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J Clin Anesth. 2007 Mar;19(2):159-61.

Nitrous or nitric? Same difference. Molecular formulas in the 1840s.

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  • 1Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02114, USA. talston@partners.org


The molecular formulas given by James Y. Simpson for nitrous oxide, diethyl ether, and chloroform are difficult to interpret today. The organic formulas are "incorrect" today because Jean Dumas (the influential chemist who was one of the discoverers of chloroform) used John Dalton's presumption of molecular simplicity. That is, water was long presumed to be HO. The nitrous oxide formula was incorrect owing to confusion with Dalton's nitrous gas, now termed nitric oxide. The Simpson formulas illustrate that inhaled anesthesia arrived at the time of a cusp in the history of chemistry.

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