Before the 1840s, the advancement of surgery was hampered by a lack of anatomical knowledge, poor aseptic techniques, and especially a lack of safe, reproducible anesthetic techniques. Beyond remedies like alcohol and opium, patients had very little in the way of anesthesia prior to surgery.
In 1842, pioneers William Clark and Crawford Long independently demonstrated the use of “sulfuric ether” in their dental and surgical practices, respectively. This paved the way for William Morton to perform the first public demonstration of successful general anesthesia utilizing ether on October 16, 1846 at Massachusetts General Hospital – a day which has been coined World Anesthesia Day and recognized as one of the most important points in the timeline of medicine. Ether remained the mainstay of inhalational anesthesia until the 1960s at the dawn of the nonflammable potent fluorinated hydrocarbon era including agents like halothane, enflurane, isoflurane, and more recently, desflurane and sevoflurane.
Ether-based general anesthesia opened gateways to perform operations previously considered impossible. It also paved the way for advances in local/regional anesthesia and ultimately intravenous anesthesia. Fast forward over 150 years, and now we’re seeing facets of anesthesia rooted in disciplines spanning from dentistry and emergency medicine to intensive care… and let’s not forget about all those operating rooms.
Happy World Anesthesia Day! 🙂