Of all the modern amenities that we should be most thankful for, anesthesia is almost definitely the most important advancements in human history. Can you imagine going into surgery with little more than a bottle of whiskey? Neither can I. Besides the unbearable pain that must have come with it, there was also the very real possibility of dying from the shock induced by the immense pain of a surgical procedure.
For thousands of years, humans have used all kinds of methods for desensitizing pain during surgical procedures, including alcohol, opium, or fumes from a cloth soaked in an anesthetic.
Here are some of the most important figures in the history of anesthesia:
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
English scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) lived in the age of Enlightenment, when all kinds of forward thinking was going on. Among his many contributions to science and other fields was that he discovered nitrous oxide. But Priestley never went into the practical uses of them compound.
Humphry Davy (1791-1867)
While it was Joseph Priestley who first discovered nitrous oxide, it was British chemist Humphry Davy who began experimenting with the effects of inhaling the chemical compound. He noted how nitrous oxide made him want to laugh, and it eventually got its nickname, laughing gas.
Horace Wells (1815 – 1848)
Davy’s discoveries were largely ignored until dentist Horace Wells took up its cause. The Connecticut dentist started to experiment with nitrous oxide, using it as an anesthetic during dental surgery. He may have created a setback for his cause when he attempted a public demonstration of the anesthetic, and his dental patient was not fully anesthetized and cried out in pain. But Wells also used the method to have one of his own teeth extracted, and claimed to have felt no pain.
Crawford Long (1815 – 1878)
The first use of diethyl ether as an anesthetic has been attributed to American physician Crawford Long. Long, an American physician and pharmacist, used ether for the first time on March 30, 1842 to remove a tumor from a patient’s neck.
Maybe the most interesting part of his story is how Long discovered the pain-inhibiting properties of ether. It was during one of the many popular “ether frolics,” where socialites would inhale gases such as sulphuric ether for the euphoric feeling it brought on. Long witnessed a participant take a serious fall, but showed no ill-effects from their spill. This led Long into further studies of ether’s apparent pain-numbing properties.
William Thomas Green Morton (1819 – 1868)
While others have used ether as an anesthetic before Morton, it was he who first publicly demonstrated the use of inhaled ether as a surgical anesthetic in 1846. Since the other doctors, including Crawford Long, did not take their use of ether public, Morton was initially given credit as the first to use ether as an anesthetic.