Ether, Alcohol, & Hypnosis: A Brief History of Anesthesia (Part 1)

| May 8, 2012 | 2 Comments

Anesthesia is a relatively new field, but surgery has been around for a very long time.

As we look back to accounts of pre-anesthesia procedures, we get a sense of how traumatic this used to be.

Fanny Burney, 19th century writer, describes her own mastectomy this way:

“When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast…I began a scream that lasted unintermittently during the whole time of the incision.”

Such vivid descriptions remind us of the impact anesthesia has had on human history. We have transitioned from an expectation of excruciating pain to one of pain control and relative safety. Examining this story shows us where we came from and helps us appreciate the currently available anesthetic techniques.

Before Ether

As far back as Egypt 3000 BC there is record of compression techniques on nerves to lessen pain and anesthetize for surgery. Eventually, this technique would be combined with opium administration.

“Refrigeration anesthesia” was also used to numb the incisions into the body.  This had obvious limitations as maintaining stores of ice or snow was tedious.


Hypnosis Anesthesia

In the early 1800’s, manipulation of the psyche and emotional states to help control pain became popular. These hypnosis techniques, also known as mesmerism, enjoyed varying levels of popularity until ether anesthesia was introduced in the 1840’s. The Lamaze classes of today, along with the support of doulas, seek to provide “psychologic anesthesia” that lessen the pain experienced by the expectant mother.

Mandrake Plant


There are also historical accounts of various mixtures of plants and herbs, inhaled or ingested, to produce analgesia (pain relief) and hypnosis. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the soporific sponge was popular for relief during surgery. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, comments on the pain relief provided by mandragora, a drug prepared from the mandrake plant. Mandrake leaves, black nightshade, poppies, and other plants and herbs were boiled together and cooked onto a sponge. The sponge was then reconstituted in hot water and placed under the patient’s nose during surgery. These sponges sometimes contained various amounts of scopolamine and morphine, drugs that are used to this day.

Alcohol was also used, not very effectively, during the pre-Ether days. Though it can blunt the central nervous system, it does not provide good pain relief. It also does not provide effective amnesia. Alcohol was then paired with opium in a solution called laudanum. Though this solution had analgesic properties (pain relief), it was often abused. Many weren’t aware of it’s addictive potential.

Aren’t you glad we have come a long ways since the days of these forms of anesthesia?

Having already had surgery on a fractured toe as a kid, and more recently, wisdom teeth surgery, I am very thankful for modern anesthesia.

Do you have any stories of yourself, or someone you know, that experienced one of these more archaic forms of anesthesia? Please share with the community by posting a comment below.

What General Anesthesia Side Effect have you experienced, if any?

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Category: Anesthesia Topics, Uncategorized

Comments (2)

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  1. Mel says:

    What is the literature source of the quote by Fanny Burney cited in the account? I.e., how can it be cited in an article?

    • Dr Dave says:

      Hi Mel,

      Thanks for the question. Ms. Burney’s quote is found in various anesthesia texts, including Clinical Anesthesia, by Barash, Cullen, & Stoelting.

      I believe the original source, however, is from Fanny Burney: Selected Letters and Journals.

      Hope this helps.

      Have a wonderful 4th of July!

      Dr Dave

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