WWW Resources, History of Anesthesia 
Reviewed by Diane Elliott (Hist 5040 - Spring 2002)

Web Sites www.johnpowell.net
www.consciousness.arizona.edu www.anesthesia-nursing.com
www.hmcnet.harvard.edu www.anes.uab.edu

The search for painkillers and the science of anesthesia
traces back to the third century BC.  After the Greek
god of dreams Morpheus, we got the drug Morphine, made
from opium poppy, that is still used today.  In a few
weeks I will give birth to my second child, and so I
have been considering my options with anesthesia.  My
options have broadened over the last couple thousand

Curare, a poison used on South American arrows was first
described in 1516.  It was a muscle relaxant that killed
by paralyzing the victim’s muscles.  Before the 1800s,
anesthesia involved either opium, laudanum, mandrake
plant, cocaine-in the new world only, cannabis, or large
doses of alcohol.  Non drug methods of killing pain were
cold, concussion, carotoid compression, nerve
compression, hypnosis, and bloodletting.  In 1665, the
first IV injection was performed - opiate through a
quill.  In 1736 James Watt, the same man that created
the workable steam engine, attempted to market
factitious airs or gases.  In 1799, Peter Mark Roget,
the same man who wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica and
the thesaurus did famous nitrous oxide research.   

Humphrey Davy discovered that nitrous oxide gas was a
painkiller in 1800.  He called it laughing gas.  It took
44 more years for nitrous oxide to be used in
anesthesia.  Two years later the use of ether began, and
three years after that, chloroform.  These three were
the first anesthetic agents because they were inhaled.  

In 1844, a dentist named Horace Wells demonstrated that
teeth could be pulled painlessly with the use of the
inhalation of nitrous oxide.  This idea was not popular.
 In 1846, William Thomas Green Morton, another dentist ,
used ether on a patient with a tumor of the jaw bone. 
On his gravestone it says, “Inventor and revealer of
inhalation anesthesia: before whom, in all time, surgery
was an agony; by whom, pain in surgery was averted and
annulled; since whom, science has control of pain.” 
Unlike nitrous oxide, which did not catch on for a few
more years, ether was very popular very fast.  By 1847 a
doctor named James Young Simpson was using ether on
women in childbirth.  After 1848, either was eclipsed by

A London doctor named John Snow is often called the
first anesthetist.  He administered chloroform to Queen
Victoria in 1853 for the birth of her eighth child.  She
declared it a great blessing.  He also invented an
inhaler and face piece.

The problem, of course, with these three inhalants was
the difficulty in regulating the inhaled concentration. 
Ether was fairly safe, but slow to work.  It is also an
irritant and flammable.  Chloroform more easily took the
pain away and was a non-irritant, but caused liver and
heart poison.  Nitrous Oxide worked fast, but was not
very strong.  Even with the knowledge of these three
pain killers, surgeries performed during our Civil War
were done without any anesthesia.  In 1895 spinal
anesthesia was used for the relief of pain.  In 1898 the
first spinal anesthesia for surgery was performed in
Germany, and by 1899 alternatives to chloroform were
becoming available.  By the end of WWI the use of
chloroform declined.  The use of any anesthesia remained
an inexact art even after WWII.  There were frequent
deaths due to overdose.  After the attack on Pearl
Harbor, hard lessons were learned.  Anesthetic doses
easily tolerated by health people were not tolerated by
those in shock.  The end tracheal tube made anesthesia
safer.  This is a tube that goes down the throat and
allows easy inhalation and exhalation and protection of
the lungs from stomach contents.  Another tube technique
was the blind naso-tracheal intubation, where a tube was
passed up the nose and down the back of the throat down
the larynx to the lungs.

February 13, 1936 the American Society of Anesthetists
was founded.  In 1938 the American Board of
Anesthesiology became affiliated with the American Board
of Surgery, and by 1941 it achieved independent status.