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History of Anesthesia

Author: Emily Jiang

Editors: Shirley Chen and Eric Lin

Artist: Gianluca Zhang

The use of anesthesia has become a familiar and essential practice when performing medical surgeries, but have you ever wondered how surgeries were performed before modern anesthesia? The history of using opium poppy and herbal remedies as anesthetics can be traced back to early civilizations. Modern anesthesia was invented by a dentist named William T.G. Morton, and on October 16, 1846, he distributed an effective anesthetic to a surgical patient. Anesthesia interrupts nerve signals to your brain and body, preventing you from feeling pain. Without general anesthesia, many procedures would not be possible, such as organ transplants.

Before anesthesia, surgery was incredibly brutal and painful with far less success than modern-day surgeries. During the Neolithic period, 4500 BC people drilled holes into their skulls and relied on vinegar and turpentine for infections. In the time of the 1400s to 1500s, opium was used as a form of pain management and people had to be restrained during surgery. They could very simply die from blood loss or infection and might pass out from the pain. Though, during the 1800s, many medical advances were made, such as the earliest general anesthetic rendering patients unconscious from 6-24 hours. Then by the mid-1800s chloroform and ether were used for childbirth popularized by Queen Victoria. Even with these medical improvements, surgery was still risky, most patients sat upright and strapped down. Finally in the twentieth century, in 1953 the first kidney transplant, 1958 surgeons were able to reattach a severed arm, heart transplants, and cochlear implants. Now in the 21st century, full face transplants, and minimally invasive laser surgery to treat cancer are possible.

Throughout human history, many civilizations use herbs or procedures such as acupuncture to serve as a form of anesthetics. As time went by, many different versions of anesthetics were developed. For example, a Sumerian clay tablet of listed medical prescriptions is believed to refer to opium poppy. For millennia, Opium has been known to “relieve pain and its use for surgical analgesia has been recorded for several centuries.” Babylonians used henbane to relieve toothaches, and in India’s Sushruta to sedate surgical patients, cannabis vapors were used. Carotid compressions are used to produce brief unconsciousness before circumcision or cataract surgery by Assyrians, and with the same technique, Egyptians used for eye surgery. In the year 64, a Greek surgeon in the roman army, Dioscordis, recommended mandrake boiled in wine to “cause the insensibility of those who are to be cut or cauterized.” In 1800, Davy Humphry a British chemist researched nitrous oxide (N2O). After inhaling the gas he observed that it eased the pain of his toothache, and proposed it might be able to relieve surgical pain. In 1923, the first ethylene-oxygen surgical anesthetic was administered by Dr. Isabella Herb and demonstrated a trance-like state that low-dose ethylene could induce in human subjects. As humans developed and gained experience, anesthetics continued to improve into what we know today.

Anesthesia is both a necessary and incredible achievement for humankind. Due to its many benefits to the performance of medical procedures, humans continue to thrive. Anesthesia will improve, and further advance for the betterment of society.



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