The history of anesthesia dates back to prehistoric times, but it was not until 1846 that the proper method was found that allowed surgery to save the lives it saves today.

The anesthesia is one of the most important leaps in the history of medicine. Surgical interventions save thousands of lives a day, but before patients were fully anesthetized, many died of trauma or even preferred death to going through the gulp of an operation. Everything changed on October 16, 1846, when this new idea was generated.

On September 30 of that year William TG Morton successfully used ethyl ether in a tooth extraction – the patient was a Boston music professor, Eben Frost, – and two weeks later he gave a public demonstration of his achievement. Sixteen days later the big leap would come, when John Collins Warren removed a tumor from Edward Gilbert Abbott’s neck. The operation took place in the Massachusets General Hospital Amphitheater, now known as the Ether Dome.

Morton and Warren were the first to demonstrate the use of ether as an anesthetic, news of its discovery flew, and Robert Liston performed an amputation using this method that same December. However, Morton, long considered the pioneer in this field, was not the first to use it.

Dispute over the invention of anesthesia

Crawford W. Long, a doctor and pharmacist living in Georgia (USA), noticed after attending parties in which ether was used as a drug, many participants showed bruises and blows of which they later had no memory. That made him think it would have anesthetic effects, and on March 30, 1842, he used ether to remove a tumor from James Venable’s neck, from which he would later remove a second tumor, again under anesthesia.

Long continued to use ether in amputations and childbirth, although he never published the work, which prevented it from getting much of the credit it really deserved. However, he later tried to get the US Senate to recognize him as the first to use anesthesia as we know it today.

The long history of anesthesia

However, the use of herbs and various substances such as analgesics and anesthetic dates back to prehistoric times. Alcohol was one of the first to be used, already in ancient Mesopotamia, where milk of opium was also used. In China, other substances made from cannabis were used.

During the middle Ages there were also advances in this area, especially in the Arab world. In the year 1,000 Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, a doctor residing in the Iberian Peninsula published the first illustrated manual of surgery, which described the use of anesthesia. A sponge soaked with anesthetics that was placed under the nose was also used. In medieval England a substance called dwale was also used which contained opium.

However, none of these methods were fully effective, and up to half of the patients died during surgery until ether was used.