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Surgery and Anesthesia

Surgery and Anesthesia


Surgery before Anesthesia. Prior to the discovery of anesthesia, surgery was performed primarily in dire emergencies and generally consisted of repairing wounds, setting compound fractures, and amputating limbs. Mortality was high, in the range of 30 to 50 percent, due to shock from the pain, bleeding, and infection. Surgeons had the lowest prestige of all medical practitioners. The dread of surgery carried over to the surgeon himself.

Discovery of Anesthetics. Chemical anesthetics were known long before their utility for surgery was considered. Ether had been discovered in the sixteenth century. English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy discovered nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in the 1790s. He conducted experiments with it, and his published results were well known, but the use of nitrous oxide became popular for recreational rather than medical purposes. Scottish physicians began experimenting with chloroform in the 1830s.

First Success. A dentist named William T. G. Morton was the first to seek an anesthesia that would serve medical purposes. He experimented with ether and arranged a public demonstration in Boston in 1846. Morton worked as the anesthetist while renowned physician Henry Bigelow removed a cyst from the patient. Bigelow

wrote and published a description of the demonstration, and within three months hospitals in Paris, London, and New York were conducting their own experiments with ether. Opponents pointed to the risks involved, and many patients died from anesthesia because little was known about controlling dosage. But the use of anesthesia gradually gained acceptance, both because orthodox physicians knew that it would enhance their prestige and because patients wanted it. With the discovery of antisepsis in the 1860s, anesthesia revolutionized the practice of surgery.


Martin S. Pernick, The Calculus of Suffering in Nineteenth-Century Surgery, in Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L. Numbers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

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