The History of Anesthesia

History of Medicine

Dec 07
Woman breathing laughing gas.

(An Hysterical Perspective)

The first recorded use of anesthesia goes back to the ancient Incas; shamans got coked-up chewing coca leaves and drilled holes in the heads of their patients (to let the bad spirits escape) while spitting into the wounds they’d inflicted. The coke-resin-spittle substance numbed the site allowing hours of drilling, not to mention singing and dancing. The bad humors were known to escape and move to cooler climates.

Editor’s Note: This article was first researched and composed, sent off for publication, returned for paring down, surgically shortened, and then sent off for publication. It in no way is a thorough investigation of the history of anesthesia. It is a breather; a chance to let our hair down. If you want a really good article on this history, well, Wikipedia has a nice one.

This same process is still available to some at our better HMO’s. In fact, my psychiatrist was all excited about getting coked-up and spitting at me when I opted for the more subtle approach of a boot to the groin, or “gestalt” as it is referred to in the VA Hospital System.

Our next historical reference to anesthesiology stepped into history with the name Joseph Priestley who really wanted to be an ordained minister until he met Ben Franklin and caught a bit of the science bug. Continuing his religious studies, he began to dabble in science despite his nonexistent training in the subject. About the same time that he was ordained he also discovered that graphite conducted electricity and then wasted way too much time trying to invent the electric pencil.

Living next to a brewery he quickly discovered alcohol and a gas the brewing process gave off called carbon dioxide. He was soon leading the charge in the cola wars as he built up his reputation as the Father of Soda Pop. Priestly went on to discover oxygen, but that was a bit too late since we’d all been breathing the stuff for thousands of years. Then one night in 1772, while experimenting with some of the gasses he’d already discovered, he mixed them all up and created a new gas, nitrous oxide, that caused him to see clearer while feeling lightheaded. He just couldn’t stop laughing, so he called it Laughing Gas. Priestley went on to discover other gasses but none of them made very good colas or tickled him as much as his earlier experiments, and most of them just made him meaner. Priestley died years before realizing his goal of forcing whipped cream from containers with compressed nitrous oxide.

The first really bad experiment in history was later conducted by an American physician and chemist, Latham Mitchill. He gassed a bunch of animals with nitrous oxide, killing the lot. Dr Mitchill immediately proclaimed that nitrous oxide was not only poisonous but also infectious, and joined forces with the First Lady to start up the “Just Say No To NO” (Nitrous Oxide) movement. Apparently he’d forgotten to read up on Our Friend The Oxygen Molecule, and Mitchill left his mark as the Father of Asphyxiation.

Then along came Humphry Davy, a 17 year-old college student, who, while looking for a buzz, took a snootful of nitrous oxide and did not die, but nearly died laughing. Davy was a bright boy who immediately realized that a bothersome wisdom tooth felt just fine as he sucked on his laughing gas and, working part-time as a surgical assistant, he began theorizing how nitrous oxide could be used to avoid surgical pain for both the physician and the patient.

It should be noted that a surgical assistant, during this period in history, had to be a strapping young man with a firm grip, since it was his job to hold the patient down while the surgeon worked quickly. To dull the pain of minor surgeries, most patients drank copious amounts of alcohol, or smoked opium or marijuana. Heroin was a known painkiller, but just didn’t do the trick when your bowels were torn open by an intrepid surgeon.

However, do you remember that Priestley was a minister? Well, Davy was a Calvinist. And to the religious of the period, pain was part of God’s plan. From childbirth to death, pain was expected. It was the punishment handed down from Adam and Eve for listening to that snake in the grass.

So even Davy, while cauterizing a dog bite wound on his leg, never considered using nitrous oxide. Yes, he experimented, but experiments were one thing; relieving pain? Oh come now. Where’s the fun in that?

Davy was much more interested in getting high than relieving pain. He mixed up batches of nitrous oxide and inhaled great giggly quantities at parties he threw for all his friends. Many celebrities of the period attended Davy’s gatherings, including the Famous Peter Roget who got the idea for his timeless Thesaurus at one of Davy’s parties [social gathering, gathering, get-together (informal), festivity, revelry, merrymaking, bash, celebration, event, blast (slang), social, bee, shindig (informal), thrash (informal dated] after getting stoned [drugged, high (slang), intoxicated (formal), dazed, under the influence (informal), euphoric, spaced-out (slang), drunk, intoxicated (formal), under the influence (informal), blitzed (informal), plastered (informal), smashed (informal), reeling, sozzled (informal), legless (UK, informal)] indulging in [enjoy, bask in, revel in, relish, make the most of, take pleasure in, luxuriate in, glory in, exult in, lie in, roll about in, immerse yourself in, indulge in, delight in] vast quantities of nitrous oxide [Laughing Gas]1

Davy began to consider abandoning science as he realized he could turn a handsome profit selling nitrous oxide cheaper than alcohol. With this realization, the concept of the Junkie was born and Davy immediately became the Father of Selling Pharmaceuticals That Make You Really High. Some minor historians believe that later he went on to build the first meth lab, ride shot-gun in the first drive-by, and died uttering his famous last word: fashizzzel.2

Pushing intoxicating drugs began catching on as an American medical student, by the name of Gardner Quincy Colton, gave his first public demonstration of nitrous oxide for the sum of $535.00 and quickly quit medical school to follow his life dream of peddling cheap thrills full time on the road. He billed himself as Dr Colton and his Laughing Gas (he kept the title “Doctor” because he was still prescribing). At one of Dr Colton’s lectures, a dentist attended by the name of Horace Wells who witnessed a man by the name of Sam Cooly, who after taking in a lungful of gas, went a bit berserk and tore about the room wildly, finally landing next to Dr Wells who immediately noticed Sam’s bleeding leg. When he asked Sam how that had happened, Sam replied, semi-coherently, “Dunno.”

Wells immediately saw the benefits of nitrous oxide (if you can call having a leg half-torn off while cavorting about stoned out of your mind a benefit) and arranged for a general demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he would perform the first ever painless tooth extraction in the year 1845.

Sadly, the world had to wait a bit longer for the first ever painless tooth extraction, as poor Doctor Wells did not first test his theory. Instead, he ran headlong into surgery with students and administrators looking on. Wells might not have administered enough gas, for the patient cried out during the procedure, destroying the good doctor’s reputation. Wells retreated to his home a broken man where he wrote letter after letter to the heads of Dow Chemical accusing them of replacing his nitrous oxide with helium and eventually became a traveling salesman selling canaries and shower baths. But his first love, nitrous oxide and other intoxicating chemicals never left him and he began experimenting on himself and eventually became addicted to chloroform. Wells’s life ended in prison, where he committed suicide (some say, quite painlessly).3

In Wells’s audience that sunny day of 1845 was an astute pupil, by the name of William Morton who, knowing he could still be called “Doctor” by attending a much easier Dental College, “borrowed” the technique of gassing patients into painlessness and quickly popularized it.

The era of painless dentistry had begun, and sadists everywhere would have to find different professions to occupy themselves, such as an esthetician or a yoga instructor.

Ether, an organic solvent, had been discovered by a Spaniard called Lullius in 1275. Not having the cramped quarters of today’s modern dry cleaners, no one realized they could get high from it till the 1800s.4 Then along came a Dr Crawford Williamson Long from Jefferson, Georgia who, while stoned on ether fumes at a party, noticed that he had bruised himself but had felt no pain. On March 30, 1842, Long convinced a patient, James Venable, with two cysts in his neck, to try a bit of ether. Venable sniffed the ether, passed out, and Long operated, removing both cysts and a considerable portion of his wallet. The operation was a success!

Dr Long would have gained a pretty hefty reputation in history books had he published his results, but he kept experimenting for the next seven years, and by the time he published in 1849, two people, physician Charles Jackson and our dentist friend, William Morton, had “borrowed” his techniques too and in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (apparently the Mecca for anesthesiologists) on October 16, 1846, in front of an audience of famous surgeons and a few less famous surgeons, anesthetized two patients and then beat the stuffing out of them for the next hour. The surgeons truly enjoyed the performance.

About this time, bitter arguments heated up over who should be credited as the father of anesthesiology and even Congress got into it, and for 16 years dragged its feet in a manner that would not be equaled till the early 21st century when health care and the end of life as we know it due to climate change took a back seat to tax breaks for the underprivileged wealthy class.

But another wrench was about to be tossed into this debate (can they do that?) when chloroform was used successfully as anesthesia in 1847. Chloroform had been around since 1831, but again, its inventors were too busy getting stoned to really care. It wasn’t until everyone else had gotten famous making other people high that chloroform came into its own.

The downside to anesthesia seems to be that now doctors could take their time. Did we say “downside?” Yes, because surgeons weren’t quite sterile yet (many wore the same surgical scrubbies they’d worn for years without ever washing them; the blood caked cotton smocks being their red badge of courage), and by taking their time, breaking for lunch, tossing Frisbees around the surgical room, and wandering into the reception room to feed the fish, patients just got septic. More and more patients were reporting that they felt no pain whatsoever as the coroner placed pennies over their closed eye lids.

Medical science would have to wait for the discovery of germs and a bit of carbolic acid poisoning, though first it would also have to wait for doctors to learn to wash their hands. Then there’s the official time lag in medicine where all the entrenched physicians call the people with new solutions Quacks. This “Quack” lag-phase will be talked about later in our article on The History of Quackery.

Today, in Boston, a statue stands, erected to the Father of Anesthesiology. If you ever visit there, you will note, after walking around the statue, that there is no name listed. No one seems to agree on who should be credited as the Father of Anesthesiology.

Let this be a lesson to all of you. If you want to be famous for inventing something, don’t sit around for the next few years getting stoned or no one will ever know who really invented it.

And one more thing should be understood from all this research is that the main difference between illegal drugs and legal drugs is that fewer people are killed using illegal drugs than using legal drugs. Legal drugs are those that make lots of money for the pharmaceutical interests. So, if you’re on a legal high, you can thank a billionaire!

  1. Thanx to Encarta® Thesaurus © 2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. for all the synonyms.
  2. Davy actually settled down and though he was erratic in his focus at times, he went on to become one of the top scientists of his time, was instrumental in early work with many newly discovered elements (such as iodine), named the element aluminum, helped Michael Faraday get started, was knighted, and married a wealthy widow. In the last years of his life, his late forties, Davy was very ill, probably from his “huffing” every substance he discovered, and finally died of a heart attack at the age of 51.
  3. The patient used in the demonstration told Wells afterwards that he really did not feel any pain, but was scared and cried out. Wells spent many months writing letters, but not to Dow Chemical: he was trying to resurrect his reputation and establish himself as the Father of Anesthesiology. The rest of that paragraph, though seemingly absurd, is all true.
  4. Some historians credit Michael Faraday (the same Michael Faraday Davy helped get started), the Father of Electricity, with the discovery of ether. However, not being a stoner, he merely dabbled with ether as a solvent and went on to make even greater discoveries than his junkie friends who insisted on testing things till they were, visibly, blue in the gills.