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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Happy Birthday Anaesthetic

On this day in 1846 ether was used as an anaesthetic for the very first time. (see picture below) The event took place in America, and the brave patient was Mr Eben Frost, who had a tooth painlessly (!?) extracted by William Thomas Green Morton – a dentist (thankfully)
The use of ether spread to England in just a few months, and no doubt those afflicted by toothache or requiring otherwise painful operations rejoiced.

However, the life of ether was short lived in Britain, thanks in no small part to its vomit-inducing side effects, and its flammable nature (when the chief lighting method is candle or gas, this can prove problematic) James Young Simpson’s work on another drug with anaesthetic properties – chloroform – took place in 1847, and when John Snow administered it to Queen Victoria as she gave birth to little Prince Leopold in 1853, chloroform effectively received a “Royal Seal of approval” and its use was completely legitimized for public use, and use it they did. Princess Beatrice was also born with the aid of chloroform a few years later.

Anyone who has a passing interest in Victoriana will probably be familiar with chloroform, which could also be an effective poison if too high a dose was taken. (which it frequently was) The same could be said for most medicines in the 19th century, a high number of which contained opium derivatives.

Scanning through anything by Mrs Beeton or Cassell will inevitably uncover advice for the home-curing of ailments, along with some startling advice for parents with young children that, if adhered to in today’s world, would reward you not with a healthy child, but a criminal record.
The poor children who suffered with teething problems deserve a mention, as Mrs Beeton advised that:

If a tooth is pressing on the gum, it should be lanced, and this measure often relieves wonderfully.”

I should imagine the poor toddler didn’t think of the treatment as highly. It goes on:

“The Treatment in all cases of painful teething is remarkably simple, and consists in keeping the body cool by mild aperient medicines, allaying the irritation in the gums by friction with a rough ivory ring or a stale crust of bread, and when the head, lungs, or any organ is overloaded or unduly excited, to use the hot bath, and by throwing the body into a perspiration, equalize the circulation, and relieve the system from the danger of a fatal termination”

The treatment of croup also sounds a delight:

“Treatment.--Place the child immediately in a hot bath up to the throat; and, on removal from the water, give an emetic of the antimonial or ipecacuanha wine, and, when the vomiting has subsided, lay a long blister down the front of the throat, and administer one of the following powders every twenty minutes to a child from three to six years of age. Take of calomel, 12 grains; tartar emetic, 2 grains; lump sugar, 30 grains. Mix accurately, and divide into 12 powders. For a child from six to twelve years, divide into 6 powders, and give one every half-hour.
Should the symptoms remain unabated after a few hours, apply one or two leeches to the throat, and put mustard poultices to the foot and thighs, retaining them about eight minutes; and, in extreme cases, a mustard poultice to the spine between the shoulders, and at the same time rub mercurial ointment into the armpits and the angles of the jaws.
Such is a vigorous and reliable system of treatment in severe cases of croup; but, in the milder and more general form, the following abridgment will, in all probability, be all that will be required:--First, the hot bath; second, the emetic; third, a mustard plaster round the throat for five minutes; fourth, the powders; fifth, another emetic in six hours, if needed, and the powders continued without intermission while the urgency of the symptoms continues. When relief has been obtained, these are to be discontinued, and a dose of senna tea given to act on the bowels.”

The sick children of Victoria’s reign were administered all sorts of dangerous drugs, medicines and concoctions such as laudanum, Sulphuric Acid, Leeches, “mercurial ointment” (which I think contained mercury, Venice turpentine [which is a diuretic or purgative], balsam of sulphur and lard) They also swallowed down castor oil, brandy, gin and wine, not to mention the popular Godfrey’s Cordial (which contained opium, treacle, water, and tasty spices)

That said, amazingly some of them went on to do well for themselves, such as Mr Brunel, Mr Dickens, Mr Robert Scott, Miss Nightingale, Mr Elgar and of course, Mr Churchill to name but few.

Anybody who (like me) is not keen on a trip to the dentist should celebrate today and imagine how much worse that extraction would have been if all you had to block out the pain of the dentist drill (which in those days was worked a little bit like a loom, whereby the dentist pushed a pedal up and down at floor level, which connected to a machine and eventually to a drill, so the consistent drilling depended upon the dentist’s smooth pedal action) was a bit of gin.

In the early forties, Nitrous Oxide was used in America as an anaesthetic during a dental operation, and everything was going well until the patient cried out in pain

Its worth trying to get a look at some Victorian dentistry tools, they really do look like torture devices.

So, happy one-hundred and forty-sixth birthday to the use of ether as an anaesthetic, the forebear of our modern anaesthesia.

Anyone interested in the history of medicine, or the horror of, should take a visit to the old operating theatre museum in London, the link of which can be found here and  I’ve been carrying around a good article from the Daily Mail for two years or so, which contains information on the birth of anaesthetic, and you can read that here


  1. And leeches are now back in use in our hospitals.

  2. Looking forward to my next appointment...

  3. My (Greenville, SC) dentist always talks about the importance of anesthesia for dental procedures, especially tooth extraction, everytime I come by for check-ups. Thankfully, we have these kinds of "reversible lack of awareness" medicine.

  4. I often think of the poor wretches who had to undergo surgery - particularly dentistry - prior to the introduction of the working practices we are lucky enough to have today.

    I can't imagine having a tooth removed without any drugs!