is also a powerful account of the meaning of science”
New Scientist


“A superb book, learned and full of insight…fascinating, exciting, entertaining…Jay’s description of the wild highs produced by nitrous oxide is a tour de force”
London Review of Books


“A superb achievement, blessedly lucid, full of good stories…lively, informative and rich in detail of an extraordinary era…a captivating study of a remarkable man”
Literary Review  (August 2009)


The Atmosphere of Heaven is serious historical writing that can be read like a novel…chemists, historians, philosophers and doctors will be captivated by this account of the extraordinary life of Beddoes.”
The Lancet



At the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, England, founded in the closing years of the eighteenth century, dramatic experiments with gases precipitated a revolution not only in scientific medicine but also in the modern mind.

Propelled by the energy of maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, the Institution was both laboratory and hospital—the first example of a medical research institution. But when its researchers 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.

In this fast-paced and dramatic narrative, Mike Jay tells the story of Dr. Beddoes and the brilliant circle who surrounded him: Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society, who supported his experiments; Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, who were inspired by his ideas; James Watt, who designed and built his laboratory; Thomas Wedgwood, the visionary heir to the pottery dynasty, who funded it; and Beddoes’ dazzling young chemistry assistant, Humphry Davy, who tested nitrous oxide to its limits with legendary results.

The Atmosphere of Heaven is a riveting account of the chaotic rise and fall of the Institution, and reveals for the first time its crucial influence – on modern drug culture, attitudes toward objective and subjective knowledge, the development of anaesthetic surgery, and the birth of the Romantic movement.





Illustrated essay on Humphry Davy and the discovery of nitrous oxide, for Public Domain Review


Q&A interview on nitrous oxide literature with Patrick Lyons for VICE


Policy paper on nitrous oxide and the law, for Transform Drug Policy Foundation


Article on the origins of anaesthesia: The Day Pain Died, for the Boston Globe


Paper for Notes and Records of the Royal Society: The Atmosphere of Heaven: The 1799 Nitrous Oxide Researches Reconsidered


Article, ‘Laughing Gas Crazes and Medical Dreams’ in the Pharmaceutical Journal


Introduction to the anthology volume ‘Oh Excellent Air Bag’: under the influence of nitrous oxide 1799-1920

(‘A heavenly volume…edited with wit and imagination’  Guardian )


Podcast: Mike in conversation on the Pneumatic Institution with Tom Brothwell for The Bristol Cable




“A heady combination of politics and gas…The Atmosphere of Heaven presents the short lives of the pioneering Pneumatic Institution and its dynamic leader in glorious detail”
British Journal for the History of Science

“A lively evocation of the early stirrings of experiment in medicine and chemistry, placed firmly in their social and cultural context…it deserves a wide readership”
Times Literary Supplement  (October 30 2009)

“An arresting study…Mike Jay’s challenging biography puts Thomas Beddoes centre stage in the scientific and political ferment of the Romantic era” .. Sunday Times

“A racily written narrative that explores a singularly exciting period of scientific history…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

“An outstanding work of historical non-fiction…for anyone who enjoys history, and for any serious scholar of literary drug writing, The Atmosphere of Heaven is a must read”
Psychedelic Press UK

“Diligently researched and engagingly told, Jay’s book illuminates fascinating times”  The Times

“Mike Jay has succeeded in capturing the excitement of the times and tells the story of the redoutable Beddoes in a way that makes this a thoroughly inspiring, informative and enjoyable read”
International Journal of Epidemiology

“In this very readable biography, Mike Jay brings Thomas Beddoes out of the shadows of his ‘sons of genius’…the book opens a window on a fascinating time in medical history”
Social History of Medicine

“A brilliantly researched book and written in a lively style”
Times Higher Education

“An excellent book…Jay is scrupulous in letting the facts speak for themselves”  Erowid Review

“A detailed and measured biography…Beddoes’ house was a hive of experiment and revolutionary sympathies” ..

“Illuminating…Jay tells the story of the Pneumatic Institution with clarity and brio”
Sewanee Review

“Wonderfully engaging and fast-paced…a great introduction to characters and events that capture the essence of late eighteenth-century medicine”
Medical History

“This book restores Thomas Beddoes to his proper place in the medical pantheon, charting the course of his work and professional achievement, but also bringing to life the vibrant energy and spirit of adventure in this fascinating chapter of intellectual history”
Drugs and Alcohol Today

“A book that sparkles with life…a fascinating step backwards into an exhilarating age of scientific debate, progress and genius”
Lost and Found

“Captivating…satisfactory for both an academic and a popular audience…the complexity of Beddoes’ multifaceted character and various activities is convincingly portrayed”

“This story of the unfolding of new scientific vistas, some harnessed for present benefit, some curiously mismatched with the times and destined for the future, is told with unflagging energy and intelligence…a resoundingly satisfying read”

“Jay’s most exacting and thorough work…luckily, he has maintained his narrative flair and rich descriptive language as he makes his way through the science, politics, philosophy and personalities of the age”

“A fascinating tale…Jay wonderfully restores Beddoes’ reputation as a courageous and painstaking scientist, physician, revolutionary firebrand and social reformer”
Fortean Times

“The research behind this book is outstanding, and Jay breathes life into the characters and perspectives of the time”
Cosmos Magazine



RELATED ARTICLE: ‘The Fruitful Matrix of Ghosts’: The Psychic Investigations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge