March 30, 1842: First Use of Ether Anesthesia

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A Brief History

On March 30, 1842, Dr. Crawford Long, an American surgeon, made the first known use of ether as a general anesthetic.  Previous attempts at general anesthesia were not effective, and now for the first time major surgery could be accomplished without pain.

Digging Deeper

Before ether, people had used a variety of natural plant based poisons and drugs to dull pain, including Opium derived from the Opium Poppy.  Alcohol was another popular attempt at easing the pain caused by surgery, but alcohol resulted in excessive bleeding and had minimal pain killing properties.  Opium may have been used as an aid to surgery as long ago as 3400 BC!  Concoctions of Mandrake, Hemlock and other poisonous plants were made to serve as crude anesthetics, with inconsistent results.

General anesthesia is that anesthesia that sedates the entire body, either desensitizing the body to pain or rendering the patient unconscious.  Ideally, the patient would wake up after surgery and not remember the trauma of being operated on.  Obviously, side effects would have to be minimal for such an anesthesia to be widely accepted and used.

Local anesthesia is that anesthesia that deadens only a specific point or area to pain and does not have an overall whole body effect of putting the patient “to sleep.”  Early uses of local anesthesia included various toxic plant concoctions or even ice.  Later attempts included cocaine, and modern local painkillers such as Novocaine and Lidocaine are familiar to dental patients.

Ether is a dsitallation of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and sulfuric acid.  Described as discovered in either the 8thor the 13th Century AD, Valerius Cordus of Germany first synthesized ether in 1540, and immediately noted some medicinal value to the volatile liquid.  A German-Swiss scientist named Paracelsus soon discovered that chickens exposed to ether experienced the analgesic properties of ether.  Ether is also used as a starting fluid for internal combustion engines, especially at very low temperatures.

Ether was used as a recreational drug during the early 19th Century, and Dr. Crawford noticed that his friends under the influence of ether that blundered about and injured themselves experienced no pain.  In 1842, Crawford first used ether as a general anesthetic, but did not report his findings until 1849.  Also circa 1842 was the first use of chloroform as an anesthetic, and the 2 drugs, both based on ethanol, competed as surgical anesthesia and as a recreational drug.  Both compounds could be lethal in improper doses, and deaths during surgery or during recreational use were not uncommon.  Ether and chloroform were sometimes mixed as a compound anesthesia.

The danger of chloroform and the extreme flammability of ether led to the decline of these drugs in favor of non-flammable anesthetics such as Halothane.  Today, ether is rarely used in surgery.  Like their earlier predecessors, modern anesthetics are sometimes used illegally for recreational purposes, as evidenced by the untimely death of singer Michael Jackson in 2009.

Modern anesthesia is a wonderful thing that allows surgeons to operate for long periods of time without patients writhing and screaming in pain.  The administration of these anesthetics is a precise science handled only by experts in that field.  Anesthesia, however, does not always work as it is supposed to, and people have reported feeling pain or listening to the chatter of doctors and nurses during the operation. Hallucinations and other after effects can also manifest after surgery, and the occasional death or brain death occurs due to miscalculation.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you experienced anesthesia during surgery?  If you have any interesting tales concerning anesthesia, please share them in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Jackson, Charles Thomas and Joseph Jacobs.  Some Personal Recollections And Private Correspondence Of Dr. Crawford Williamson Long: Discoverer Of Anaesthesia With Sulphuric Ether : Together With … Of His Priority In This Wonderful Discovery.  Andesite Press, 2015.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.