Anesthesia is one of modern medicine’s most significant discoveries, enabling numerous surgeries that would otherwise be impossible for very young, very old, or very ill patients. The core principle of anesthesia is the alleviation of pain and suffering. The term “anesthesia” originates from the Greek words “an,” meaning “without,” and “aesthesis,” meaning “sensation.”
In ancient times, doctors used different methods to ease the suffering of patients before anesthesia was discovered. In Italy, one such practice involved placing a wooden bowl over a patient’s head and repeatedly beating it, eventually causing them to lose consciousness. Another approach was to use opium and alcohol to make the patients unresponsive. However, these substances had significant drawbacks and did not completely numb the pain.
On October 16, 1846, American dentist William Morton amazed a crowd of doctors and students at Massachusetts General Hospital. He demonstrated that ether could make a person completely insensitive to pain during surgery. Morton simply had the patient inhale the ether vapor, and once the patient was properly sedated, a tumor was removed from their neck without any pain. This demonstration had a profound impact on medical practice.
The first use of ether as an anesthetic in 1846 by Morton. Painting by Ernest Board.
Sadly, after this groundbreaking event, there were 20 years of bitter disputes, criticism, and legal battles among three individuals, each asserting their role as the originator of anesthesia. Morton quickly obtained a patent for ether, aiming to monopolize its use. He later appealed to the American Congress for financial compensation for his “invention.” Morton’s teacher, chemist Charles Thomas Jackson, claimed that he had made the discovery and suggested Morton try it. Meanwhile, dentist Horace Wells from Hartford, Connecticut, presented well-supported evidence that he had achieved anesthesia two years earlier using another gas, nitrous oxide.
It could be challenging to fully grasp the magnitude of this breakthrough in today’s context. Before anesthesia, surgery was a daunting last-resort measure undertaken in desperate attempts to save lives. Only a limited number of procedures were possible. Surface surgeries, amputations, treatment of invasive cancers, and bladder stone removal were essentially the sole domains where surgeons could operate. The interior of the abdomen, chest, and brain were considered inaccessible territories.
The speed at which surgeries were performed was the sole determinant of success. Many patients had to be physically restrained or strapped down, with some fortunate enough to faint from the excruciating pain. Unfortunately, many patients died on the operating table or shortly after surgery. The suffering endured by patients was truly intense.
The state should, I think, be called “anesthesia.” This signifies insensibility.
The advent of anesthesia revolutionized the field of surgery, bringing about significant changes. With the use of anesthesia, surgical procedures could be performed with greater precision, enabling surgeons to explore previously restricted regions. The progress of surgical practice relied heavily on the availability of anesthesia, along with the introduction of antisepsis through Lister’s carbolic spray. These advancements collectively shaped the evolution of surgical techniques and expanded the possibilities within the medical field.
Over time, significant advancements have been made in refining various groups of drugs used in anesthesia. This includes the development of highly potent and less toxic intravenous agents, inhalational agents, local anesthetics, and muscle relaxants. As a result, anesthesia has become remarkably safe, with mortality rates directly related to anesthesia dropping to less than 1 in 250,000 in most high-income countries.
Words of Wisdom
“Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.” —Old French Proverb
“Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” —Thomas A. Edison
“You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job and not be paid for it.” —Oprah Winfrey
“To lose patience is to lose the battle.” —Mahatma Gandhi