On this date in 1846 John Collins Warren removed a tumor from the neck of a local printer, Edward Gilbert Abbott using ether as an anesthetic. Upon completion of the procedure, Warren reportedly quipped, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.” This was not the first time that ether was used as an anesthetic, nor the first attempt at surgical anesthesia by any means. But this surgery’s success became worldwide news and so 16 October was chosen as World Anesthesia Day.
Attempts at producing a state of general anesthesia can be traced throughout recorded history in the writings of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, and Chinese. During the Middle Ages, which correspond roughly to what is sometimes referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, scientists and other scholars made significant advances in science and medicine in the Muslim world and Eastern world, while their European counterparts also made important advances.
The first attempts at general anesthesia were probably herbal remedies administered in prehistory. Alcohol is the oldest known sedative; it was used in ancient Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. The Sumerians are said to have cultivated and harvested the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in lower Mesopotamia as early as 3400 BCE. The most ancient testimony concerning the opium poppy found to date was inscribed in cuneiform script on a small white clay tablet at the end of the third millennium BCE. This tablet was discovered in 1954 during excavations at Nippur, and is currently kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It is considered to be the most ancient pharmacopoeia in existence.
The ancient Egyptians had some surgical instruments, as well as crude analgesics and sedatives, including possibly an extract prepared from the mandrake fruit. The use of preparations similar to opium in surgery is recorded in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus written in the Eighteenth dynasty. However, it is debatable whether opium itself was known in ancient Egypt. The Greek gods Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death) were often depicted holding poppies.
Prior to the introduction of opium to ancient India and China, these civilizations pioneered the use of cannabis incense and aconitum. c. 400 BCE, the Sushruta Samhita (a text from the Indian subcontinent on ayurvedic medicine and surgery) advocates the use of wine with incense of cannabis for anesthesia. By the 8th century CE, Arab traders had brought opium to India and China. In Western antiquity, anaesthetics were described by Dioscorides (De Materia Medica), Galen, Hippocrates, and Theophrastus (Historia Plantarum)
Bian Que ( 扁鹊) c. 300 BCE, was a legendary Chinese internist and surgeon who reportedly used general anesthesia for surgical procedures. It is recorded in the Book of Master Han Fei (c. 250 BCE), the Records of the Grand Historian (c. 100 BCE), and the Book of Master Lie (c. 300 CE) that Bian Que gave two men, named “Lu” and “Chao”, a toxic drink which rendered them unconscious for three days, during which time he performed gastric surgery on them.
Hua Tuo (145-220 CE) was a Chinese surgeon of the 2nd century CE. According to the Records of Three Kingdoms (c. 270 CE) and the Book of the Later Han (c. 430 CE), Hua Tuo performed surgery under general anesthesia using a formula he had developed by mixing wine with a mixture of herbal extracts he called mafeisan (麻沸散). Hua Tuo reportedly used mafeisan to perform even major operations such as resection of gangrenous intestines. Before the surgery, he administered an oral anesthetic potion, probably dissolved in wine, in order to induce a state of unconsciousness and partial neuromuscular blockade. The exact composition of mafeisan, similar to all of Hua Tuo’s clinical knowledge, was lost when he burned his manuscripts, just before his death. The composition of the anesthetic powder was not mentioned in either the Records of Three Kingdoms or the Book of the Later Han. Because Confucian teachings regarded the body as sacred and surgery was considered a form of body mutilation, surgery was strongly discouraged in ancient China. Because of this, despite Hua Tuo’s reported success with general anesthesia, the practice of surgery in ancient China ended with his death. The name mafeisan combines ma (麻, meaning “cannabis, hemp, numbed or tingling”), fei (沸, meaning “boiling or bubbling”), and san (散, meaning “to break up or scatter”, or “medicine in powder form”). Therefore, the word mafeisan probably means something like “cannabis boil powder”.
Arabic and Persian physicians may have been among the first to utilize oral as well as inhaled anesthetics. Ferdowsi (940–1020) was a Persian poet who lived in the Abbasid Caliphate. In Shahnameh, his national epic poem, Ferdowsi described a caesarean section performed on Rudaba. A special wine prepared by a Zoroastrian priest was used as an anesthetic for this operation. Although Shahnameh is fictional, the passage nevertheless supports the idea that general anesthesia had at least been described in ancient Persia, even if not successfully implemented.
In 1000, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (936-1013), an Arab physician who lived in Al-Andalus, published the 30-volume Kitab al-Tasrif, the first illustrated work on surgery. In this book, he wrote about the use of general anesthesia for surgery. c. 1020, Ibn Sīnā (980–1037) described the use of inhaled anesthesia in The Canon of Medicine. The Canon described the “soporific sponge”, a sponge imbued with aromatics and narcotics, which was to be placed under a patient’s nose during surgical operations. Ibn Zuhr (1091–1161) was another Arab physician from Al-Andalus. In his 12th century medical textbook Al-Taisir, Ibn Zuhr describes the use of general anesthesia.These three physicians were among many who performed operations under inhaled anesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges.
From roughly 1200 – 1500. in England, a potion called dwale was used as an anesthetic. This mixture contained bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, and hemlock. Surgeons roused patients by rubbing vinegar and salt on their cheekbones. There are records of dwale in numerous literary sources, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” In the 13th century, we have the first prescription of the “spongia soporifica” – a sponge soaked in the juices of unripe mulberry, flax, mandragora leaves, ivy, lettuce seeds, lapathum, and hemlock with hyoscyamus. After treatment and/or storage, the sponge could be heated and the vapors inhaled with anesthetic effect.
Alchemist Ramon Llull has been credited with discovering diethyl ether in 1275. Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), better known as Paracelsus, discovered the analgesic properties of diethyl ether around 1525. It was first synthesized in 1540 by Valerius Cordus, who noted some of its medicinal properties. He called it oleum dulce vitrioli, a name that reflects the fact that it is synthesized by distilling a mixture of ethanol and sulfuric acid (known at that time as oil of vitriol). August Sigmund Frobenius gave the name Spiritus Vini Æthereus to the substance in 1730.
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), discovered nitrous oxide. Beginning in 1775, Priestley published his research in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, a six-volume work. Humphry Davy (1778–1829), a physicist known for the invention of the miner’s safety lamp, discovered the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. Davy, who coined the term “laughing gas” for nitrous oxide, published his findings the following year in the now-classic treatise, Researches, chemical and philosophical–chiefly concerning nitrous oxide or dephlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration. Davy was not a physician, and he never administered nitrous oxide during a surgical procedure. He was however the first to document the analgesic effects of nitrous oxide, as well as its potential benefits in relieving pain during surgery:
As nitrous oxide in its extensive operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place.
By the late 1830s, Davy’s experiments had become widely publicized within academic circles in the northeastern United States. Wandering lecturers would hold public gatherings, referred to as “ether frolics”, where members of the audience were encouraged to inhale diethyl ether or nitrous oxide to demonstrate the mind-altering properties of these agents while providing entertainment to onlookers. Four notable men participated in these events and witnessed the use of ether in this manner. They were William Edward Clarke (1819–1898), Crawford W. Long (1815–1878), Horace Wells (1815–1848), and William T. G. Morton (1819–1868).
While attending undergraduate school in Rochester, New York in 1839, classmates Clarke and Morton apparently participated in ether frolics with some regularity. In January 1842, by now a medical student at Berkshire Medical College, Clarke administered ether to a Miss Hobbie, while Elijah Pope performed a dental extraction. In so doing, he became the first to administer an inhaled anesthetic to facilitate the performance of a surgical procedure. Clarke apparently thought little of his accomplishment, and chose neither to publish nor to pursue this technique any further. Indeed, this event is not even mentioned in Clarke’s biography.
Crawford W. Long was a physician and pharmacist practicing in Jefferson, Georgia in the mid-19th century. During his time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the late 1830s, he had observed and probably participated in the ether frolics that had become popular at that time. At these gatherings, Long observed that some participants experienced bumps and bruises, but afterward had no recall of what had happened. He postulated that that diethyl ether produced pharmacologic effects similar to those of nitrous oxide. On 30 March 1842, he administered diethyl ether by inhalation to a man named James Venable, in order to remove a tumor from the man’s neck. Long later removed a second tumor from Venable, again under ether anesthesia. He went on to employ ether as a general anesthetic for limb amputations and parturition. Long however did not publish his experience until 1849, thereby denying himself much of the credit he deserved.
On 10 December 1844, Gardner Quincy Colton held a public demonstration of nitrous oxide in Hartford, Connecticut. One of the participants, Samuel A. Cooley, sustained a significant injury to his leg while under the influence of nitrous oxide without noticing the injury. Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist present in the audience that day, immediately seized upon the significance of this apparent analgesic effect of nitrous oxide. The following day, Wells underwent a painless dental extraction while under the influence of nitrous oxide administered by Colton. Wells then began to administer nitrous oxide to his patients, successfully performing several dental extractions over the next couple of weeks.
William T. G. Morton, another New England dentist, was a former student and then-current business partner of Wells. He was also a former acquaintance and classmate of William Edward Clarke (the two had attended undergraduate school together in Rochester, New York). Morton arranged for Wells to demonstrate his technique for dental extraction under nitrous oxide general anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, in conjunction with the prominent surgeon John Collins Warren. This demonstration, which took place on 20 January 1845, ended in failure when the patient cried out in pain in the middle of the operation.
On 30 September 1846, Morton administered diethyl ether to Eben Frost, a music teacher from Boston, for a dental extraction. Two weeks later, Morton became the first to publicly demonstrate the use of diethyl ether as a general anesthetic at Massachusetts General Hospital, in what is known today as the Ether Dome. On 16 October 1846, John Collins Warren operated on Edward Gilbert Abbott anesthetized using diethyl ether. News of this event rapidly traveled around the world and the age of anesthesia had begun.
I thought that in honor of the use of opium as an anesthetic I would celebrate today with a recipe using poppy seeds. Poppy seeds are well known in the U.S. as a sprinkle on buns and bagels, in Europe in dessert and cake baking, and as an ingredient in curries in India. Here is a simple marinade for Cornish game hens. You can roast them (as here) or grill them over hot coals.
Honey and Poppy Seed Glazed Game Hens
2 Cornish game hens cut in 2
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
⅓ cup honey
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1 ½ teaspoons mustard powder
¾ tsp ground ginger or 2 tsp freshly grated ginger
Preheat oven to 500 °F.
Place the game hens, skin side up on a greased roasting pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Whisk together the honey, poppy seeds, mustard and ginger. Brush liberally over the skin of the hens.
Roast uncovered for about 30 minutes in the middle of the oven or until the hens are nicely browned. Baste again halfway through.