From Agony to Anesthesia

From Agony to Anesthesia

The Cure for Pain: A Brief Chronology

By Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg, La Jolla Playhouse

“And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.”

Genesis II:21

Ether-Can550 B.C.E.
Sasruta, father of Indian surgery, uses herbs for pain relief. 

79 A.D.
Pliny the Elder gives wine to surgery patients “before the cutting, cauterizing, pricking or lancing of any member, to take away the sence and feeling of such extreame cures.”

The soporific sponge (also known as the “sleeping sponge”), first used in Italy and Bavaria, induces sleep prior to surgery when steeped in a mixture of opium, mulberry juice, lettuce, hemlock, wine ivy. When dry, it emits a vapor inhaled by surgical patients. 

Sweet vitriol, the first organic molecule of ether, is created in Spain by Dr. Raymond Lullus by pouring sulfuric acid on alcohol, which is then re-distilled.

Local anesthesia is produced by compression of nerves in Italy and France.

Frozen mixtures of snow and ice are used for surgical anesthesia in Italy.

“Sweet vitriol” renamed “ether” (Greek for “heavenly.”)

Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer develops “mesmerism,” later called hypnosis.

Chemist Joseph Priestly discovers oxygen and nitrous oxide in England.

Sir Humphry Davy discovers analgesic effects of nitrous oxide. It made him laugh when he inhaled it.

Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute established for the study of inhalation gases.  

Davy introduces nitrous oxide into the Institute’s medical practice.

Morphine extracted from opium in Prussia.

Painless operations via somnambulism conducted in Germany.

Discovery of chloroform in U.S. 

Crawford Williamson Long administers ether to a patient. Painlessly removes small tumors from his neck. 

Injection of morphine solution in area of pain affords relief.

Gardner Quincy Colton administers nitrous oxide to Horace Wells. 

Horace Wells unsuccessfully demonstrates use of nitrous oxide in tooth extraction pain relief for Dr. 

John C. Warren’s class at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Charles T. Jackson suggests use of pure ether to William T. G. Morton as anesthetic for his wife’s tooth pain. 

October 16, 1846
William T. G. Morton successfully demonstrates ether anesthesia in operation performed by Dr. John C. Warren at dome at Massachusetts General Hospital.   

Chloroform administered to Queen Victoria during childbirth.

Invention of metallic hollow needle leads to development of the hypodermic syringe.

Cocaine extracted from coca leaves.

Development of novocaine.

All photos courtesy of the University of Connecticut Medical Library.