Anesthesia: History & Invention

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

The history of anesthesia, and the process that prevents you from feeling horrific pain during a medical or surgical procedure is complex, but this lesson will give you an important primer on the history this incredible process and these amazing drugs.

What is Anesthesia?

Anesthesia is a word that derives from the Greek root an, which means without, and estheia, which means feeling or sensation. So, anesthesia literally translates to without feeling or sensation. Can you imagine how terribly painful it would be to have your teeth pulled, your arm amputated, or a tumor removed from your body if you could feel everything? Luckily, modern anesthesia takes that feeling of pain away to make those procedures bearable. Modern anesthesia uses medicines called anesthetics to relax you, to make you insensitive to pain, to make you sleepy or to render you completely unconscious during medical and surgical procedures. Today, we take it for granted that anesthesia will be available whenever we need it. However, this was not always the case. Let's go over a brief history of anesthesia.

Ancient and Medieval Times

The term anesthesia was actually first used by the Greek philosopher and physician Dioscorides, in the first century AD. He used it to describe the analgesic, or pain relieving, properties of a plant called mandragora (the mandrake). Besides the mandragora, ancient people turned to other compounds to help themselves enter a daze prior to surgery. For example, they used cannabis, opium, ethyl alcohol, Hyoscyamus (a type of flowering plant), and cocoa leaves to help relieve their pain.

From roughly the 9th to the 13th centuries, soporific sponges were used to provide pain relief during surgery. Soporific means causing sleep; so these sponges would be soaked in a concoction of herbs, poppies, mandrake leaves, and hot water and then placed over the nostrils of the patient. Most likely, the patient inhaled the concoction of medicines and then was rendered unconscious.

Alcohol was also used by medieval physicians to help relieve pain during medical procedures. Medieval physicians would administer alcohol orally to the patient to alter the patient's consciousness somewhat. Physicians also tried to use alcohol fumes for anesthesia, although alcohol fumes did not relieve much pain, and also did not minimize the ability of patients to recall the horrors of surgery.

By the 16th century, a Swiss physician named Paracelsus produced a compound called laudanum, which is an opium tincture that was used as an analgesic. Opium is a compound derived from the poppy plant and a tincture is a solution (mixture) where a substance such as an herb is soaked in alcohol to extract its chemicals of interest.

Compared to modern anesthesia, the methods of relieving pain used by the ancient and medieval physicians were relatively ineffective.

Early Modern Times

In 1773, English clergyman and chemist Joseph Priestley introduced the inhaled anesthetic called nitrous oxide. It is more commonly known as laughing gas, and it is the same one we use today.

In 1804, Japanese physician Seishu Hanaoka used general anesthesia prior to surgery by having his patient drink a concoction called Tsusensan. When a patient receives general anesthesia it means that the person is completely knocked-out and rendered unconscious. The Tsusensan preparation contained many herbs that would render a person unconscious.

In 1842, physician Crawford Williamson Long administered a general anesthetic called diethyl ether to a patient to remove the patient's neck tumor. While diethyl ether was discovered centuries earlier and was used a pain reliever, people hadn't thought to use it as a general anesthetic until the mid-19th century.

Other important 19th century discoveries include the use of chloroform for general anesthesia, and the development of techniques and drugs for local anesthesia thanks to the invention of the hollow needle in 1853 by Alexander Wood. The hollow needle, combined with a syringe, allowed doctors to deliver an anesthetic directly into the blood vessels of a patient which was more effective than a patient drinking or inhaling the anesthetics available at the time.

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