History Who Really Discovered Anesthesia Part 1

About the controversy in history over who discovered anesthesia, an overview of different people's claims.




Since the birth of the medical profession, surgery had been a brutally painful affair. For centuries doctors had sought ways to eliminate--or at least lessen--the pain experienced during operations. Induced temporary asphyxiation, freezing of surgical areas, hypnotism, inhalation of narcotic plant fumes, and alcoholic stupefaction had all been tried in an effort to combat pain. However, none of these adequately controlled pain. In 1839 the noted French surgeon Alfred Velpeau summarized current medical opinion when he stated, "The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it today. Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated."

Only a few years later, this bleak assessment was totally disproved. In America in the 1840s, two dentists and two doctors were experimenting with chemical agents that would lead to surgical painkillers. The advent of anesthesia--a word coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and derived from the Greek word meaning lack of feeling--was at hand, as was a controversy that has continued into the 20th century.


DR. CRAWFORD LONG (1815-1878)

The son of a well-to-do Southerner, Crawford Long was born in Georgia and attended the University of Pennsylvania, after which he practiced surgery in New York City. Although a brilliant young surgeon, Long was forced to return to Georgia because of family problems and assume a rural practice in the hamlet of Jefferson in 1841.

The 26-year-old doctor, a sociable and adventuresome man, became interested in a current craze--nitrous oxide sniffing. Long and several friends tried to obtain nitrous oxide--also known as laughing gas--and when none was available, Long suggested they try another gas, sulfuric ether, which they did. During these "ether frolics," Long noted that some of his friends severely bruised themselves but felt no pain.

Long recalled this observation on Mar. 30, 1842, when James Venable, a fellow ether-sniffer, came to him to have a growth removed from his neck. Long had Venable sniff ether and then cut out the tumor. Venable felt nothing. In his journal, Long recorded: "James Venable, 1842. Ether and excising tumor, $2,00." Over the next four years Long performed seven more operations while his patients were anesthetized with ether. In 1849 he published his results in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal.

Of all the anesthesia-discovery claimants, Long was the one least involved in the controversy. He remained in private practice in Georgia until his death at the age of 62.

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