BOOKMARKS: "WE HAVE CONQUERED PAIN"
"Be careful about reading health books... You may die of a Misprint" --Mark Twain...
Copyright 1997 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
A review of Dennis Brindell Fradin, "We Have Conquered Pain" The Discovery of Anesthesia.
Margaret K. McEdlerry Books, NY, 1996.
The history of anesthesia is filled with drama, intrigue and skullduggery.
For instance, did you know that ether, or "sweet vitriol," was discovered in 1275 by a Spanish physician, Raymond Lullus. But it wasn't until the 16th century that Paracelsus used it to anesthetize animals.
"It is taken even by chickens," this eccentric genius wrote, "and they fall asleep from it for a while but awaken later without harm. It quiets all suffering without any harm, and relieves all pain."
Yet this extraordinary observation was not followed up on by the medical profession for another 250 years! At the end of the 18th century, another anesthetic was discovered: nitrous oxide. This was reputed to be fatal if inhaled. A brave teenager named Humphry Davy actu-ally breathed some and found it to be such a euphoric that he nicknamed it "laughing gas."
"Whenever I have breathed the gas," he wrote, "the delight has been often intense and sublime." In 1800 he published his "Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide" and first suggested that nitrous oxide "may probably be used with advan-tage during surgical operations."
Later, as his fame grew, Fradin writes, "Davy looked back on his laughing-gas studies with embarrassment...." In the 1820s, another young British scientist Henry Hill Hickman came close to the discovery of surgi-cal anesthesia. He sent his work to the Royal Society of London, whose president that year was none other than Sir Humphry Davy himself.
"Hickman's work reminded Davy of what he considered his own misspent experiments of a quarter century earlier," writes Fradin. "Sir Humphry and other leading scientists in England ignored Hickman," who died at 30.
By the 1840s, nitrous oxide and ether had become pop-ular entertainments. "Chemical lecturers" packed their laughing gas canisters onto carts, and travelled from town to town giving what were called "nitrous oxide demonstrations" at fairs, tent shows and meeting halls.
There were also "ether frolics" in private homes. This activity inspired a Georgia country doctor named Craw-ford Long to use ether in the first surgical operation. On March 30, 1842 he removed a tumor from the neck of a medical student, James Venable. But for reasons that are still not understood, Long did not publish his discovery at the time, and no one outside Georgia knew about it.
On December 10, 1844 a Connecticut dentist named Horace Wells attended a public nitrous oxide exhibition at Hartford's Union Hall. When "Professor" Gardner Colton, a disciple of P.T. Barnum, called for volunteers from the audience, Wells rushed to the stage. Despite his on-stage antics, Wells took time to notice that a clerk he knew had smashed his legs, but felt nothing. The next day, Wells had fellow dentist, John Riggs, extract a tooth from him when he was under the influence of the gas.
"I felt it no more than the prick of a pin!" he exclaimed. "It is the greatest discovery ever made!" He was probably right, too.Wells took his discovery to Dr. John Collins Warren, august founder of the New England Journal of Medicine and of Massachusetts General Hospital. In January, 1845 Wells demonstrated the value of nitrous oxide anesthesia at the hospital. But Warren stacked the deck against him.
"There is a gentleman here," he told his students, "who pretends he has something which will destroy pain in surgical operations. He wants to address you. If any of you would like to hear him, you can do so." The audience began snickering even before the demonstration began.
A volunteer stepped forward. When Wells applied the gas, the man fell asleep. But when he pulled on the infected tooth with his forceps the patient groaned. At that moment the hall erupted with cries of "Humbug!" and "Swindler!" Devastated, Wells fled the lecture hall. The medical students and doctors were too busy hooting to realize that in fact the operation had been a success "and the failure was theirs" (ibid.). The patient later explained that he had "felt practically no pain." But no one asked him. As Fradin sagely remarks:
"Well's failure, as it came to be known," writes Fradin, "meant two more years of pain for surgical patients...."
In 1846, Wells's former partner, dentist William Thomas Green Morton, had greater luck. He attempted once again to demonstrate the principle at Mass. Gen. This time the patient, Gilbert Abbott, remained asleep and a tumor was painlessly removed from his jaw. And this time, Dr. Warren exclaimed "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!" as if to exonerate his behavior in 1844.
Initially, ether anesthesia was a secret method.Want-ing to patent it, Morton dubbed it "Letheon" and added oil of citrus to disguise its tell-tale odor. He was con-vinced to reveal it but as a result died a pauper.
To complicate matters, a prominent scientist named Charles Jackson, MD (brother-in-law of Ralph Waldo Emerson) laid claim to Morton's discovery. Jackson was diabolical and attempted to ruin the other discoverers.
Wells went mad and killed himself in New York's Tombs Prison. When Jackson visited Morton's grave and read the words, "Inventor and Revealer of Anesthetic Inhalation," he himself had a complete mental break-down.
Standing there reading this inscription, Fradin writes, Jackson went mad on the spot. "His yells attracted the attention of visitors to the cemetery, who found him kicking and screaming like a baby throwing a tantrum." What a scene! The famous scientist was hauled off to McLean Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. He is now buried near the monument to Morton. Of the four, only Crawford Long lived a happy, honest and decent life. And, fittingly, he was the one who never sought to profit from the discovery.
This is an excellent book, highly recommended for young
or old adults who want to know how medical progress is really made.